As America reckons with historic protests against police brutality, violent law enforcement retaliation, and eerie curfews, Black activists and strategists are closely watching Joe Biden.
The nationwide protests that began after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody offer Biden a chance to signal to Americans how things might change under his administration, if he wins the presidency in November. It’s a pivotal moment for the campaign that could help Biden bring younger, skeptical voters into his coalition. And the moment is giving him airtime to break through in a way he hasn’t been able to in months, as people look for coherent national leadership while coping with two immense crises at the same time.
Criminal justice activists and Democratic strategists who spoke to BuzzFeed News said this is a critical moment for Biden to build real enthusiasm with young people and maintain his support with Black voters, and to move past his record of work in the late ‘80s and ‘90s on legislation that expanded police powers and resulted in the mass incarceration of Black people in America.
“This is a make-or-break moment for Joe Biden. He can rise to the level of leadership and meet the moment and truly be an alternative to Trump and inspire and build trust and inspiration in this moment,” Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, a political network of women of color, told BuzzFeed News.
“He can’t dismiss how younger people, and not just young Black people who largely didn’t vote for him in the primary — he doesn’t have those voters on lock — for younger voters in general, a majority of whom are people of color, this is an important critical issue,” she added. “There’s an opportunity for him to talk about this and set a new standard and new intention for this country that’s in this moment.”
On Tuesday, nearly a week after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police and days after he made short and unspecific remarks, Biden gave the first signs that the mass protests are pushing him to consider more concrete and progressive police reforms than he’s embraced before in his decadeslong career.
“The country is crying out for leadership. Leadership that can unite us. Leadership that can bring us together. Leadership that can recognize the pain and deep grief of communities that have had a knee on their neck for too long,” Biden said in his Tuesday address, which was broadcast live by most major television networks.
He outlined four specific policies he’s backing now which go further than his original criminal justice reform plan: a national use of force standard, greater accountability for police officers accused of misconduct, an end to the militarization of police forces, and a national ban on chokeholds.
Democratic activists and strategists see this kind of detailed approach to change as key for actually getting people out of their homes to vote, especially if voting this November is complicated by people contending with multiple national crises, including a pandemic.
“The question around turnout for Joe Biden isn’t whether Black people are trying to decide between him and Donald Trump,” said one strategist who previously worked for a rival presidential candidate and asked to speak on background so they could speak candidly. “This is about if it’s raining on Election Day — somewhere around this country it’s going to be raining and there will be 50-mile-per-hour winds. Are they going to be willing to mussy up their hair, and miss dinner, and be late to pick up their kids, and be late to work to vote for Joe Biden? That’s the question! It’s about inspiring people enough to want to do that.”
It’s also not lost on strategists that Black Democrats were largely responsible for handing Biden the party’s presidential nomination in the first place. This is a time for Democrats to make sure voters of color aren’t turned off in the lead-up to November, advocates said.
"Many of these folks are asking what is the point of voting since politicians all seem to perpetuate a broken system … We need them to see voting as meaningful, and for them to see voting as meaningful they need to, I think, have a real choice,” Chiraag Bains, the director of legal strategies at Demos, told BuzzFeed News. That means not just returning to “the pre-Trump period,” he said, “because things were broken then."
Bains is also a member of a “unity task force” on criminal justice reform composed of allies of both Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders with the goal of devising policy for the Democratic Party’s platform.
Bains said he’s hopeful the group will be able to come up with recommendations that include systemic change like clearer accountability standards for police forces and ending mandatory minimums, and that although the group is not directly forming the campaign’s policies, those recommendations could inform how a Biden presidency handles criminal justice reform.
“If all we end up with is more police training, or a new task force in the new administration, then we will not have fixed anything,” he said.
“We, the broader public, need to be demanding specifics from anyone who is asking for our vote,” Bains added.
Another member of the task force, Stacey Walker, said the mass public outcry against police brutality could make broader reforms more politically feasible than they have been in the past.
“We know that we are at a global moment where extraordinary reform not only seems reasonable, but it is necessary if we ever hope to be a peaceful and functioning society,” he said.
He said he’s encouraged that some of the ideas being discussed by reform advocates are now getting more attention, particularly ideas that would change the way police forces function, like replacing most police with unarmed community relations officers who work to prevent people from reaching crisis points.
“Another important initiative that’s being floated is the idea of making negotiations with police bargaining units public,” he said, also raising making body cameras mandatory and granting police citizen review committees with more power “so there’s an actual consequence of negative review from these independent bodies.”
“This issue has captured the eyes of the world, and I don’t think anyone will accept half measures,” said Walker.
Activists said that while Biden’s rhetoric is a nice gesture and the more detailed proposals this week were appreciated, they want to see his campaign solidify plans that have been informed by the work that many have been pushing toward since the 2013 protests after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin and the Ferguson, Missouri, protests in August 2014 after Michael Brown’s death.
“I don’t think protesters, especially people on the ground, give a shit about platitudes and speeches right now. They don’t care,” the strategist who worked for a rival campaign told BuzzFeed News in a phone call after Biden’s initial, short remarks on the protests last Friday. “I think what they’re looking for, actually, is the opposite of the speeches. They want to know when this happens, because this will inevitably happen again — when this happens and he is president — what is that change going to look like?”
“The most important thing that Biden can offer is some sort of reassurance that when this happens again that it won’t just be on them, that it won’t just be on them to carry it,” the strategist added.
Activists said they’re not asking for Biden to come up with new solutions — detailed proposals for police reform already exist, for example, in the Movement for Black Lives’ platform and former presidential candidate Julián Castro’s plan, which eight youth-led activist groups including March for Our Lives and the Sunrise Movement asked Biden to adopt into his policy platform in a recent letter.
“I think it’s really important that he’s now taking action towards those words that we were so heartened to hear [on Friday],” said Daud Mumin, a student leader for March for Our Lives in Utah. But, he added, the group wants Biden to adopt Castro’s police reform plan in its entirety because “Every single part in that bill plays towards racial justice, Black liberation.”
Soon after Biden’s address on Tuesday, Castro publicly endorsed Biden for the first time. Biden responded in a tweet saying he was “grateful” for Castro’s support. Some activists and reporters took that to mean that Castro was being brought onto the campaign as an adviser in some official capacity and that he would hold some sway over how the campaign deals with criminal justice issues.
On Wednesday, Castro told BuzzFeed News that though he is endorsing Biden, he hasn’t been asked to join the campaign in any official capacity and had not yet spoken to Biden directly about criminal justice reform, though their teams have been in touch.
“I have no formal role. I have not been asked to do anything specifically, so I’ll just say generally that what I've been encouraged by is the vice president’s specificity on policy reforms,” he said.
Castro’s in-depth police reform platform goes much further than Biden has gone to this point, including measures like ending protections for violent police officers under qualified immunity, setting up a database of decertified and fired police officers, and federally banning stop-and-frisk and racial profiling.
“There are a whole range of policies that we should implement at the local level and the national level to reduce the use of excessive force and ensure that no matter who you are, you’re treated the same by police,” Castro said.
The Biden campaign did not respond to questions about Castro’s role on the campaign moving forward.
Biden’s past, though, has worried some of the Democrats hoping for a push for police reform.
One major issue for some is Biden’s involvement in the 1994 Crime Bill, and whether he’s willing to acknowledge his part in the way policing currently works. The crime bill has loomed over Biden’s career for many activists and younger voters who think that he hasn’t come to terms with the bill’s intended and unintended consequences on Black communities.
Biden has often championed his role in crafting and enacting the bill, which perpetuated over-policing in communities of color and the mass incarceration of Black people. The law resulted in more funding for states to build prisons, funding to encourage an increase in drug-related arrests, and funding for 100,000 new police officers. It also included measures like the Violence Against Women Act, which Biden and Democrats take pride in.
Biden has long defended the 1994 law and has argued as recently as last month that Hillary Clinton was “wrong” to lament the crime bill’s effects on the Black community in 2015. “What happened was, it wasn’t the crime bill. It was the drug legislation. It was the institution of mandatory minimums,” Biden told Breakfast Club host Charlamagne tha God. Biden, though, had cosponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine, and backed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which strengthened prison sentences for drug possession. Biden called the 1988 law a "big mistake" last year and said it "should be eliminated."
Activists have grown weary of Biden’s unwillingness to talk about the 1994 law in a critical way and say that doing so would be the first step in acknowledging his implicit role in over-policing which they say contributed to more interactions with the police and increased the likelihood of police shootings.
“There’s no way to avoid being accountable to the fact that you made a decision that led to these types of unintended consequences,” the Democratic strategist told BuzzFeed News. “Hyper-policing and over-policing in Black communities is the reason why these sorts of things are happening, and the crime bill was specifically and uniquely responsible for an increase in policing.”
Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director for the Center for Popular Democracy, which endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primaries, said the only way for Biden to really make amends is to build specific solutions to the problems the 1994 law caused into his platform.
“An apology is not restitution,” she said.
Activists, though, acknowledge how different the conversation around police reform is now then it was even four years ago.
“It’s sort of incredible to think how far we’ve come and how far we have to go,” said Epps-Addison. She referenced the repeated Black Lives Matter protests at Hillary Clinton and Sanders campaign events in 2016, and how long it took for Clinton to actually explicitly say, “Black lives matter.”
But, she said, Black activists have seen this cycle of protests, platitudes, and then minimal or nonexistent systemic change before. Reform advocates and community organizers say they will continue scrutinizing whether there is substance behind the public statements Biden makes on police violence.
The Biden campaign did not directly respond to a question about which, if any, groups and individual advocates it is engaging with to inform its response to the current crisis after multiple deaths involving police officers and the underlying issues of criminal justice reform. They pointed to Biden’s visit to a Black church in Maryland on Monday, where he spoke with local leaders.
Phil Agnew, a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’ campaign and an activist who cofounded Dream Defenders after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, said he’s hopeful the Biden–Sanders task force on reform could inform real policy shifts, especially if that means reversing the effects of the 1994 crime law. “To me that is the best-case scenario and a really frankly comeback story that we love in American politics,” he said.
But the task force’s scope does seem limited in that it isn’t directly shaping Biden’s policy plans, said Epps-Addison, and because it’s missing a crucial perspective in this conversation: “There is not a single formerly incarcerated person on that task force.”
Agnew says he doesn’t think Biden will engage with the most progressive criminal justice reform ideas, like the abolition of police forces and prisons. But he echoed Walker's sense that this national outpouring of support for police reform gives Democrats and Biden the room to start engaging with more radical ideas.
If he doesn’t, “it's the equivalent of not wanting to address sea-level rise and then it raining for 70 days straight, and everybody in the world is like, ‘It's flooding everywhere. Maybe we should do something about it,'” Agnew said. “It’s the perfect time to come out and say, 'It’s the time to make some real change.'”