It has been one year since George Floyd’s death at the hands of US police officers ignited global protests and brought renewed attention to the discrimination, injustice, and inequality faced by many Americans of colour today.
The protests that swept the nation, and corresponding campaign promises for tackling racial equality by then Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, reflected a larger shift in public opinion on racial inequities in the US.
In the summer of 2020, protestors led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement called for reforms to the criminal justice and policing system, centring their message on a national defunding of the police. But while Biden has backed calls for police reform he has been less willing to embrace the idea of defunding.
The public nature of George Floyd’s death shed light on the discrimination and racial profiling black Americans experience during their interactions with police.. It was also reminiscent of a video, shared 30 years ago, of the savage beating Rodney King was subjected to by Los Angeles police. But unlike the King incident, the main officer involved in George Floyd’s killing was charged and later convicted, and the idea of reforming the police has much broader public support.
A Gallup poll conducted in June and July 2020 found six out of every ten US adults now believe civil rights laws are needed to reduce the discrimination black people experience, compared to four out of ten in 2015.
George Floyd’s death, as well as the recent deaths of other unarmed black people such as Breona Taylor and Aura Rosser, has changed public perception regarding the excessive use of police force.
In a Pew survey from June 2020, majorities of both black - 84 per cent - and white - 63 per cent - Americans felt the police and criminal justice system treat black people less fairly than white people, while the Associated Press reports a 20-point jump in white people describing police violence as a ‘very serious’ problem in surveys conducted between 2015 and 2020.
With such strength of feeling, there is clearly an appetite for change. What there is less agreement about is what form this change should take.
The road to reform
Biden has indicated his support for some aspects of police reform, notably through the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act approved by the US House of Representatives but not yet voted on in the Senate.
Excessive force by US police officers disproportionately impacts black Americans, and specific bans proposed in the Act are intended to limit controversial practices such as chokeholds and no-knock warrants. It also proposes to limit qualified immunity in civil action suits against law enforcement, which would make police officers more accountable.
But while BLM is in favour of ending qualified immunity, there are concerns the Act does not do enough to address the root causes of police violence, and in fact may provide new money to what BLM describes as the ‘very systems that have always served to kill, cage, and destroy the families of black people’.
In January 2021, BLM indicated its support for the BREATHE Act, which would redistribute police funds to social programmes. Drafted by the Movement for Black Lives, a collation of more than 100 national organisations, the BREATHE Act proposes divesting ‘taxpayer dollars from brutal and discriminatory policing’ and investing in a ‘new vision of public safety’.
But Joe Biden has said that, while he does not believe federal dollars should go to police departments which violate people’s rights, he also does not support defunding the police and would instead opt to give police departments the resources they need to implement ‘meaningful reforms’ and make other funding conditional on completing those reforms.
Supporters of the BREATHE Act worry these measures will not be enough to address systemic racial inequalities within the US criminal justice system, pointing to how reforms in the past have failed to address police violence nationwide.
Low public support for defunding the police may also play a role in shaping future decisions by the Biden administration on this issue. An ABC News/Ipsos poll in June 2020 found two-thirds of US adults are against defunding the police. And despite some progress in police reform legislation, Democratic congress members have been instructed to ‘steer clear of any defund-the police rhetoric since it could hurt them in the midterms’.
A Washington Post survey in August 2020 found support for protests against police brutality dropped by 20 per cent when the question was linked to defunding the police. Efforts to dismantle the police department in Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered have also stalled. While $8 million of police funding was re-directed towards violence prevention and other services in December 2020, in February 2021 the city announced it would spend an additional $6.4 million to recruit officers to deal with crime increases.
But while defunding the police appears to be unpopular among broad segments of the US population, black voters - who helped deliver Biden the White House - remain supportive with 63 per cent agreeing with calls to reallocate police budgets to community-based programmes compared to 35 per cent of white voters.
Separating the fight for racial equality from policing will not be easy, and how Biden manages this tension moving forward is yet to be seen. Although it is unlikely that Biden will embrace legislation that supports de-funding or reallocating police budgets, he is likely to continue to push for reforms to racial equity in key areas outside of the criminal justice system.
His ambitious $2 trillion infrastructure plan works to address long-standing racial inequalities through various means. This includes investing money in projects to advance employment, education and housing opportunities for black communities, addressing issues that have disproportionately harmed black children, such as replacing led water pipes, and increasing funding for historically black colleges and universities.
The systemic issues plaguing America’s criminal justice system will take time to rectify and cannot be undone in one presidential term. While de-funding the police is unlikely to gain traction in the White House, Biden’s sustained emphasis on furthering racial equity through other means can be viewed as a positive step forward in the fight for racial equality.