By Joseph Lord
Since the death of George Floyd during the summer of 2020, progressives have pushed for sweeping new changes to policing in the United States, spawning movements like “Defund the Police.” But these movements are far from popular, and President Joe Biden and a wide range of Democratic lawmakers have rejected the rhetoric entirely.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Minn.), a progressive congresswoman elected during the wave of Democratic victories in 2018, made news recently when she defended a proposed bill that would empty federal prisons within 10 years, with no exception for extremely violent offenders, drug lords, or sex traffickers.
The Tlaib-endorsed bill, called the BREATHE Act, asks the Department of Justice to draw up a “roadmap for prison abolition.” The bill demands the “full decarceration of federal detention facilities within 10 years” and “a moratorium on all new federal prison, jail, immigrant, and youth detention construction.”
Tlaib and other members of “the Squad,” a group comprised of young leftist progressives Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), have adamantly pushed for anti-police and anti-prison initiatives.
Following the death of Daunte Wright in 2021, Tlaib called for “no more policing, incarceration, and militarization,” a call that was echoed by Omar and Pressley.
During the height of anti-police protests, many of which devolved into riots, during the summer of 2020, New York City’s Democratic mayor Bill DeBlasio proposed a $1 billion cut to the New York Police Department’s approximately $6 billion budget.
But New York Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, who was outspoken in her defense of the “Defund the Police” movement, rejected the proposal.
“Defunding police means defunding police,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a 2020 statement. “It does not mean budget tricks or funny math. It does not mean moving school police officers from the NYPD budget to the Department of Education’s budget so the exact same police remain in schools.”
After the Democrats saw disappointing returns in the 2020 House elections, some blamed anti-police rhetoric for the failure. But Ocasio-Cortez continued to defend the movement.
“I believe the path toward justice is a long arc. Safety is not just an officer with a badge and a gun,” the self-described democratic socialist congresswoman said.
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose district was an epicenter of anti-police agitation during the summer of 2020, has also been outspoken in defense of defunding the police.
At the height of the 2020 protests and rioting, Omar encouraged people to “stay on the streets” and “show them we mean action.”
Though the momentum of the movement has died down, Tlaib’s newest controversy shows that the sentiment remains very much alive among progressives.
But anti-police and anti-prison sentiments are far less popular with Biden, Democratic senators, and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Biden Rejects Defunding Police, Tlaib’s Bill
On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki responded to a question asking whether Biden supports Tlaib’s proposed legislation.
“The president does not support abolishing prisons,” Psaki said. “He thinks measures like that will make us less safe and he would not support legislation that includes it.”
This response fits into a larger effort by Biden to distance himself from anti-police sentiments without alienating voters who hold those sentiments.
His presidential campaign, which ran during the height of rioting across the United States, was anxious to show Biden as a moderate in order to allay the fears of middle Americans that Biden would follow along with progressive anti-police rhetoric.
“No, I don’t support defunding the police,” Biden told CBS during his presidential campaign.
Rather, Biden called for “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 and everybody in the community.”
Biden also gave his endorsement to efforts to increase social spending at the state and local level, but without defunding or replacing police departments.
Any effort to overhaul policing through federal legislation, such as Tlaib’s BREATHE Act, would have to go through Biden before becoming law. Biden’s stated position against such efforts would pose a challenge to progressives hoping to actually make substantial changes at the federal level.
Senate Dems Vote to Defend the Police
Before any legislative overhaul of policing gets to Biden, it would have to get through the Senate. But senators of both parties have rejected the rhetoric.
During amendment votes on the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget bill, which has since been reduced to $1.85 trillion, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) put forward an amendment to grant extra federal funding to police departments.
Sending a clear message to progressives in the House, all 50 Democrats joined with all 50 Republicans to vote in favor of the proposal in a rare show of unanimity.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), whose vote is essential to Democratic policy goals, has spoken out forcefully against anti-police rhetoric.
In a November 2020 post on Twitter, Manchin wrote: “Defund the police? Defund, my butt. I’m a proud West Virginia Democrat. We are the party of working men and women. We want to protect Americans’ jobs & healthcare. We do not have some crazy socialist agenda, and we do not believe in defunding the police.”
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), another critical swing voter, has also confirmed her opposition to the movement.
But the movement is even unpopular with the Senate’s foremost leftist progressive, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sanders has signaled his support for efforts to reform police departments across the U.S., but rejected efforts to defund or abolish the police.
Asked whether he agreed with the Squad’s calls for “no more policing, incarceration, and militarization,” Sanders responded curtly, “No, I don’t.”
Prominent Black Caucus Members Reject ‘Defund the Police’
Though leftist progressives allege that “Defund the police” movements are for the benefit of minorities, who they claim are unfairly targeted by police, their position is not shared by the Congressional Black Caucus.
“I told some friends that [‘Defund the Police’ is] probably one of the worst slogans ever,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman for the Black Caucus, during a Washington Post live broadcast in 2020.
“Police officers are the first ones to say they are law enforcement officers, they’re not social workers. What we have done in our country is, we have not invested in health, social, and economic problems in communities. We leave the police to pick up the pieces,” Bass said. She represents Los Angeles. “In my city, for example, on any given night, we have over 40,000 people who are homeless. Why should the police be involved with that?”
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) has also spoken forcefully against anti-police rhetoric.
“I know what I’m talking about, I’m out here with the voters everyday,” Clyburn said during an interview with Medhi Hasan. “I can tell you, ‘Defund the Police’ is a non-starter, even with black people.”
Clyburn blamed the rhetoric for the Democrats’ poor House returns in 2020, and has called for progressives in the party to drop the issue.