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At the Vice Presidential Debate Last Night, No One Mentioned Defunding the Police

A generally lackluster face-off between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris last night served as a reminder that, despite this year’s unprecedented national uprising, neither Democrats nor (of course) Republicans are showing any sign of embracing the agenda of this year’s anti–police violence movement.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris and US vice president Mike Pence participate in the vice presidential debate on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Asked whether he believes that Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police officers on March 13 in Louisville, Kentucky, received justice (no officers are being charged for her death), vice president Mike Pence said, among other things, that he and president Donald Trump will “do what we’ve done since day one, which is improve the lives of African-Americans: record unemployment, record investments in education, and we’ll fight for school choice.” Presumably, he meant to say “record employment,” and his slip of the tongue — coming just after Trump quashed a second stimulus bill, ensuring a new wave of unemployment — was karmic retribution. (While Pence spoke, a fly landed on his head, suggesting, in case it wasn’t clear, that he is full of shit.)

Donald Trump and the Republican Party have made opposition to the movement against police violence a signature theme of the 2020 presidential election. While the party’s agenda remains the same as it has been for decades —  tax cuts for the rich, and deregulation — its rhetoric focuses on what conservatives are partial to describing as the war zone of our cities, with an emphasis on riotous protestors. Indeed, Pence brought Flora Westbrook, whose nail salon was burned down in the days of unrest that followed George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as a guest to the debate, mentioning her in response to the question about Taylor.

In contrast to Pence’s emphasis on supporting law enforcement, Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris began her response to the question of whether justice was served in the case of Taylor’s murder by stating, “I do not believe so.” “I believe strongly that, first of all, we are never going to condone violence, but we always must fight for the values that we hold dear,” she continued, stating that a Biden administration would ban chokeholds, require a national registry for officers who break the law, get rid of cash bail and private prisons, and decriminalize marijuana while expunging the records of those convicted of marijuana possession.

Next to Pence’s police worship and feigned incredulity that Harris, a former prosecutor, would question the findings of the grand jury that investigated Taylor’s case — one member of the grand jury is currently in revolt, it should be noted, accusing Kentucky’s attorney general of preventing them from bringing charges against the officers for Taylor’s death — it was a substantive answer.

But the spectrum of political possibility between the Democratic and Republican parties remains too narrow, and neither party shows any indication that this will change anytime soon. The movement that swept the country this summer is demanding the diversion of money now lavished on police into communities, a vision no one on the debate stage will go anywhere near.

At the debate, Harris called her prosecutorial record a “model” of what a Biden administration could accomplish on criminal justice reform. While that record contains a few progressive stances, it also includes several causes for concern: in particular, her support for prosecuting the parents of truant children, and her denial of health care for trans inmates. She only came around on legalizing marijuana in 2018.

Biden, for his part, opposes defunding the police. When asked about the subject at a town hall earlier this week, he said that he’s going to bring together “peaceful protestors, police chiefs, police officers, the police unions, as well as the civil rights groups, in the White House and sit down and decide what are the things that need to be done to improve and help police officers.” He continued by reiterating that he is “the one who is talking about increasing police budgets.”

That isn’t to say that the Biden-Harris ticket is worse than Trump-Pence on criminal justice reform; it’s not. The latter’s agenda, insofar as they can be said to have one, is atrocious. But despite the GOP’s insistence that Biden is nothing but a stalking horse for the Left, he and his campaign are opponents, not allies, of socialists (if you don’t believe me, believe Biden, who doesn’t shy away from making this point himself). In other words, the movement still has a long way to go.