President-elect Joe Biden suggested at a virtual meeting with a group of leaders from top civil rights organizations last week that they stop pushing so hard for police reform.
In excerpts from the audio of the call which was obtained and published by the Intercept, Biden can be heard telling the civil rights leaders that pushing too aggressively to reform policing could harm the Democratic Party’s chances in next month’s Georgia Senate runoffs, which will decide control of the chamber.
“I just raise it with you to think about: How much do we push between now and January 5 — we need those two seats — about police reform,” Biden pleaded with the leaders, while reassuring them that police reform will be a “major, major, major element” of his administration’s priorities.
The call included Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, NAACP President Derrick Johnson and Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights President Vanita Gupta, a former assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Obama administration, the Rev. Al Sharpton, NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill, and others.
Johnson raised concerns about Biden’s nomination of Tom Vilsack to once again lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Vilsack has a poor relationship with Black farmers, and during his first term as USDA secretary he forced the resignation of a Black USDA official based in Georgia, Shirley Sherrod, to resign after Breitbart published a selectively-edited speech Sherrod gave at an NAACP event.
Biden told Johnson it wasn’t the right time to “make a big issue” of the nomination of Vilsack, who served as USDA secretary for all eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, and went on to suggest that it wasn’t the right time to push the incoming administration on police reform, either.
“I also don’t think we should get too far ahead ourselves on dealing with police reform in that, because they’ve already labeled us as being ‘defund the police.’ Anything we put forward in terms of the organizational structure to change policing — which I promise you, will occur,” Biden told Johnson.
In criticizing the “defund” movement and blaming it for Democrats’ down-ballot disappointments, Biden is echoing centrists in the party, such as top Biden ally and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, and Rep. Conor Lamb. Former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served for eight years, recently called it a “snappy slogan” which “makes it a lot less likely you’re going to get the changes you want done.”
More-progressive members, most prominently Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have defended the grassroots activists who’ve brought the policy solution into the mainstream. They’ve said that an outdated approach to digital campaigning is to blame for the party’s losses, not the “defund” effort.
Biden stressed during the campaign that he wasn’t for defunding the police. And while he’s largely refrained from publicly opining on the Democratic finger-pointing in the House, his comments suggest he, too, blames Democrats’ loss of seats in the House and failure to take back the Senate on the aggressive push for an overhaul of policing in America—and not, say, the Biden campaign’s emphasis on President Donald Trump being an aberration in the Republican Party.
“That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police,” Biden told the civil rights leaders. “We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable.”