On the Saturday after Election Day, not long after media outlets announced the projected winner of the presidential race, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors fired off a short letter to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. She wanted to congratulate them on their historic victory, and also to request a meeting so she could share her organization’s expectations for the next administration. “In short, Black people won this election,” she wrote to them. “We want something for our vote. We want to be heard and our agenda to be prioritized.”
Black Lives Matter organizers made their agenda clear over the summer, as millions of people took to the streets to demand that government officials defund law enforcement agencies and end police brutality. That energy helped bring an unprecedented number of voters to the polls, who overwhelmingly passed police accountability measures and helped elect Biden.
Now that he’s won, leaders of the defund-police movement hope to keep expanding their power in the halls of Washington. They want his administration to spend more money on health care and housing, and much, much less on law enforcement.
But while Biden is more amenable to their goals than President Trump, who repeatedly threatened anti-police protesters with violence, he hasn’t necessarily been their strongest ally. During the campaign, Biden spoke about holding cops accountable, but proposed investing $300 million more in police across the country, largely for better training. “The vast majority of police officers are good, decent, honorable men and women,” he said during the first presidential debate in September. “They risk their lives every day to take care of us, but there are some bad apples.” Biden’s transition website now outlines plans to ban chokeholds and create a national police oversight commission, but not to pull resources away from law enforcement departments. Cullors still hasn’t gotten a response to her letter.
“I’m very pessimistic about what we can expect, at least initially, from the Biden administration,” says Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College who wrote The End of Policing, a well-known book about police abolition. “He’s made it very clear that he wants to put more resources into policing, that he supports the kind of superficial and ineffective procedural reforms that the Obama administration proposed.”
“Anything compared to the Trump administration is going to look sophisticated,” says Lex Steppling, a grassroots organizer in Los Angeles who works with the group Dignity and Power Now. “But the truth is the Obama-era DOJ didn’t achieve very much.” Mostly, says Andrea Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney and organizer in New York, “what we’ve heard so far from the Democratic Party is what they’re not going to do. I don’t expect they will be supportive of the main demand from the streets.”
Whether centrist Democrats embrace it or not, the movement has clearly had an impact: “Biden and Harris can advocate for major reforms of policing while still appearing moderate by saying they oppose defunding the police,” Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, told Politico. “For some more militant activists, this might seem like a failure. But if Biden and Harris have been pulled further towards more significant reforms by the Black Lives Matter protests, then the activism made an important difference.”
And defund organizers still have big goals for the next four years. “It’s gonna be a fight—we’re not going away,” says Ritchie. While much of the movement’s work will stay local, at city council meetings and protests, here’s a rundown of some reforms that organizers are expecting in Washington, good and bad, and also what they’re hoping to achieve if everything goes in their favor come January.
Reform at the Justice Department
One of the main changes organizers predict to see under Biden is at the Justice Department, which will likely expand federal investigations of police departments and sign more consent decrees that mandate reforms if investigators find officers engaged in patterns of racial bias or violence. These “pattern-or-practice investigations” were a central part of the Obama administration’s strategy after the deaths of Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, and Freddie Gray in police custody. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, scaled them back. The Justice Department only conducted one during Trump’s term, compared with 25 under Obama. With Biden, “there will be more investigations,” predicts Jonathan Smith, who helped lead the Justice Department section that probed police departments under Obama, and now works at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
That sounds good to some activists. Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist who co-founded Mapping Police Violence and Campaign Zero, wants to see the Justice Department investigate at least hundreds of the 18,000 or so police departments across the United States. Ideally, he’d also like the feds to be more proactive, using data to figure out which departments are problematic even before a high-profile shooting. “Federal interventions into local police departments have shown to be effective in reducing police shootings,” says Sinyangwe. And Justice Department reports about patterns of abuse—like the one about Ferguson, Missouri, which was widely shared—are also an important resource for activists advocating reforms in their own jurisdictions, says Steppling.
But many defund organizers believe expanding consent decrees could be problematic—a distraction at best, and a roadblock to their goals at worst. “These investigations don’t work,” says Vitale. “Departments make some reforms and fill out paperwork, but abuses continue on the street.” In some cities like Chicago, adds Ritchie, officials have recently pointed to consent decrees as an excuse to say defunding isn’t possible, arguing that the decrees require them to invest in better anti-bias training for cops, for example. The decrees operate on the assumption that law enforcement agencies should be fixed, rather than abolished or drastically downsized. “The philosophy undergirding these reforms is that more rules will mean less violence,” Mariame Kaba, who leads a grassroots group called Project NIA, wrote in a June op-ed on abolition for the New York Times. “But police officers break rules all the time.”
That’s not to say activists aren’t pushing for other reforms at the Justice Department. Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Los Angeles, wants the department to scrap the “Black identity extremist” label that the FBI has used to investigate Black protesters, for example.
Defunding federal programs and grants
Most police budget decisions happen at the local level, but the federal government still has power to fund certain programs or offer grants that affect law enforcement priorities.
During the campaign, Biden pledged to invest $300 million for police departments to hire a more diverse field of officers and improve their training on “community-oriented policies.” “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,” he wrote in a June op-ed for USA Today. “The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms, and to condition other federal dollars on completing those reforms.”
That doesn’t mean Biden won’t do anything to shift resources away from traditional policing. “There are some things that the incoming Biden-Harris administration might do that could make a big difference here,” says Sinyangwe, the data scientist. For starters, the Justice Department could cancel its Equitable Sharing Program for civil asset forfeiture, which allows local cops to partner with the federal government in claiming people’s cars, cash, or homes if they’re believed to be connected to a drug deal. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets are seized every year, and that money could instead stay in the hands of community members.
The Biden administration could also repurpose some federal funding that currently goes to police departments. During his campaign, Biden proposed expanding access to mental health and substance abuse treatment services, which could help prevent crime. The Justice Department gives money to cities through its Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program, and could stop funneling these resources toward things like gang databases and body armor.
But some activists, like Vitale, the sociology professor, think these changes would be “window dressing.” Instead of tinkering around the edges, says Natacia Knapper, an organizer with the advocacy group Stop Police Terror Project DC, why not significantly reduce the Justice Department’s overall budget and give that money to other federal departments that deal with medical care or housing or education?
Vitale does want to see the Justice Department shift resources away from law enforcement by pulling the plug on Operation LeGend, an initiative launched by the Trump administration to fight gun violence. This tough-on-crime strategy sent additional law enforcement officials to cities like Chicago and Kansas City and Albuquerque to ramp up arrests for shootings, which have increased during the pandemic. But as I’ve reported, research shows that arresting more people isn’t usually effective for driving down gun violence, and that some cities have seen more success by investing in mentorship programs that help people find jobs and housing. Biden’s transition team hasn’t signaled yet where it stands on Operation LeGend, Vitale says, so the best hope of ending the program may be by persuading enough lawmakers in Congress to stop paying for it.
Legislation to curb police abuse
Speaking of Congress, defund organizers have already laid out their demands in the Breathe Act, a bill that calls for a divestment from law enforcement and an investment in communities of color. Developed by the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of social justice groups, the legislation was introduced in July by Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). It’s “as good a piece of federal criminal justice reform as you’re ever going to see,” says Steppling, the Los Angeles organizer. But it failed to make it on the Democratic National Committee platform in August, and even if Democrats take control of the Senate after the Georgia run-offs in January, the bill likely won’t have enough support in Congress. “There’s no appetite for the Breathe Act in Nancy Pelosi’s office and Chuck Schumer’s office,” says Vitale.
What could potentially pass if Democrats win control of the Senate? The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, introduced by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. The bill meets protesters’ demands midway, with a proposal to establish national standards for officers’ use of force and a database to track abuses, among other things. It would also end qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that helps officers escape criminal prosecution. The House passed it in June.
But while defund organizers are excited about ending qualified immunity, many whom I spoke with were less than thrilled with the overall Justice in Policing Act. “I just don’t think there’s a justice in policing, and I don’t think there’s meaningful change in that legislation,” says Ritchie, who believes the reforms don’t go nearly far enough. “It reiterates rules that have been in place in a lot of places where they’ve been violated.”
And the bill could face a tough fate in the Senate, which did not pass it before the election. While more Republicans expressed support for police reform after a Minneapolis cop killed George Floyd in May, many have since reverted to their old talking points, describing the Democrats as a party of lawlessness. Even some centrist Democrats have suggested the defund police movement hurt them at the polls. Since the election, House Majority Whip James Clyburn has criticized the movement’s slogan, “defund the police,” arguing that it prevented some congressional candidates from winning their races—an allegation that defund organizers wholeheartedly reject.
“‘Defund the police’ was the clarion call of this uprising, but many political elites who try to curry favor with the Republican Party want to distance themselves from it,” says Abdullah of the Los Angeles Black Lives Matter chapter. She points out that many candidates who called for more funding for social services did well in November: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Squad expanded, and will soon include Cori Bush, who formerly worked as a nurse and activist who led Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson. More than a dozen ballot measures calling for more police accountability passed overwhelmingly in cities around the country. “People on the ground get it,” Abdullah says.
In the coming weeks, Black Lives Matter activists are planning to travel to Georgia ahead of the Senate run-off to try to flip the two seats there blue. Doing so will be crucial to making any progress toward their goals in Congress. Because if Republicans keep control of the Senate, Mitch McConnell is well positioned to do what he’s always done—obstructing every piece of Democrat-supported legislation that crosses his desk.
No matter the outcome in Georgia, organizers are clear that much of their work during the next four years will happen at the local level. “That’s where you can make the biggest impact,” says Sinyangwe, reiterating that city councils often make budget decisions for police departments. The movement has already seen successes since the summer protests, with some cities voting to expel police from schools. Others, like Los Angeles and Seattle, have decreased their police budgets, and some like San Francisco have started exploring ways to have social workers respond to certain 911 calls instead of armed officers.
“We’ve got to build this movement from the bottom up, not from the top down,” adds Vitale. Though Biden may not be on board with defunding, there’s no denying that the political terrain has shifted during the last several months, and that more Americans are ready to reenvision public safety and consider spending less money on cops who kill.
No matter what Biden thinks, “the demand is still to defund the police,” says Ritchie. “And it’s gonna get louder and louder. And I don’t know that we even need to be the inside. They’re gonna hear it either way.”