Black Lives Matter activists have a message for Democrats blaming the party’s losses down-ballot on their call to “defund the police”: Show us the receipts.
In the wake of weekslong public attacks on the slogan by Democratic elected officials, movement leaders are mulling counteroffensives to push back on the criticism. A major theme of any response would be that moderate Democrats have failed to produce evidence to prove that the “defund” push caused unexpected defeats in House and Senate races. Instead, they say, the complaints are based on isolated anecdotes.
Without a defense, some organizers fear centrist Democrats could use the election results as an excuse to not tackle police reform, a major campaign promise made by President-elect Joe Biden.
“I am disappointed that this has been the post-election conversation and I have not seen the data sets to support it,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the nonprofit civil rights group Color of Change, a partner organization in the Black Lives Matter movement. “Which means that it's reflective because it's always easier to blame Black people.”
A half-dozen Black Lives Matter leaders said in interviews that they felt disrespected and frustrated by the debate over the slogan “defund the police,” instead of the fundamental policy pushed by protesters for systemic changes to policing. They said Democrats didn’t have a strategy to fight against GOP attack ads and are now blaming them for not doing the party’s job for it.
They also argued that organizers helped energize protesters around the election and registered them to vote, yet all they’re hearing is condemnation rather than appreciation. Others dismissed the initial infighting among Democrats as a clash taking place mostly on social media and removed from real people’s lives.
Robinson said he and other Black-led national organizations talked recently about an official rebuttal, but didn’t say when it would happen or what form it would take. The fact that they are planning a potential response is one of several signs the growing Black Lives Matter movement is coordinating at a level it wasn't eight years ago, including the fact that it launched a political action committee in October.
The movement's messaging will continue to “evolve in different ways,” Robinson said. But he took particular issue with comments by Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.). The senior House Democrat made the media rounds in the election aftermath, blaming the rallying cry to “defund the police” for Democrats’ losing a South Carolina House seat they flipped in 2018.
“Telling folks that the activism, and the pushback, and the challenge that we've had to the racist and deadly policing that's been in our communities somehow was the reason why Democrats couldn't win a seat in South Carolina is not only unfortunate, but it's disrespectful to people who understand politics as well,” said Robinson.
Cliff Albright, co-founder of the group Black Voters Matter, which mobilized voters in Georgia and other Southern states, said national Black Lives Matter organizers need to present a united front.
“If ‘defund’ was such a problem, then how do you explain that [suburban] shift for Biden?” Albright said, referring to the massive surge in the suburbs for the president-elect, despite President Donald Trump’s attempts to scare those voters with racist tropes. “There needs to be a response. We got to control the narrative because it'll become a narrative that keeps us from being able to move further and faster on these issues.”
Biden campaigned on police reform and used images from Black Lives Matter protests in his advertising, while other Democrats attended demonstrations during the election. But the clash between some Democrats and activists after the election wasn’t unexpected: From racial justice protesters to climate change activists to former Bernie Sanders aides, the left flank of the Democratic Party worked to elect Biden while making it clear it would take him on as soon as he won.
But the speed at which things fell apart was jarring to many. And the post-election spin is taking on a different tone than Democrats had hoped: Instead of sharing credit for a Democratic presidential blowout, progressives and moderates are fighting over who is at fault for losing seats they thought they’d hold onto or flip.
If Black Lives Matter activists lose the PR battle, that could hamper efforts to push police reform and other changes through Congress.
“This is the tip of the spear. They’re using this ‘defund’ fight as a proxy for a broader ideological fight,” Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, said of moderate Democrats. “What they want to do is frame the terms of the debate in 2021, and they want to frame what are the ideas, what is the policy terrain that is too far to the left to actually be part of serious policy conversation.”
Discussions are in the early stages, but Black Lives Matter organizers are considering writing a memo or convening a press conference about the electoral impact of the nationwide protests this year.
Mitchell, a leader with the Movement for Black Lives coalition, said the movement actually helped Democrats this election cycle. He pointed to data that shows a relationship between the June Black Lives Matter protests and a spike in voter registrations. He also said a significant number of the millions of rallygoers also voted and volunteered in the election.
DeRay Mckesson, co-founder of the racial justice group Campaign Zero, said the pummeling of defunding the police is a “smoke screen” put up by some officials who are punting on police reforms. In upcoming legislative sessions, he said, local and national lawmakers are not going to be able to avoid the issue.
“It's like a very Internet conversation,” he said. “There's not a single organizing community I'm in, like an actual community, where I see people like fighting about the phrase.”
However, McKesson added, communities across the country attempting to reform police departments interpret “defund” in a variety of ways.
“If people are confused about something, part of our responsibility is to make people less confused — forget the [Democratic] Party,” he said.
Several movement leaders said it is the job of elected Democrats — not their job — to develop a counterattack to GOP mud-slinging campaign attacks.
“If they felt like this was an issue, then they could have hired a different [communications] director, came up with a different way to reconstruct their narrative,” said Rep.-elect Cori Bush (D-Mo.), an incoming progressive who campaigned on her bona fides as a Black Lives Matter activist. “Blaming us isn’t it.”
Plus, Bush added, if lawmakers had previously fixed the problem of police violence, “there would not be a conversation about defunding the police.”