How George Floyd shifted Biden’s reality

Before a jury found Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of all three charges in the murder of George Floyd last month, President Biden had already made his own views about the trial known to the public. 

“I’m praying the verdict is the right verdict,” Biden told reporters in the Oval Office, as the country waited for the decision. “Which is … I think it’s overwhelming in my view.”

In the same comments, the president talked about getting to know Floyd’s family since Chauvin, who is white, pinned Floyd, a Black man, down with his knee during an arrest, killing him. Biden talked about the “pressure and anxiety” the family — who will visit the White House on Tuesday — was facing as the case reached a conclusion. 

“I waited until the jury was sequestered and I called,” Biden said at the time. “They’re a good family.”

It was a remarkable and rare moment, since presidents are usually careful not to give their feelings about an active high-profile trial before a verdict. But it highlighted how much Floyd and the movement sparked by his death transformed the country and impacted then-candidate Biden.

A year after Floyd’s murder, those around Biden say the killing left an indelible mark on him personally and became a turning point for some of his policies. 

“I think for him, it sort of made it more real, like it did for a lot of Americans,” said one longtime adviser. “To see a black man killed in public, to see the inhumanity.” 

Historian Michael Eric Dyson said the president opined about Floyd at a recent meeting with a larger group of academics at the White House. “I think he was definitely changed by it,” Dyson said in an interview. “It gave him a greater sense of responsibility to make sure things are different.”

During the presidential campaign last year, Biden was slammed for his support of a 1994 crime bill blamed for jailing thousands of Black men and women on drug crimes. He was also criticized for having outdated views on race, even by his eventual running mate, Vice President Harris, at a 2019 debate.

Yet Biden would not have won the presidency without the support of Black votes in the primary, who recognized his years as former President Obama’s vice president.

“He is no Johnny-come-lately,” Dyson said. “He has been with us on this trip and he knows our stories.” 

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said the last year pushed Biden “out of the 1990s mentality of centrism and toward a deeper understanding of institutional racism.”

“The combination of Trump, with his endless appeals to white backlash politics, and a movement that insisted public policy must change at basic levels, moved him into a new place intellectually,” he added.

“The question is, how does it translate into an agenda?” Zelizer added. 

During a joint address to Congress earlier this month, Biden urged Congress to pass a police reform bill in Floyd’s name, saying Democrats and Republicans were “engaged in productive discussions.” 

“We need to work together to find a consensus,” Biden said, setting a deadline of May 25, the first anniversary of Floyd’s death.

That deadline will be missed, yet there is real progress happening toward a police reform bill, which would be a remarkable bipartisan achievement.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday said the administration is confident in the negotiations on Capitol Hill, which involve Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.Y.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.).

“All of the negotiators are continuing to press forward on working to find common ground to get this done. The president wants to sign it into law. And, of course, the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, something that impacted the president personally and deeply as it impacted millions of Americans, was a moment to call for action, to call for forward movement. But the negotiators, by all accounts, are continuing to make progress,” Psaki told reporters. “That is a positive sign.”

“We are not going to slow our efforts to get this done, but we can also be transparent about the fact that it’s going to take a little bit more time. Sometimes that happens, that’s OK,” she added.

The administration has also taken action independent of Congress to try to enact reform, though its powers are extremely limited.

The Justice Department launched a pattern-or-practice investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department a day after Chauvin’s conviction. Attorney General Merrick Garland has also rescinded a Trump-era memo restricting the use of consent decrees to reform police departments accused of misconduct.

Biden’s efforts have moved beyond police reform. The COVID-19 relief measure included language seeking to address racial inequalities, and the president has also vowed to stop voting rights restrictions, which he called “un-American” and “sick” in a press conference earlier this year. 

“Voting rights has become a must pass,” said Joel Payne, the Democratic strategist. “I don’t think Biden can give it the old college try. He must do it. Police reform is secondary to that.”

Those close to Biden say they realize some of his political viability is dependent upon his ability to push for lasting change. 

“I think he’s always understood what Black and brown people face every day,” the longtime adviser said. “But now he really gets it. It changed his heart in a way.” 

Tags Black Lives Matter Cory Booker Jen Psaki Joe Biden Karen Bass Merrick Garland police reform Tim Scott voting rights

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