There was a fleeting moment after the killing of George Floyd when President Donald Trump seemed open to some semblance of dialogue about systematic racism and police brutality when he called Floyd’s death a “grave tragedy” that filled Americans with “horror, anger and grief.”
But with peaceful protests continuing for the 12th day on Saturday, Trump and his campaign team showed this week that his baser instincts – divide, attack, polarize – will prevail. His passing attempt at words of healing gave way to his calls for domination of protesters in the streets, the shocking clash between federal authorities and peaceful protesters that cleared the way for his photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, an effort to malign Washington, DC’s black mayor as “grossly incompetent,” and then a text message from his campaign Saturday declaring: “Liberal THUGS are destroying our streets. Restore LAW & ORDER!” Trump hasn’t let up.
On Sunday, in another stunning rebuke from a retired general, former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned Trump’s response to the protests and said he would vote for former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
“We have a Constitution, and we have to follow that Constitution. And the President has drifted away from it,” Powell told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union,” echoing the criticism of Trump’s former Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, a retired Marine general.
“Look at what he has done to divide us,” said Powell, who served under President George W. Bush. “He lies about things and he gets away with it, because people will not hold him accountable.”
Trump lashed out at Powell on Twitter shortly after his interview, blasting the former Bush official as “a real stiff” and Biden as “another stiff.” The President also lashed out at the former secretary of state for his role in presenting the US’ case against Iraq to the United Nations in 2003.
Powell said Trump’s pattern of insulting anybody who dares to speak against him “is dangerous for our Democracy.” “I think what we’re seeing now is (the most) massive protest movement I have ever seen in my life. I think suggests the country is getting wise to this and we’re not going to put up with it anymore,” Powell said.
The efforts by Trump and his allies to incite fear and amplify falsehoods about the protests created a striking contrast Saturday with the images of thousands of protesters of all races walking together in solidarity at huge demonstrations in DC, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – a reminder that the nation is now at an inflection point.
The central question that lingers over the demonstrations is whether they will produce actual change. Or, if the President has his way, will the energy of the protests simply be viewed as another red-blue issue where some cities and states make policing policy changes while Trump and his allies use fear of change as a cudgel in the upcoming elections.
Demonstrator Olivia Butler reflected on that uncertainty as she marched down Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC, Saturday.
“I’m very thankful that all the support is out here from young people to old people, all different races. I think it is great they’re out here now but I am a little skeptical about if it is authentic,” Butler told CNN’s Boris Sanchez Saturday. “This is not something that is going to be solved with a week’s worth of marches, or something that’s going to be solved with a month’s worth of marches.”
“It is something that’s going to be solved through legislation, through new precedents being set in our legal system, and then social change so people’s mindsets [are] changing so we don’t keep fostering the sense of underlying racial bias in the country. …This is not a fight only in these streets while we’re marching.”
Signs of policy change in some US cities
On Monday in Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus plans to lay out the Justice in Policy Act of 2020, which aims to create greater accountability for police in the courts, improve police training, mandate the duty of officers to intervene, ban chokeholds and carotid holds, and limit the use of military-grade equipment by state and local government. The legislation is being introduced by a group of Democratic lawmakers: Reps. Karen Bass of California and Jerry Nadler of New York and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.
At the same time that protesters and news outlets chronicled fresh instances of police using excessive force against protesters this week, there were some early signs of policy change in a handful of cities around the United States.
In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would work toward a statewide standard for policing peaceful protests and ending the carotid hold, along with similar techniques. “Protesters have the right to protest peacefully—not to be harassed. Not to be shot at by rubber bullets or tear gas,” he tweeted. “Today I am calling for the creation of a new statewide standard for use of force in protests. Acts of violence against peaceful protesters will not be tolerated.”
On Saturday, the Sacramento Police Department announced it was suspending the use of the carotid control hold, a form of chokehold that cuts off the flow of blood through the major artery that supplies blood to the head and brain.
The Minneapolis City Council voted to ban chokeholds Friday. The decision, which still needs approval from a judge, would also require officers to report fellow police who they see using chokeholds and intervene.
Minneapolis Public Schools terminated their contract with the Minneapolis Police Department last week, which had provided school resource officers to local schools. The University of Minnesota also cut ties with the police department.
“George Floyd died on the street slowly and deliberately strangled and our children watched,” Minneapolis school board member Jenny Arenson said during the meeting of the Minneapolis Board of Education Tuesday. “Minneapolis police, individual officers and the city have work to do. And until they demonstrate they have done that work, we need to separate our relationship.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Sunday on CNN’s “Inside Politics” that the city has convened a commission to review its use of force policies.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a task force to review police department policies, as some police chiefs around the country have expressed openness to reexamining use of force policies.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo drew national attention by responding to Trump’s call to governors to “dominate” in the streets by telling the President on CNN: “If you don’t have something constructive to say, keep your mouth shut.”
But he has come under fire for refusing to release footage from several officer-involved shootings earlier this year. During a press conference Saturday morning with families of those slain, Acevedo stood by his position that the footage should be withheld because of the grief it would cause family members of those killed.
The local move that got the most attention on social media was DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s decision to create Black Lives Matter Plaza spanning two blocks of 16th Street. She had the city paint “Black Lives Matter” in giant yellow letters on the street that leads to the White House – so large that it was captured by satellite photo from space. It was a forceful salvo in her ongoing feud with Trump, who spent the week in an increasingly fenced off White House.
While many praised the move on a day when tens of thousands of people took to the streets in DC, the DC Chapter of Black Lives Matter Global Network called the street mural a “performative distraction from real policy changes” and said Bowser “has consistently been on the wrong side of BLMDC history.”
“This is to appease white liberals while ignoring our demands,” the group tweeted from the account @DMVBlackLives. “Black Lives Matter means defund the police.”
CNN’s Alex Marquardt spotted black graffiti on the yellow lettering in Black Lives Matter Plaza Friday night that said “Not good enough.”
Calls to defund police create potential risks for Democrats
The rallying cry to defund police from some quarters of the black community and some progressive groups will undoubtedly become a flashpoint as the presidential campaign heats up.
Many conservatives on Twitter have already sought to suggest that defunding the police is now part of the Democrats’ agenda – an argument that could complicate the reelection prospects of former Vice President Joe Biden as well as more moderate Democrats in swing districts in November.
View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling
During a town hall Thursday evening moderated by actor Don Cheadle, Biden was asked whether he agreed with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposal to cut the Los Angeles Police Department budget and re-appropriate $150 million dollars to communities of color that are suffering.
“I think it makes sense,” Biden responded. “Some places, they’re short on having enough people to cover the community, others, the police departments have a lot more than they need. And so, it depends on the community, but it’s all about treating people with dignity, just treating people with dignity, period. And then setting down basic fundamental rules that relate to what constitutes adequate and fair police conduct.”
During an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson told Tapper that defunding police departments “makes absolutely no sense.”
“Let’s not be fooled. Let’s not be seduced into accepting silly things that make absolutely no sense because we want to honor somebody,” Carson said, alluding to Floyd’s death. “Let’s just make sure that we think this thing through. Think about the consequences.”
When asked about the calls to “defund the police” on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Booker, a former presidential candidate, said he clearly understands the sentiment behind the slogan, but that it was not one he would use. The New Jersey senator said he shares the view that “we are over-policed as a society” and that investing in police “is not solving problems, but making them worse.”
On Saturday, former DC police chief and former Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey, who led a task force on 21st century policing for former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, also cautioned against defunding the police.
“How are you going to actually go about implementing that? And if you defund police, what is it that you are willing to sacrifice that police are currently doing that you no longer want them to do?” Ramsey said in an interview with CNN’s Ana Cabrera.
Ramsey called for thoughtful discussion before any kind of action is taken: “Right now I’m hearing too much extreme rhetoric, in my opinion, but that’s not to say that there can’t be something done in terms of directing funds to areas in which it’s desperately needed.”
This story has been updated with additional interviews from news shows on Sunday.