Progressives and conservatives alike are quickly moving to seize political advantage in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody and outraged protests over law enforcement brutality toward African Americans.
Reaction to Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis is rapidly becoming a partisan demarcation line, serving as shorthand for separating President Trump’s supporters from his opponents, Republicans from Democrats and police supporters from those calling for sweeping changes in the ways laws are enforced — and who enforces them.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed says she intends to cut the city’s police budget and move the money to programs for the city’s black community, noting that Floyd’s brutal death at the hands of police and the protests that followed “have brought forward the devastating impacts of police violence against African Americans in this country.”
The president painted the decisions by Breed and other mayors like Democrat Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles to trim police budgets as nothing more than a partisan attack on cops and law enforcement.
“The Radical Left Democrats new theme is ‘Defund the Police.’ Remember that when you don’t want crime, especially against you and your family,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “I am the complete opposite, more money for Law Enforcement! #LAWANDORDER”
While leaders of both parties agree that Floyd’s death is a national tragedy, they are also treating it as a landmark event in the 2020 presidential campaign.
“The contrast between Trump and Vice President (Joe) Biden could not be more clear,” said a blog post by the Democratic National Committee. “As Trump pours salt in the wounds and inflames racial divisions, Biden provides healing leadership our country desperately needs.”
The Republican National Committee provided its own contrast.
“While Democrats like Joe Biden and Hollywood elitists continue to support lawlessness and destruction, President Trump is promoting law and order to seek justice for George Floyd,” the committee said on its blog.
And the dispute isn’t just between Republicans and Democrats. In San Francisco, Jackie Fielder, who is running against fellow Democrat Scott Wiener in his state Senate re-election race in November, challenged the former supervisor to refuse any contributions from law enforcement and give back any money he received. Wiener did so and donated the contributions to youth groups.
Law enforcement unions are different from the other labor organizations that typically back Democratic candidates, since they have “a monopoly on violence,” Fielder said. “Teachers aren’t murdering people, police are.”
Law enforcement money goes everywhere
Like most of the state’s largest special interests, the Peace Officers Research Association of California spreads its political contributions widely, supporting both Democrats and Republicans in races ranging from city council and county supervisor to the Legislature and the governor.
Far and wide: Since 2017, the 67-year-old organization has spent about $3 million on its political operations, including campaign contributions to candidates across the state. The support flows not only into city council races in major California cities like Los Angeles, Fresno and Oakland, but also to contests in places like Clovis (Fresno County), El Segundo (Los Angeles County), Fontana (San Bernardino County) and Chico.
The police group was involved in board of supervisors campaigns in Alameda, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, as well as in Butte, Sutter and Placer counties.
Both parties: It has given $465,000 to the California Democratic Party since 2017 and $52,000 to the California Republican Party.
Bay Area lawmakers: In the Bay Area, state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco received money from the group, as did fellow Democrats Assemblymen Phil Ting of San Francisco, Evan Low of San Jose, Marc Berman of Palo Alto and Tim Grayson of Concord.
Variety of offices: District Attorney Lori Frugoli of Marin County took the group’s money in 2018, as did District Attorney Nancy O’Malley of Alameda County. BART board members Liz Ames and Mark Foley, San Francisco Community College District trustee Thea Selby and three members of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors — Matt Haney, Rafael Mandelman and Gordon Mar — were all backed by the law enforcement group, as was Jane Kim in her unsuccessful 2018 run for mayor.
— Source: California secretary of state
The shift from tragic event to political opportunity shouldn’t surprise anyone, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“Everything is political now,” she said. “People don’t read from the same script, they read from a blue script or a red script. … Rodney King’s question, ‘Can we all get along?’ now seems hopelessly naive.”
Police across the country know they’re in the middle of the political firefight, said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the state’s largest law enforcement organization with 77,000 members.
Law enforcement groups “are definitely an easy target now,” he said. “You’re going to see a pitch to limit or not allow us to contribute to campaigns.”
That’s already started. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton and San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar called for a ban last week on police union contributions to elected prosecutors, calling it a conflict of interest, since prosecutors can file charges against police officers.
“I wonder if that (ban) extends to other interest groups, since the district attorney prosecutes everyone,” Marvel said.
In some cases, the district attorneys were already on poor terms with police unions. Marvel’s group gave $5,000 to a group opposing Boudin’s election last year and in January gave $100,000 to Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, whom Gascón is challenging in November.
The “Defund the Police” movement is gaining traction not only in California but across the country. In Minneapolis, nine members of the City Council said Sunday they would dismantle the city police department and replace it with “a new model of public safety,” according to the council president.
In dueling TV appearances Sunday, Black Lives Matters co-founder Alicia Garza said defunding the police means taking some of those law enforcement resources and spending them on programs needed by the community, while Chad Wolf, acting secretary of homeland security, called the defunding idea “an absurd assertion.”
With disputes like that heating up across the country, Republican and Democratic leaders are content to use Floyd’s death and its aftermath as a dividing line that can be used in the fall campaigns, ramping up the rhetoric without concern about any effect beyond the November vote totals.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for political free-for-all, said Levinson of Loyola.
“You don’t see Democrats asking if it’s really a good idea to defund police departments,” she said. “And how many Republicans are saying, ‘We should go out and protest’?”