Biden’s anti-Trump approach to racial justice flashpoints
The president has kept a low profile amid two emotionally charged trials, but that’s left people on both sides of the political divide dissatisfied.
KENOSHA — There are no Twitter rants. No threats of calling in tanks to break up violent protests. No warnings that ”when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
As two high-profile, emotionally charged trials — that of Kenosha, Wisc., shooter Kyle Rittenhouse and three men convicted of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery — came to their dramatic conclusions in recent weeks, President Joe Biden has in every way attempted to be the anti-Donald Trump.
He has kept a low profile, working behind the scenes to keep the peace both on the streets of America — where there have been limited protests — and within the realm of his party.
Ahead of the Rittenhouse verdict, the president was in touch with Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers to discuss safety measures in Kenosha. He called law enforcement groups in recent months to gauge their frustrations, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversations. And last week — as the Rittenhouse jury deliberated — he signed three bills that boosted benefits for local and federal law enforcement, while his Justice Department released $139 million to fund more police officers across the country. At the same time, a division within the DOJ has been working with local community groups to train leaders on de-escalation techniques.
That’s a stark contrast with the fulsome embrace of Rittenhouse on the right, punctuated by the 18-year-old’s lengthy interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson and a visit with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. But, for Biden, the effort to lower the temperature carries its own set of risks, namely leaving voters on both ends of the political spectrum wanting more from him.
“He’s had to tailor his positions to reflect the deeply held beliefs and aspirations and hopes for all people on the left, on the right and in the middle. And oftentimes when you do that, other people on the left or the right or the middle — sometimes all of them — will feel like the president isn't giving us everything we need or everything that we work for,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police. “What he's trying to do is give everybody the best that they can get in a united country.”
Biden has long rejected calls from the left wing of his own party to “defund the police” and vowed during the 2020 presidential campaign that he would instead invest more money in police departments. Amid a spike in violent crime in major cities around the country over the past year, he’s signaled to law enforcement that he has their backs. At the same time, he’s promised civil rights advocates and other progressives that he will pursue substantive police reform. He has also spoken out against vigilante justice, as Rittenhouse’s actions were characterized when he shot three people, killing two, amid violent confrontations after last year’s racial justice protests in Kenosha.
But Rittenhouse was found to have acted in self-defense by the jury considering his cases. And Biden’s administration has so far fallen short in pushing police reform through Congress, where sweeping bipartisan legislation stalled.
The left is growing impatient. The breakdown of the negotiations in Congress has only added to their frustration with inaction, increasing calls to change the filibuster. While the White House has said the president plans to sign executive orders to target law enforcement overreach, those would only apply to federal law enforcement, which makes up approximately 5 percent of the overall policing workforce in the country, according to Pasco.
Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said Biden is “definitely not moving fast enough. Not only in terms of legislation but also regarding executive actions he could be taking.”
Though Albright ultimately said the GOP is at fault because they were “never serious about passing such legislation,” he said police reform is “definitely taking a back seat to [Biden’s] economic agenda.”
Civil rights advocates say they’re still pushing the administration to stay focused on measures to reform law enforcement practices, citing continued excessive force allegations against police.
“We are focused on supporting the DOJ Civil Rights Divisions — for these issues it is action plus words that count, and we see a newly assertive DOJ that takes its role seriously — unlike the misfeasance and neglect of the prior DOJ, which failed in its duties spectacularly,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
Their sense of urgency was echoed in the left’s reactions to the Rittenhouse and Arbery verdicts.
“What we are witnessing is a system functioning as designed and protecting those it was designed for,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted after Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges.
“Our justice system is broken. It protects white supremacy,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib added on Twitter following the Rittenhouse verdict. “The two people who were killed deserved justice and so did our communities who continue be targeted with violence like this.”
Biden, on the other hand, opted for an understated approach to the news that Rittenhouse had been cleared in the shooting deaths of two people, saying he accepted the jury’s verdict. Later that day in a statement, however, he added that the verdict in Kenosha “will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included.” But, he reiterated, “we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken.”
After guilty verdicts were rendered against the three men accused of killing Arbery, Biden released a similarly calm, if somber, statement calling the killing “a devastating reminder of how far we have to go in the fight for racial justice in this country.” He made only a vague reference to how his administration would tackle reforms in the criminal justice system, saying it would “continue to do the hard work to ensure that equal justice under law is not just a phrase emblazoned in stone above the Supreme Court, but a reality for all Americans.”
Biden’s Justice Department has taken a similarly reserved approach. It concluded it would not level charges against police involved in the 2020 shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was left paralyzed after a white officer shot him as Blake attempted to flee, sparking the Kenosha protests that drew Rittenhouse and others to the city. The shooting came shortly after the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a white policeman in Minneapolis, Minn. On the campaign trail Biden declared that officers “at a minimum” should face charges. He also linked Rittenhouse to white supremacists during the presidential campaign.
The mixture of violence and racial tension ultimately became the focus of the 2020 presidential race for much of the summer, with both Trump and Biden visiting Wisconsin after the Blake shooting and the deadly protest at which Rittenhouse killed two people.
But things have changed dramatically since then. Last week after the Rittenhouse verdict, Kenosha remained quiet. While some demonstrators stood on the courthouse steps holding signs and keeping a vigil as the trial went on, their protests did not turn violent.
“President Biden ran on a promise to lower the temperature in our politics and bring Americans together,” White House spokesperson Mike Gwin said. “We know there’s still much more work to be done, but in ways large and small the President has helped us begin to turn the page on the hateful, divisive, rhetoric we saw emanate from the previous White House and poison our country."