Democratic leaders clash with Black Lives Matter activists over 'defund the police'

As the president seizes on the slogan to paint his opponents as radical, Joe Biden and most other Democrats float more modest measures to curtail bad police behavior.
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"Defund the Police" is painted on 16th Street NW as demonstrators protest near the White House on Sunday, June 7, 2020.Maya Alleruzzo / AP

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By Sahil Kapur

WASHINGTON — Painted in bright yellow letters outside the White House are the words "DEFUND THE POLICE": a rallying cry for a movement to combat police brutality and racism that has exploded across the nation — and caused nervousness among Democrats.

Protesters around the country demanding justice for George Floyd's death waved "Defund the Police!" signs at rallies in major cities on a weekend when Joe Biden officially became the presumptive Democratic nominee to face President Donald Trump in the fall.

As Trump seizes on the slogan to paint his opponents as radicals who envision a world of lawlessness and anarchy, Biden and most other Democrats are resisting the left's calls and floating more modest measures to curtail bad police behavior.

“No, I don't support defunding the police," Biden told "CBS Evening News" on Monday. "I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness and, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community."

Johnetta Elzie, a civil rights activist and organizer, said Biden's calls for "reform" sound stale, mealy-mouthed and out of touch as "black people are still dying behind these antiquated ideas and policies."

"It's not enough. Joe Biden knows it's not enough. Joe Biden's team knows it's not enough. It's not at all answering the calls of the moment," Elzie said. "People have been saying to anyone who's f---ing up in this moment: Read the room. People are calling for defunding the police.

"People in power — politicians and policymakers — are still talking about reform. We're beyond that. We're over that," she said. "If they wanted reform, they would have done it six years ago when we actually had the chance to. But that's not what happened."

The clash pits an ideological movement aiming to transform the national debate against a Democratic electoral apparatus whose overriding goal is to defeat Trump. While activists say they believe the need for radical change is worth taking political risks, party leaders say they worry about alienating moderate white voters who sympathize with the protesters' cause but still support police.

'Branding matters'

"As somebody who's been through a great number of political wars, branding matters," former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Monday on MSNBC. "My fear about the term 'defund the police' is it will be misused and abused by people who will want to scare people."

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh told reporters that the "defund the police" movement was "consuming" the Democratic Party and argued that Biden "does not have the strength to stand up to the extremists who are now calling the shots in the party."

And appearing on MSNBC, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sidestepped the issue, saying that police funding is "a local matter" and that her focus is to "change policy to make our policing more just."

She and other Democratic congressional leaders introduced a police overhaul package Monday that would outlaw chokeholds and "no knock" warrants, require body cameras and create a variety of mechanisms to punish bad officers.

Rashad Robinson, who leads the civil rights group Color of Change, said the Democratic legislation "has some work to do."

"It's important that we're actually seeing forward movement on policing," he said. "But there are a number of places — from dealing with grand juries to all the ways in which police get so many different rules after they shoot someone and kill someone — that have to be dealt with."

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, a Democrat, was loudly booed and forced to retreat from a gathering of demonstrators Saturday after he responded to a question about whether he would commit to defunding the police by saying, "I do not support the full abolition of the police."

When pressed to explain what the slogan means in policy terms, activists say "defund the police" is not actually a call for a country with no cops.

"It does not mean a world where we do not have safety and justice. It does not mean a world where we do not have order," Robinson said. "But what it does mean is that right now we seem to try to solve all of our society's problems by increasing the role and responsibility of law enforcement, and it has not worked."

Elzie said "defund the police" means "reducing police budgets, to me, down to the bare minimum."

"And seeing that money go to public schools in the city would make me extremely happy. Or investing in mental health services in the state. There's so many other things we should do with that money," she said. "If the police want to go buy M16s, they should f---ing organize a bake sale."

'Just ask for it. You're not going to get it'

As Trump rallies his base against calls to "defund the police" and Biden distances himself from them, the movement is seen as unlikely to get its wishes. Yet it appears to be having an impact on the debate, as some major cities, like Los Angeles and New York, discuss reductions in police funding.

Advocates point to other movements over the past decade that have pushed radical-sounding ideas that altered the debate. The "Medicare for All" movement turned a public insurance option into a consensus position among Democrats after moderates in the party killed it in 2009. The "abolish ICE" effort nudged mainstream lawmakers to call for fewer deportations and to limit the power of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"It's not the job of activists to present poll-tested ideas," said Sean McElwee, a left-wing organizer and data scientist who popularized #AbolishICE. "It's the job of activists to demand we imagine a world built on fundamentally different assumptions. We've already seen a number of concrete and actionable policies that can fundamentally change the way we understand policing in this country."

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Conservatives used the tactic effectively under President Barack Obama. Tea party calls to "abolish the IRS" helped fuel IRS budget cuts of about 20 percent during the last decade. The 2011 push to amend the Constitution to require balanced budgets, which likely would have forced steep cuts in Social Security, led to Obama's signing $1 trillion in spending reductions that summer.

"A flat tax of 8 percent? Hell, why not? Just ask for it. You're not going to get it," said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican consultant who was working in the tea party movement at the time. "On these sorts of things — stake your position, ask for everything, knowing you're going to get your politicians to move a little bit."

Steinhauser said Biden "isolates himself from the backlash by finding a safe moderate position that is reasonable — that calls for reform and calls for transparency and better training and punishment for cops that act poorly and criminally."

"His instincts are right on this one from a political standpoint," he said. "Republicans want nothing more than for Biden to embrace the most radical ideas."

Full coverage of George Floyd’s death and protests around the country