Joe Biden embraces black voters but keeps distance from protest demands

Joe Biden speaks via video link as family and guests attend the funeral service for George Floyd in Houston, on June 9, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Joe Biden is working to show he is an ally for black voters in their fight against police brutality, yet the Democratic presidential nominee is only willing to go so far.

In the wake of George Floyd's death while in Minneapolis police custody, Biden has taken a tough stance against police misconduct, urging additional training for law enforcement and an end to choke-holds. Yet his calls for change stop short of the policies the protesters say they want to see.

Biden has held off on agreeing with demands to "defund the police", making clear instead that he wants community policing and body cameras. He has yet to talk to protest leaders. And he has not followed other prominent Democrats in joining marchers on the streets.

With his stance towards police misconduct, Biden is trying to show his support for protesters while preserving his appeal with a more moderate base that sees tougher laws and new training - not funding cuts - as the way to overhaul policing.

It resembles the line he has threaded with progressive activists who saw him refuse to support Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, but take a few steps in their direction.

Biden must encourage younger black voters to turn out in higher numbers in November than they did in 2016, when Hillary Clinton's failure to engage them contributed to her narrow loss, while not losing older black voters or white voters who could make a difference in key battleground states.

Three of those crucial states - Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan - all have substantial African-American populations in their largest cities that Clinton relied upon, but did not inspire enough to get the turnout she needed, when few thought Donald Trump could actually win.

"Joe Biden is competitive in places that no Democrat has been competitive and no Democrat if you just look at the demographic should be competitive, because he's talking to everybody about the type of country that we need, the type of country that actually supports all our people," said Malcolm Kenyatta, a 29-year-old Pennsylvania state representative from Philadelphia. "And that's what young activists are asking for, too."


Biden is approaching the moment by offering an empathetic ear and a stark contrast with Trump, who threatened to order a military response to the protests and has urged law enforcement and elected officials to "get much tougher" with protesters.

The former vice-president started with his own campaign. An all-staff meeting after Floyd's death lasted two hours, more than twice of what was expected, as people spoke about their experiences with police and about race more broadly.

On Friday, black campaign staff gathered for a virtual conversation with Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, an African-American campaign co-chair, to discuss their concerns that Richmond could take back to Biden.

One aide in the session described it as a chance to grieve. The aide said the conversations within the campaign have been blunt as he recalled his own experience of having a police officer hold a gun to his head.

Moreover, Biden took pains to keep a low profile on Monday when he went to Houston to meet Floyd's family. His campaign was careful to contrast that with Trump's widely criticised pose in front of St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House last week.


But while Biden has praised protesters for raising "real and legitimate grievances", he has thus far avoided engaging them directly, largely relying on campaign supporters or staff to talk to him about the protests and about black life in America.

Still, he generally backs efforts in Congress to address police brutality.

On Monday, House and Senate Democrats introduced sweeping police reform legislation that could make it easier to prosecute and sue law enforcement officers, as it includes rolling back "qualified immunity". Biden praised the efforts as a "meaningful reform package" though he did not specifically endorse repealing the legal protections for officers.

He is set to speak at a NAACP town hall on Wednesday (June 10) night with Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio and sought to reach younger black viewers with an interview last week with actor Don Cheadle that was live streamed by the Shade Room, a black media organisation, and included young campaign supporters.

Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware, Biden's national co-chairman, said the candidate has proved his deep connection to the black community since Floyd's death.

Referring to his visit to Bethel AME church in Wilmington, she said, "You saw true and lasting relationships in that room."

She also said that the next steps must be action.

"We're all going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable," she said. "And I know that Joe Biden wants to see real outcomes and wants to see us in a better place."


Though Biden remains overwhelmingly popular with African American voters - especially compared to Trump, who only won 6 per cent of black voters in 2016 - black activists are warning Biden that he still has work to do.

"I don't think this is an issue where you can make the fraternal order of the police and black people happy at the same time and I think black people are going to be watching him," said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, which espouses a progressive agenda.

But Mitchell added the protests are about more than just police brutality, and Biden needs to be able to speak "fluently" about a "comprehensive criminal justice and racial justice programme".

"Biden can't rest on Donald Trump's inability to lead in this moment that is uniquely requiring leadership," he said. "He needs to fill the leadership vacuum and he still has work to do to show that."


Mitchell said the Biden campaign has reached out to the Working Families Party, and a Biden campaign official said it was possible that Biden would meet Black Lives Matters leaders or other activists in the weeks ahead.

The official said the issues raised by the protests would continue to be central to his campaign.

At the same time, Trump and his campaign have tried for days to link Biden with protesters' "defund the police" slogan, which for some means abolishing police departments and for others means shifting some money from policing to education and social programmes.

"No, I don't support defunding the police," Biden told CBS on Monday. "I support 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's campaign also pointed out that he has proposed an additional US$300 million (S$416 million) for community policing and also wants to fund the wider use of body cameras.

"It's important to listen to what the protesters are asking and to find out why. I don't think you ignore them, I don't think you put them out, and Joe Biden is listening," said Randall Woodfin, the 38-year-old mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, and a Biden supporter.

But he added, "this conversation has to be balanced because as loud as it is from the protesters, other generations want other things. You have two generations saying at monthly neighbourhood meetings across America, 'We want more police.'"

Woodfin urged protesters to listen to politicians' nuanced answers, rather than shouting them down, as they did Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on Saturday when he said he opposed defunding the police there.

"The number one job of any government at any level is public safety, period."

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