The first night of the Democratic National Convention featured a series of voter testimonials and speeches as well as a reserved conversation that centered on racial justice.
The first hour of the convention brought repeated references to the Black Lives Matter movement, the disproportionate number of Black Americans killed by police each year and the protests in several cities that roiled the nation this summer. But neither presumptive nominee Joe Biden nor the public figures who spoke made specific or related policy commitments to address various forms of racial injustice.
Biden held an online conversation with social justice activist Jamira Burley, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, and activist and author Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, a Black man killed during an arrest in New York in 2014. “Most cops are good, but the fact is that the bad ones have to be identified and prosecuted and out — period,” Biden said.
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In the moments before the conversation, Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., stood on a balcony overlooking the capital city area previously known as Lafayette Square but renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza by her administration when federal law enforcement clashed with and removed protesters from the square to make way for a Trump photo opportunity at a nearby church this summer. Bowser’s decision to have the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” painted on a street that runs between the White House and a nearby historic church where Trump addressed reporters and posed with a Bible has inspired similar public art in other cities.
However, in recent weeks, protesters in Washington have criticized Bowser’s opposition to one of the protest movement’s chief demands: reallocating funding from the city’s police department to social programs and services. Bowser, who backed the billionaire former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg during the Democratic presidential primary, described the plan to reallocate police funding as unsound and actively worked to block the change. Bloomberg’s candidacy ran aground, in part, because of his vociferous support for “stop and frisk” while mayor. A federal court ruled that police stopped black and Latino residents in a discriminatory and grossly disproportionate way. Bloomberg disavowed the policy when he launched his presidential campaign.
The seeming gap between Bowser’s convention night speech — describing support for a “reimaging of the nation” — and her position on police funding was not unique.
Lightfoot, whose comments on Monday night amounted to a call for increased economic opportunity for more Americans, has also faced criticism from protesters and other social justice advocates in Chicago. Those criticisms intensified Friday when Lightfoot announced plans to form a task force responsible for tracking protester social media activity for early indications of planned looting. Lightfoot also said at the same news conference that she would consider using tear gas should looting recur in that city.
Acevedo, the Houston police chief, offered convention viewers an uplifting take on the protests and debates that spread across the country this summer. Many police officers recognized the death of George Floyd — a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25 — as a departure from American norms, he said. But Acevedo has been the subject of long-running critiques from Houston police accountability activists who argue that he has refused to release police body cam footage from a recent series of police shootings.
“What a motley crew,” said Mary Frances Berry, a professor of American social thought and history at the University of Pennsylvania. “You should not expect the party to have anybody who might deviate from the party line and say something like the policing bill passed in the House would not do much of anything. I don’t expect hard truths to be told during a convention. It is about packaging and marketing. That’s what they are doing.”
Among the racial justice event’s most poignant speakers were relatives of Floyd.
“Our brother should be alive today,” said Philonise Floyd, George’s brother. “Breonna Taylor should be alive today. Eric Garner should be alive today. … Our actions will be their legacy.”
Floyd ended his comments by asking for a moment of silence.