“Defund the police” has become the latest battle cry of liberals protesting George Floyd’s death in demonstrations across the country. But it won’t be echoed by lawmakers in the halls of Congress.
Top Democrats are carefully — but forcefully — speaking out against growing calls from activists to defund police departments, an idea backed by prominent progressives to dismantle the system that has perpetuated the type of brutality seen in Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
“I think it can be used as a distraction and that’s my concern,” Rep. Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters on Monday. “I think the intent behind it is something that I support — the idea that communities need investments.”
With the GOP eagerly drawing up its attack ads, senior Democrats are hoping to stifle momentum for the idea before it overshadows their broader reform effort. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are instead pressing ahead with a sweeping bill to crack down on use of excessive force, bolster transparency and ban certain practices, like chokeholds, while leaving questions of funding or structure to local leaders. Already, nine Minneapolis City Council members vowed to dismantle the city’s police department.
“We’re keeping our eyes on the prize, and that needs to be the story. State and local will do what state and local needs to do,” Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), a member of the CBC, said Monday when asked about the defunding movement. “We are the Congress. What we’re doing here today is our role.”
Some had a blunter assessment.
“You can’t defund the police, that’s stupid, it’s crazy and anyone who talks about that is nuts,” said moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). “You have to have the police.”
In some ways, it’s the story of Pelosi’s second tenure as speaker — forced to balance the demands of an aggressive left flank without alienating the moderate voters who delivered Democrats the House. Schumer, who is suddenly within arm’s reach of a Democratic majority, faces a similar dilemma for Senate candidates in largely purple states.
Any misstep by Democrats could deliver Republicans a powerful political weapon ahead of November. GOP campaign operatives are seizing on calls to “defund the police” to paint Democrats as radical leftists, just as they did with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” or demands to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
To illustrate how seriously Democratic leaders are taking the potential problem, several senior Democrats spoke out about it on a private caucus call Monday.
“This movement today, some people tried to hijack it,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) told Democrats on the call, according to multiple sources. “Don’t let yourselves be drawn into the debate about defunding police forces.”
Other Democrats also weighed in, with House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) saying the idea is “easily caricatured by demagogues and Republicans,” and Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) calling the defunding push “divisive and distracting.”
When asked about the issue publicly, Pelosi emphasized areas of common ground, like redirecting some funding toward addressing mental health and policing in schools. Then the California Democrat quickly turned the focus back to Democrats’ reform bill.
“We could rebalance some of our funding to address some of those issues more directly,” Pelosi said at a press conference Monday. “But this isn’t about that and that should not be the story that leaves here.”
Senate Democrats expressed skepticism about the message Monday. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said defunding is “not the term I would use” but emphasized the need to “listen to the pain and the lived experiences of the people who are protesting.” Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine predicted that Congress would not defund the police.
And the campaign for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Monday also said the former vice president “does not believe that police should be defunded.”
President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have been quick to seize on the protesters’ demands, using a broad brush to associate all Democrats — especially vulnerable House moderates — with the controversial appeal.
Trump blasted out a tweet criticizing “radical” Democrats for the idea early Monday, and he later told reporters, “We won’t be defunding our police. We won’t be dismantling our police.” Republican campaign committees also released a steady stream of press releases tying centrist Democrats to the idea.
“We’re already seeing outlandish calls to defund the police or abolish the police, take root within the left-wing leadership class,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday. “Call me old-fashioned. I think you may actually want a police officer to stop a criminal and arrest him before we try to work through his feelings.”
The police reform bill unveiled by Democrats on Monday is among the most substantial proposals ever targeted at racism in law enforcement, and has already drawn the ire of police unions. Still, many powerful progressives, including Ocasio-Cortez, say more needs to be done to address police departments nationwide they say are overfunded and overly reliant on militarized methods.
Ocasio-Cortez praised Democrats’ bill on the caucus call Monday and said she understands the “profound discomfort” around the defunding discussion. But the New York Democrat also implored her colleagues “not to dismiss or mock” activists’ calls for defunding police departments, saying it’s important they don’t “demoralize or undercut” grassroots leaders.
“It is not crazy for black and brown communities to want what white people have already given themselves and that is funding your schools more than you fund criminalizing your own kids,” Ocasio-Cortez said, according to Democrats on the call.
The sharp criticism of police departments by the Black Lives Matter movement has already led to drastic action on the local level in recent days. Like Minneapolis, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio also pledged on Sunday to divert funding from police to social services.
Many Democrats say that’s exactly where those conversations should take place: The state and local level, not Congress.
“I was really proud of what Minneapolis unanimously decided. But it’s up to each community,” added Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a senior member of the CBC, in an interview.
Other Democrats argued the federal government can still drive change in policing, without specifically defunding local departments. For example, they say, Congress needs to ensure that police aren’t the only ones called to the scene when someone is dealing with a personal crisis, such as homelessness or a mental health issue.
Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), who once led the Houston NAACP, compared a policing overhaul to the government’s decision in the 1940s to rename the “Department of War” to the “Department of Defense” to address public image concerns.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to reimagine what policing would be like, and improve upon it,” Green said.