With the country in crisis over the police killing of George Floyd, Joe Biden’s comments about the incident at a historically Black church in Wilmington, Delaware, on Monday, weren’t what demonstrators wanted to hear.
“Instead of standing there and teaching a cop, when there’s an unarmed person coming at them with a knife or something ― you shoot them in the leg instead of in the heart, is a very different thing,” Biden said, aiming to show empathy and paint a stark contrast with President Donald Trump. “There’s a lot of different things that could change.”
The comment sparked rage among the most broad-minded activists demonstrating on the streets. As Black Lives Matter protesters and their allies call for cutting funds of the police, ending racist law enforcement observances and holding police responsible at a federal level, the remark by the likely Democratic presidential nominee echoed among young progressive activists as yet another politician falling short.
Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate action group that has yet to endorse Biden, associated his comment with Trump’s call to shoot looters in a Monday post. “That’s the best you can do?” the group tweeted. “You need to be a lot fucking better, and fast (or step aside).”
“His heart is in the right place, but he’s just like every other white person who thinks that they’re an ally but is not listening to people on how to be an ally,” Ashton Woods, a Black Lives Matter protester in Houston who said he’s reluctantly voting for Biden.
Biden’s campaign and substitutes have defended the former vice president’s response to the crisis. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D), the first Black person to represent Delaware in Congress, said it was “good to see true leadership that says, ‘I care and I have a plan of action.’” Biden, whose campaign has a Plan for Black America, urged Congress on Tuesday to pass police reform.
The protests sparked by Floyd’s death present yet another opportunity for the Democratic Party to show activists and young Black voters that it is listening to them. So far though, party leaders’ official response has been reactive and redundant. Congress will hold a hearing on police brutality next week, just as it did last year. There’s no firm timeline for legislative action in either the Democratic-controlled House or the Republican-controlled Senate.
“Part of the issue [is] that it’s just been words,” said Rose, 34, who was protesting in Washington, D.C. “We don’t employ any policy changes; we don’t really push the agenda forward. We need more than just words at this point.”
The New York Working Families Party’s biggest policing policy push this year is to reduce funding for the police and plow the savings into health care, housing and jobs programs that progressives argue will prevent crime by addressing its underlying causes. It’s not an abstract request: The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged the city and state of New York into a budgetary squeeze, prompting the city, for example, to cancel its annual summer jobs program for 75,000 low-income teenagers and young adults.
These proposals are unlikely to be adopted by some progressive elected officials, let alone by party leaders like Biden and other mainstream Democrats. In a Tuesday interview, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a former progressive congressman well to the left of Biden, rejected the idea of defunding the police.
“There are a lot of police officers who recognize the need for reform and want to be part of it,” he said.
There’s an understanding among progressive Black activist groups that the change they are seeking cannot come overnight. But they’re looking for more from party leaders than what’s been offered for the Black community so far.
“We are still trying to figure out what Biden’s strategy is to energize and activate Black voters,” said Jennifer Edwards, senior director of digital engagement and democracy at Color of Change, a grassroots progressive civil rights advocacy organization. “Not just Biden, but the Democratic Party needs to continue to prioritize the needs of Black voters in this moment. When we think about the bills that are moving through the halls of Congress right now and the policies proposed with respect to COVID and the black community, those can best be described as a bandaid.”
In that context, getting the ear of politicians is a fine place to start, according to Dorsey, the Arlington County Board member.
“The more important thing for me is whether people are going to accept the urgency that activists want,” he said. “That’s the gap that activists are rightly identifying as problematic.”