WASHINGTON - African American activist Jamira Burley is a staunch advocate of "defunding and abolishing" the police, a controversial proposal pushed by many progressives leading the Black Lives Matter protest movement.
But Burley, who spoke at the opening night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday, said she backs the party's policy platform, even though the document makes no mention of defunding the police.
"It’s a platform that I would rather support versus Donald Trump, who's being supported by the police union in New York, who actually have no desire to improve the conditions of how they operate," Burley told VOA.
That largely sums up how many progressives rallying around Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden feel about the party’s platform, a 92-page document covering a broad range of issues that was adopted by convention delegates Tuesday night.
On issues of criminal justice and police reform, Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, have been at odds with the left wing of the Democratic Party. Biden, the onetime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been criticized for championing the 1994 crime bill that fueled mass incarceration, while Harris has faced criticism of her own over her tough-on-crime record as a former California attorney general.
With the Black Lives Matter movement amplifying calls for racial justice and economic equity, Biden and Harris have been forced to strike a balance between the progressive demands and the need to appeal to a broader electorate.
The result has been that while the Democratic Party platform doesn't go far enough for many liberal Democrats, it reflects many of the demands advanced by the Black Lives Matter protest movement in the wake of the May 25 death of African American George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
President Donald Trump, who is seeking a second term, and his Republican allies have long accused Biden of bowing to progressive pressure. In a statement, a Trump campaign spokesperson said Biden is "now under the control of extreme elements of his party, who support communism, disavow the family structure, and demand the defunding and dismantling of our police departments.”
The Biden campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment but spokespeople for the former vice president have previously dismissed such allegations.
Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates accused Trump of struggling “in vain attempts to tear the American people apart and distract the country from his devastating mismanagement with clumsy, bigoted lies,” the AP reported.
Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said prominent African American members of Congress taking part in the convention, such as House Democratic Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, "have already begun the process to ensure [Biden’s] agenda was more reflective of the needs of the African American community.”
But it's not just Black politicians pressing the Biden campaign to address their concerns. Activists leading the Black Lives Matter movement have also sought to shape the Democratic National Convention platform. Last month, BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors pressed the DNC platform committee to make "sea changes" to the document.
While Cullors unsuccessfully tried to get the DNC platform committee to embrace the Breathe Act, a controversial criminal justice bill proposed by several progressive Democrats in Congress, Burley said change nonetheless has come.
"I do think that where the platform is now compared to where it was months ago shows that Joe Biden and many of his advisers are listening to what folks on the ground in communities across the country are actually saying about how they feel about our justice system, how broken it is," Burley said.
In addition to calling for an end to the death penalty and the war on drugs, the platform embraces several proposals pushed by protesters, including establishing national standards for police use of force and ensuring accountability for police misconduct.
The platform also calls for demilitarizing the police and breaking the "prison-to-school pipeline" that sees a disproportionate number of Black students arrested, instead of disciplined, for misconduct in school.
Burley noted that the platform calls for increased funding for schools as well as expanded access to mental health services.
“There's calls for ensuring that we're investing more in mental health for folks and not using the police as a way to answer those mental health calls in neighborhoods,” Burley said.
Conspicuously absent from the document is the progressive demand to “defund” the police, an idea that Biden opposes. Instead, the platform stresses the need to "reimagine public safety for the benefit of our people and the character of our country."
Johnson said that the concept of “defunding the police” means different things to different people. But he said it has helped “to force people to start looking at and thinking much more critically around how we were budgeting to address systemic issues in our communities.”
Defunding the police is not the only BLM proposal missing from the platform.
In a six-plank platform called "Vision for Black Lives" published in 2016 and recently updated, the BLM calls for "reparations" from the government and corporations, community control of local and federal law enforcement and schools, and the release of "political prisoners." None of those ideas have made it into the Democratic platform.
Johnson of the NAACP said that what ultimately matters is not what's included in the platform but rather what's eventually implemented by legislation or rule-making.