WASHINGTON — Every Wednesday, Tawanda Jones, a preschool teacher from Baltimore, holds a demonstration to honor her brother Tyrone West, a Black man who died in handcuffs in 2013 after he was tackled to the ground by multiple police officers and left unable to breathe.
Her vigil has lasted 358 weeks, and over that time, some of her demands for change have gotten bolder.
“When I first started this seven or eight years ago, reform seemed like a golden ticket to me,” Jones, 41, said. But now she supports something else. “Not only should they defund the police department — that’s an absolute yes for me,” Jones said, “they need to invest in things that matter.”
As protesters have spilled into the streets of American cities and suburbs, calls for such police reforms as body cameras or deescalation training have given way to a more sweeping call — defund the police — that has revealed a chasm between activists like Jones and Democrats in Washington who have promised to help them fight systemic racism.
Last week, as President Trump seized on the slogan in an attempt to scare voters, congressional Democrats scrambled to explain that the marquee reform bill they unveiled, the Justice in Policing Act, does nothing to take funding away from America’s police departments, amid worries that a national debate over dismantling them could imperil the party’s chances in a crucial election year.
House majority leader Steny Hoyer said defunding the police was “not the answer.” Representative Karen Bass of California, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she was concerned the protesters’ rallying cry could be used as a “distraction.” Even Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts liberal, said it was “not the term I would use.”
But for activists, discomfort is precisely the point. Some, such as Jones, live in cities where Democratic leadership has never delivered effective police reform. Many are eager to push a party, as well as a presumptive Democratic presidential nominee in Joe Biden, associated with tough-on-crime measures in the 1990s and cozy relationships with police unions out of its comfort zone. And now, for the first time in decades they see an opening to reframe the country’s criminal justice debate.
“Defund the police is a bold demand — it’s meant to disrupt the narrative that we all have that more policing equals more safety,” said Scott Roberts, of the racial justice organization Color of Change. “When I see even some Democratic leaders who obviously want to do something in this moment around policing uncomfortable hearing the call to defund police, I think that’s a good thing.”
To some protesters, defund the police is a demand to eventually abolish police officers; to others, it is a call to reduce police budgets and reallocate those resources to community services such as education, mental health, and other forms of violence prevention. To many, the slogan is a reaction to the fact that Obama-era police reforms have not ended the killing.
“It comes from the very real understanding through the experience of impacted communities — especially black and brown, over-policed, over-incarcerated communities — that police officers don’t keep them or us safe,” said Tiffany Cabán, a former public defender who narrowly lost her progressive bid for Queens district attorney last summer and is now the national political organizer for the Working Families Party.
Six in ten Americans oppose reallocating police budgets, according to a poll from ABC News released Friday, although a majority of black voters and Democrats support defunding the police. But, at the same time, polls are showing overwhelming support for the protests, numerous police reforms, and broad agreement that the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, by a white police officer is indicative of broader problems in policing — evidence of a rapid shift in public opinion.
“What you see is, in real time, the ground shifting underneath politicians,” said Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary who made criminal justice reform a major focus of his Democratic campaign for president last winter. “That often leaves people in office a little bit shaky, but I think that’s a good thing here because I think what it’s unleashing is creativity and boldness.”
Activists have already notched local victories. Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles has pledged to cut up to $150 million from the city’s police budget, although that falls well short of deeper cuts proposed by Black Lives Matter activists there. In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh has called for diverting 20 percent of the police overtime budget to other city services. And the Minneapolis City Council has gone furthest, pledging to vote to dismantle and reimagine its own police department in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing.
“It’s really about moving to take what we’re looking at, pull it apart, and put something new together,” said Phillipe Cunningham, a city councilor in Minneapolis.
Top Democrats have been hesitant to embrace the idea, and Biden said last week that he does not support defunding the police. He has called for an additional $300 million for community policing.
But activists intend to keep the pressure on, especially when it comes to Biden. “We Democrats are saying, we must vote Donald Trump out of office. But that does not come at the exclusion of valid criticism of the person who is our presumptive nominee,” said Cabán. “Joe Biden is not where he needs to be on this, so it is our job to push him to get closer to where he needs to be.”
Raumesh Akbari, a state senator from Tennessee who is part of a “unity task force” advising Biden on criminal justice, acknowledged that much has changed since the former vice president put out his campaign’s criminal justice policy last year.
“It’s just broadening the conversations that we’re having,” Akbari said
Activists have also said the Democrats’ Justice in Policing bill falls far short of the kind of change they are demanding. “We are calling for an end to investment in institutions that criminalize, harm, kill, and fail to protect us,” said Gina Clayton-Johnson, of the Movement for Black Lives leadership team, in a statement.
Representative Katherine Clark, the Melrose Democrat and a member of House leadership, described the legislation as “a beginning, not an end.” Although the bill does not defund policing, she said it is worth exploring “how we allocate our resources to move police from being a culture of being warriors to being guardians.”
Ariel White, an assistant professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, compared activists calling for dramatic changes to those fighting for gay rights in previous decades.
“Public opinion was not on their side and yet people had a very clear vision that they ultimately pulled the public along with,” White said.
In Minneapolis, the activists who wanted to change the police department had to make political changes first. Such groups as Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective had been organizing around the issue for years, and many activists there were galvanized by the police killings of Jamar Clark in 2015 and Philando Castile in nearby St. Anthony the following year.
Arianna Nason of MPD150, a group that calls for the eventual abolition of the Minneapolis Police Department, said they organized to replace City Council incumbents with candidates like Cunningham. Earlier this month, nine of the 13 members pledged to vote to dismantle the department — a move activists hail as a victory, even though it was only the first step in what will be a long and complicated road to any significant change.
“The fact that we’re able to get a supermajority of nine of 13 seats supporting us, that is a really big deal,” Nason said. “Democrats should be squirming, because they’ve failed us again and again.”