None of the three children who witnessed a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer attempt to murder their father, Jacob Blake, Sunday night were old enough to sit up front. Even at 8, 5, and 3 years old, though, the boys are old enough to remember what happened for the rest of their lives.
America has seen the graphic video, yet another one featuring white cops shooting a black person. But Blake’s sons had the closest view, seated in the rear, as the officer grabbed Blake, 29, by the back of his white tank top and tugged on it to hold him in place while firing several bullets into his back. He lived through the shooting and is now hospitalized in stable condition. However, a Tuesday Chicago Sun-Times report quoted Blake’s father saying there are now “eight holes” in his son’s body and that he is at least temporarily paralyzed from the waist down.
Every shooting like this is a reminder of the casual nature with which armed agents of the state treat black lives. The very next day, the president’s party reminded us both where they stand on this issue, and of the lies they require to keep their footing.
The Republican National Convention opened with paeans to police brutality and armed oppression of those who would dare protest it. The party of Trump gave a speaking slot to the St. Louis couple captured on film brandishing firearms at civil-rights demonstrators marching peacefully outside their home. (These mascots for the Castle Doctrine have been charged with felonies, but promised a pardon by Missouri’s Republican governor, Mike Parson.). Interspersed between a stream of black conservatives boasting about being “free people with free minds” and lecturing us about leaving the Democratic “plantation,” were speakers openly fearmongering about black suburbanites and the possibility of police reform emerging from this age of uprising.
Mostly, that took the form of lying about the Democratic platform and its presidential nominee, lining them both up with the protesters. Joe Biden called for accountability in a statement following the Blake shooting, saying that “these shots pierce the soul of our nation,” a nation that “wakes up yet again with grief and outrage that yet another Black American is a victim of excessive force.” However, sympathy for Blake was tossed aside. Both Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, and Florida congressman Matt Gaetz were among those who characterized their opponents broadly as supporters of defunding and disbanding police departments. But unlike the Republicans, the Democrats actually released a 2020 platform and there is nothing in it that advocates either response as a method of ending police brutality.
The Democratic presidential nominee hasn’t supported defunding the police, either. President Trump put out a campaign ad alleging that “Joe Biden is absolutely on board with defunding the police,” but that is a lie. For once, though, I actually wish that Trump were telling the truth.
Biden, unfortunately, is not yet on board with the push to revisit the role of policing in America. Nor has he advocated shifting funds from departments to other needs of overpoliced communities, such as hiring more mental health professionals instead of more cops. He made this position clear in a June op-ed, writing that “while I do not believe federal dollars should go to police departments violating people’s rights or turning to violence as the first resort, I do not support defunding police.”
USA Today published Biden’s thoughts on the matter less than a month after a Minneapolis cop killed George Floyd, and months after Louisville officers fatally shot Breonna Taylor inside her apartment. More recently, he actually insisted that it is Trump who wants to defund the police. During his first joint interview with running mate Kamala Harris, following the convention, Biden both seemed to reject the notion that there is a systemic problem with racism throughout American policing. “I don’t want to defund police departments,” he said. “I think they need more help, they need more assistance, but that, look, there are unethical senators, there are unethical presidents, there are unethical doctors, unethical lawyers, unethical prosecutors, there are unethical cops. They should be rooted out.”
Such an approach is diametrically opposite to what his former primary rival, Julián Castro, stated in the “People First Policing” plan he put out more than a year ago. “How many of these videos do we have to watch to understand that even though we have some great police officers, this is not a case of bad apples?” Castro said when introducing the plan. “The system is broken, so let’s fix it.”
Forget about “defund the police” not polling well as a name for it. Biden and the party had (and still have) an opportunity to make a concerted argument for what is not a terribly radical policy: diverting some of the massive amount of money spent to prop up broken police forces could be spent on social safety net systems that take care of people and reduce crime. It’s a policy that meaningfully addresses the disproportionate bloodshed suffered by the same black electorate that lifted Biden’s candidacy. However, there was the Democratic nominee on ABC trying to tie Trump to the idea of defunding, noting that it was the president who suggested “cutting half a billion dollars of local police support.” Biden appeared to be referring to Trump’s proposed $468.5 million budget cut for the Office of Justice Programs’ public safety grants, but the All Lives Matter-ish point was made. “We have to make it clear that this is about protecting neighborhoods, protecting people, everybody across the board,” he added. “So the only guy that actually put in a bill to actually defund the police is Donald Trump.”
I appreciate that the Republican Party wishes to make Biden sound like some sort of Marxist on this issue, if only that it allows for some wishful thinking.Just from this weekend, there was both the Blake incident and the killing of Treyford Pellerin in Lafayette, Louisiana on Friday night. Pellerin, 31, was shot 11 times as he walked away from police outside a gas station. The Democratic nominee is trumping his 1994 crime bill for wanting to add more cops, all while rethinking the basic role of policing in America has become the very floor for discussion.
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party’s new platform now also reflects Biden’s language on qualified immunity for police officers, which has allowed far too many of them to escape the very accountability the former vice president now demands in the Blake shooting. Calling for “reining in the doctrine” is miles away from the push to end it that came from more liberal candidates. Castro, the former Health and Human Services secretary under President Obama, did not get a speaking slot at the Democratic convention. Neither did any black civil-rights activists involved in the recent uprising. The party instead scheduled former mayor and momentary presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg — he of New York City’s stop-and-frisk expansion and the insidious Muslim surveillance program — to be the final speaker before Biden was introduced.
Bloomberg’s voice was still ringing a discordant note in my head when Biden brought up Floyd’s young daughter, Gianna, in his speech. “I’ll never forget. When I leaned down to speak with her, she looked into my eyes and said ‘Daddy, changed the world.’ Her words burrowed deep into my heart. Maybe George Floyd’s murder was the breaking point.”
It wasn’t. It will take more than black deaths to change the world. Our bodies should not be considered “breaking points,” catalysts for change long overdue, as it is. There is no magic number of killings and no quorum of carnage that will suddenly force white Americans to do what they long ago should have done: change the way they view our trauma, and how they respond to it with constructive, lasting action. That impetus, especially now, must come from white people currently in power, or from those seeking it. Though Biden must be elected to avert exacerbating the ongoing global catastrophe that is Trump, he must also understand the difference between joining the fight and applauding the fighters.
His skills for empathy, developed though his own personal tragedies, may be unmatched. But Biden will not be able to govern our grief. He must set himself about preventing its causes.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated which police force killed George Floyd.