Democratic leaders are demonizing 'defund the police' — but they don't have a better plan for reform

  • Biden has told activists to hold off on calls to "Defund the Police" until after the Georgia runoffs, and that he is creating a new commission to study policing.
  • Historically, Democrats have told Civil Rights activists that their calls for justice have cost the party electorially.
  • The recommendations of the 1968 Kerner Commission and Obama's policing commission were hardly implemented, so what makes this time different?
  • Will Meyer is a freelance writer and co-editor of The Shoestring in western Massachusetts.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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In leaked audio of a Zoom meeting between Biden and civil rights leaders obtained by The Intercept, the president-elect said that in order for Democrats to win elections, activists must stop calling for the defunding of police. Biden goes as far as to say that anti-police activism is the reason Republicans "beat the living hell out of us across the country," in November. 

Biden's suggestion—that Democrats faced losses due to anti-police activism — is shared by other powerful Democrats. Rep.Jim Clyburn of South Carolina is among those who share this view. "'Defund the police' is killing our party, and we've got to stop it," he told CBS News. Even former President Obama said "defund the police" is a "snappy slogan" that could cost Democrats votes.

Despite the persistence of this argument, media critic Adam Johnson pointed out he could find no empirical evidence to support the claim. I couldn't either. As Johnson and co-host Nima Shirazi demonstrate convincingly on their podcast Citations Needed, liberals have historically scapegoated Black activists, suggesting that their demands would hinder the electoral chances of the Democratic party. 

The hosts cite a 1964 headline of this trend: "Negro Extremists Aid Wallace" (Alabama Governor George Wallace was a right-wing segregationist) and another from 1966: "Failure To Stop Mobs Will Cost Democrats Votes."

After telling civil rights leaders to wait on calls for police reform until after the Georgia runoffs, Biden promised the civil rights leaders that he would look into issues surrounding policing in a new commission. 

"I just raise it with you to think about how much do we push between now and January 5 — we need those two seats — about police reform. But I guarantee you, there will be a full-blown commission. I guarantee you it's a major, major, major element," Biden said on the call. 

Now that Democrats have prevailed in the Georgia runoffs, will Biden's administration — with a resounding mandate to act — meaningfully take on the police? 

But like the historical examples show about the rhetoric used to scapegoat demands for justice, the same is also true with commissions. Even when the president creates one to study uprisings, the recommendations have historically been ignored, the most notorious example being the 1968 Kerner Commission.

Over the course of the 1960s, race riots over police violence and inadequate access to jobs, education, housing, and other markers of racist inequalities, sent people into the streets. First in Brooklyn, then in Los Angeles, and by the summer of 1967, in over 150 cities all over the country. 

Soon after, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Illinois Governor Otto Kerner to head the now famous commission, which set out to understand the root causes of the riots that were occurring at the time and how to prevent them in the future. Kerner's conclusion was blunt: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal," it said. In order to remedy this, it recommended investments in jobs, education, and housing. It also was direct about the need to reign in police abuses and called on departments to stop random "stop and frisk style" searches. 

As the New York Times wrote about the commission, "The report left scant doubt that it regarded white racism as the tinder igniting those 1960s fires."

But Johnson, despite passing landmark civil rights and anti-poverty legislation, stopped short of carrying out the Commission's recommendations. So did every ensuing presidential administration. 

More recently, President Obama launched a commission in the wake of the uprisings over Michael Brown's death in 2014, called the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. It called for modest procedural reforms to further professionalize police departments and de-escalate their most wonton tendencies, including better transparency, more "community policing," and implicit bias training. 

An op-ed in the New York Times by the commission's authors this summer laments that if only more of their recommendations had been carried out, the uprisings in response to George Floyd's death wouldn't have occurred. They write, "The problem is not that we lack a playbook for fixing the police. We have one. The problem is that we have not successfully followed the one we have." 

Biden's commission will only be successful if its recommendations are carried out. We can't afford to placate the country with endless commissions as more Black people are killed by the police. Will these ideas ever be implemented, or will there just be a new commission next time people take to the streets to protest the savage brutality of the police? 

This year's protests have called to defund the police—the implication being that instead of funding law enforcement, our tax dollars should be invested in social services, jobs, education, and non-punitive measures that improve social life in communities most impacted by police violence. 

The Movement for Black Lives created a list of policy demands that has been updated and revised as of 2020. The group, composed of 50 organizations focused on ending violence against Black people, has already issued recommendations. But politicians refuse to hear them: "We have taken to the streets, launched massive campaigns, and impacted elections, but our elected leaders have failed to address the legitimate demands of our Movement. We can no longer wait." 

But instead of taking the advice of Movement's demands, or the Kerner Commission for that matter, Democrats are demonizing a movement for justice they purportedly support and simultaneously are failing to make the case they have a better plan. Maybe this time a Commission will reconcile these contradictions. And if that doesn't work they can always blame movements for racial justice on their electoral shortcomings.

Will Meyer is a freelance writer and co-editor of The Shoestring in western Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The New Republic, CJR, and many other publications. Find him on Twitter @willinabucket.

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