by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In a little-remarked vote in early March, House Democrats passed—again—the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, their signature proposal to “reform” policing in the wake of last summer’s widespread protests.
Two weeks later, the Movement for Black Lives came out against it. The coalition of more than 150 groups including the Black Lives Matter network blasted the bill, in a letter to congressional leadership, as a recapitulation of “incrementalist reforms.”
This condemnation is a departure from the atmosphere of unity nine months ago, when Republicans and Democrats alike were floating proposals to overhaul policing nationwide. At the time, 95 percent of Americans endorsed the idea of at least minor changes to the criminal justice system, according to a poll conducted by the Associated Press and National Opinion Research Center.
The bills put forward last June offered a similar slate of proposals: mandatory use-of-force reporting, more money for body cameras, a ban on chokeholds—or, in Sen. Tim Scott’s (R., S.C.) bill, a ban on funding police departments that don’t ban chokeholds—and a ban on no-knock raids. The two bills differed primarily over changes to the legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity,” which protects police officers from prosecution in certain circumstances.
With all of that popular energy, what happened?
The two sides have blamed each other, and the usual partisan gridlock. But the loss of a major organizing backer suggests another challenge to Democrats’ reform agenda: the party’s activist base. This dynamic not only challenges the possibility of effective reform—it could also cost Democrats much-needed voters as, evidence suggests, it already did in the surprisingly tight 2020 presidential race.
While Democratic leaders assiduously avoided growing calls from the party’s left flank to defund the police, activists embraced it.