Biden’s convention embraced racial justice. BLM leaders saw it as mostly lip

The disappointment underscores the persistent divide between Biden’s campaign and many Black Lives Matter activists, even as they present a united front to oust President Donald Trump. It also showcases the careful line that Democrats are attempting to walk: While the Black Lives Matter movement has gone mainstream, most Americans tell pollsters they don’t support withholding money for police.

Biden is trying to straddle the demands of the movement without alienating swing voters. He spoke about the “stain of racism” in his nomination address without offering policy prescriptions. Though Biden likely stands to benefit politically from the seismic shift in support for Black Lives Matter, he kept the most activist element of the movement at bay during the four-day convention — even as he highlighted Republican politicians supporting him for president.

Biden’s campaign worked with progressives on police reform in the weeks leading up to the convention. On the first night, the virtual gathering focused on racial injustice, featuring a roundtable with the nominee on police violence and speeches on racism and inequality from Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn.

But many of the figures chosen to address systemic racism are the same politicians being targeted by the movement with pressure campaigns.

“It took seven years for Democrats to articulate that Black lives matter. Now, the country is watching to see if and how they will close the gap between symbolism and substance,” said Alicia Garza, another co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and head of the voter engagement group Black Futures Lab.

Garza and other movement leaders pointed to Democrats’ rejection of language aimed at limiting police abuses that activists pitched for the party’s platform. And the Biden campaign’s calls to “rein in” qualified immunity — which gives cops legal protections against civil suits brought by victims’ families for misconduct — have left many activists wondering what exactly he’s proposing.

Monifa Bandele, a leader in the Movement for Black Lives coalition, a coalition of more than 150 Black-led organizations, said she was heartened by the inclusion of Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, in Monday’s lineup. Garner was killed by police in 2014. But Bandele said the party should listen closely to Carr’s pleas for national legislation on police brutality.

“Don’t just give [Carr] the microphone, make sure that what she says on the microphone translates to a written commitment by the party,” Bandele said. “You can have a lot of talking heads at a convention saying a lot of great things, but unless you put it down on paper that these are the issues that we commit to addressing, moving forward with the new administration, then it’s performative.”

Activists are reacting to what they see as Biden’s election strategy: embracing the larger goal of the Black Lives Matter movement while courting swing white voters who want to address racial injustice but don’t think defunding the police is the answer.

“I may be kidding myself but I think the people are ready” for change, Biden said during the racial justice roundtable. Though Biden’s approach irks progressives — many bristled when he said “most cops are good” — it also frustrates the right. Trump’s campaign has simultaneously tried to cast Biden as a tool of the left whose administration would defund police, and a tough-on-crime politician who hasn’t changed his ways.

“I don’t expect him to suddenly sound like a member of ‘The Squad,’” said progressive Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), referring to the group of firebrand House liberals that includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “I expect him to build coalitions, listen, and get progressive change done. But if someone’s expecting him to turn into Bernie Sanders, that’s not going to happen.”

Schatz said Biden’s creation of “unity” task forces with Bernie Sanders as a way of bridging policy differences with progressives was “very senatorial” — using bipartisan techniques to collaborate with opposing forces in the party.

“Joe Biden is very effective at advancing the ball, but not feeling the need to fall into or even jump over every trap,” Schatz added.

In one critical battleground state, Pennsylvania, Democratic operatives said Biden’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement and statement at the convention that “most cops are good” made sense politically. Internal polling shows Black Lives Matter and the Fraternal Order of Police are both popular in the swing state, but defunding the police is not, said a Democratic strategist based there.

Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Biden, said the campaign is listening to activists but pushed back on the criticism that the party was insincere in its approach.

“I don’t think George Floyd’s brother, Philonise, thought that it was…

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