‘Defund the Police’ Splits the Black Caucus. Or Does It?

What will the “conscience of Congress” look like now?

Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call / Getty

Across the nation, protesters chanted “Defund the police.” They scrawled the phrase on signs, emblazoned it on banners, and painted it on streets. But among the Congressional Black Caucus, which likes to call itself the “conscience of Congress,” many lawmakers who shared the protesters’ rage did not join the chorus. “That’s probably one of the worst slogans ever,” Representative Karen Bass, the chair of the group, told The Washington Post, before quickly pivoting to a discussion on how substance-abuse or mental-health issues should not be handled by police. Other members of the CBC toed the same line: Redefine policing. Restructure the police. “What the hell do you do with a structural problem? You restructure it,” Representative James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, told me. Even the late Representative John Lewis, whose funeral was yesterday, didn’t explicitly support defunding—although he insisted that the activists pushing the idea be heard.

Still, some members of the CBC did not share their colleagues’ apprehension about the phrase. “Not only do we need to disinvest from the police, but we need to completely dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department,” Representative Ilhan Omar told protesters at a rally in June. Representative Ayanna Pressley, who alongside Representative Rashida Tlaib threw her support behind the Breathe Act, which would eliminate some federal programs that finance police, defended the defund movement, saying it was “about the investment in our communities, which have historically been divested from.”

The debate set up an easy dichotomy: Older, more moderate members of the CBC had diverged from the younger, progressive flank. The moderates chased incremental change; the progressives wanted radical action. The split in the caucus is paralleled in the country writ large: Just 18 percent of Baby Boomers, regardless of party, support calls to defund the police, while 38 percent of Millennials and 54 percent of Gen Zers do, according to a June Politico/Morning Consult poll.

Yet the disagreement obscured the fact that most CBC members were saying similar things. “We should take a lot of emergency issues out of policing,” Clyburn said. In an interview with Time, Pressley sang a similar tune. “Why are we deploying the police when there is an individual who’s battling mental illness? We should be deploying a mental-health clinician.” Although 50 percent of Black people supported the idea of defunding the police in the Politico poll, that number jumped to 61 percent when the question was whether or not they support redirecting funds from police to schools or other community programs. As my colleague Annie Lowrey noted, the two ideas are often one and the same.

The younger group has, however, been adding to its ranks. Last month, Jamaal Bowman, a Black public-school principal, won his primary against longtime New York Representative Eliot Engel. Bowman campaigned on progressive causes such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All—and echoed calls to defund the police. Prominent CBC members—Clyburn, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Representative Maxine Waters, and others—had endorsed Engel, the incumbent.

Caucus leaders’ endorsements were reminiscent of their decision to endorse Michael Capuano, another white incumbent, over Pressley in 2018. “I wouldn’t expect them to endorse me because I’m Black … I would expect them to endorse me because I’m the more viable candidate,” Bowman told my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere in June. “Unfortunately, the way the system works now is: They’ve known Congressman Engel for decades. They have a relationship with him. They work with him, so they chose to endorse him.”

But not all of the older members of the CBC can be accurately portrayed as moderates, even compared with Bowman or Omar. “There’s been a very reductive, binary narrative that paints the CBC as this monolith of moderate black voices in Congress and then progressives as outsiders,” Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, told me. That has not been true for at least as long as Representative Barbara Lee—one of the most progressive members of Congress—has been in office, he said.

The entire caucus, young and old, has long championed systemic reforms in education, health care, housing, and policing. Each year, the caucus submits an alternative budget that aims to address racial disparities. “But for 22 years,” Representative Gregory Meeks told me, “that budget has basically been ignored and not taken seriously.” The current awakening among white liberals, he suggested, will change that calculation. A new Gallup poll found that roughly two-thirds of Americans support the recent protests against racial injustice—and 53 percent believe the demonstrations will increase public support for equality.

Those who are now ready to confront systemic racism will be meeting many members of the CBC where they have always been. Until he died of pancreatic cancer earlier this month, Lewis was the longest-serving member of the caucus. If the CBC is Congress’s conscience, Lewis was its soul. And like Lewis, many of the caucus’s elder statesmen were once activists themselves. Clyburn helped organize the first sit-ins in South Carolina. Following Lewis’s death, several members redoubled their commitment to his work. Clyburn introduced a bill to rename the legislation that would modernize the Voting Rights Act after Lewis, whose life’s work was perfecting American democracy.

Lewis never thought of himself as particularly special, President Barack Obama noted to those who gathered yesterday at Ebenezer Baptist Church to celebrate Lewis’s life. “John never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country can do,” Obama said. “He believed that in all of us there exists the capacity for great courage. That in all of us, there’s a longing to do what’s right.” Every member of the CBC knows that combatting systemic racism has always been about more than just policing. Despite their policy differences—and disagreements over language—that realization is what truly unites them.