Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is getting a lot of advice right now on his vice presidential selection, and he’s considering a lot of factors: geography, chemistry, and preparedness. But there’s another factor that—as a codirector of an organization representing Black and brown communities in 35 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C.—I’m calling on him to carefully consider.
After months of protests, with millions of people in the streets demanding a real transformation in our criminal justice system, it’s become clearer to me that this moment in history demands that Biden not pick a former cop or prosecutor to be his running mate.
Since its inception, our policing system has been used to terrorize, subjugate, and, when necessary, kill Black people. The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks at the hands of the police have forced the rest of the country to face this uncomfortable truth. Finally, space is opening up for real, substantive change to systemic racism and policing in America.
Over the past few months, people across the country, including our members at the Center for Popular Democracy, have taken to the streets demanding radical transformation of our policing and criminal justice system, making Black Lives Matter not only the biggest movement in our nation’s history but also a defining issue in the upcoming presidential election. Former vice president Biden must stand with this movement, including the Black women who propelled him to the Democratic nomination, and make clear through policy and his VP choice that he is on the right side of justice and will put in place policies that protect Black people. This means he cannot have someone who has been a top cop or in the pocket of the police on the ticket, because doing so would not only signal that he is not committed to protecting Black lives but also might discourage the voters he needs to defeat Donald Trump.
It is heartening and inspiring that Biden has committed to selecting a woman as his running mate—and it’s long overdue—but it’s not sufficient. He must consider the dangers of choosing a candidate who has a history of perpetuating a violent criminal justice system that targets and destroys Black lives. Consider Senator Amy Klobuchar, once a top choice until her disastrous prosecutorial history rightly took her out of contention. Picking Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a former prosecutor, could be another unforced error.
Each of the former DAs and police chiefs in the running have question marks on their record that make them a risk to real change. In her time as a prosecutor in California, Senator Kamala Harris fought to uphold wrongful convictions that were secured through official misconduct, including evidence tampering, false testimony, and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors. She also backed policies that disproportionately harmed Black families, such as truancy laws and marijuana criminalization. In her career as police chief in Orlando, Fla., Representative Val Demings consistently sided with and defended police in police misconduct and abuse-of-power cases. This is not to say that either cannot make amends for their pasts, but this repentance must happen not only through words but also through actions, and that will take time, more time than Biden has before naming a running mate.
This is not an attack on individuals; it is about where the country is. We cannot satisfy the demand for justice by millions of protesters with a Democratic ticket that carries both the principal author of the 1994 crime bill and a prosecutor who helped uphold those discriminatory laws.
Biden has leaned on Black voters to power through the primary season, and now he needs to take their demands seriously. Data for Progress polled voters about their beliefs on police, police violence, the recent protests, and proposed reforms and found high levels of support, especially among Black voters, for an overhaul of the existing system of policing in the United States. Further analysis shows that the top issue for Black women, a key demographic, is criminal justice and police reform, followed by affordable health care. A poll from BlackPAC showed that Black women insist that candidates run on addressing systemic racism, including criminal justice and policing reform (48 percent).
Addressing systemic racism, mass incarceration, and police violence is possible, and there are candidates on the VP short list who are committed to doing that. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representative Barbara Lee, Representative Karen Bass, and Stacey Abrams have recognized the urgency of the moment. Warren topped the list of veep prospects Democratic voters want Biden to consider, according to a recent CBS News poll. Lee and Bass are top choices of progressive voters in recent polls, and in her race for governor of Georgia in 2018, Abrams broke Democratic turnout records in nearly every demographic, from Latinx voters to young voters. Black women have indicated that vice presidential candidates’ policy positions matter most, and all of these women work to further the policies supported by the most loyal constituency the Democratic Party has.
Additionally, through his VP choice, Biden can address some of his shortcomings on criminal justice.
Over his political career, he has designed and endorsed policies that have significantly exacerbated the problems progressive voters oppose. As a senator, he not only supported but also in many cases authored and championed laws that expanded mass incarceration, increased police powers, and exacerbated racial disparities in surveillance and sentencing. These laws broke apart Black communities and robbed many young Black people of a future. They are a part of the history that has led us to this moment, and their ongoing fallout has contributed to the outpourings of grief and anger we are seeing today.
Biden recently addressed cries to defund the police by calling for additional police reform (and more money for the troubling Community Oriented Policing Services grant program) rather than reallocation of police funding. This is in stark contrast to what activists are demanding around the country. New data from the Center for Popular Democracy shows why activists are right: The police continue to receive an astronomical percentage of discretionary funds compared with resources that actually keep communities safe. For Biden to make amends for the harm he helped cause would an important first step, but it would no longer be enough. In order to rise to this occasion, he must make a credible commitment to addressing systemic racism by choosing a VP who embodies that commitment and by putting forward a transformative and comprehensive policing and criminal justice platform that would shift how we approach public safety and allow Black communities in particular to thrive.
Yes, we need Biden to get Trump out of office and defeat Trumpism. But that’s not enough. The demands of the criminal justice movement have finally moved past reform to true transformation. We have a new vision of public safety that shifted from one of policing, incarceration, and surveillance to one of care, restoration, and community investment. We want leaders we believe share this vision and truly stand beside us in this fight. That means no prosecutors or police as America’s No. 2.