Cory Booker Outfoxed Republicans on ‘Defund the Police.’ Now What?

In the 16th hour of a Senate debate earlier this month, Cory Booker rose to speak around 1 a.m. “I am so excited!” he roared, bunching his shoulders and smacking a fist into his hand, like a pitcher trotting to the mound. Booker, who represents New Jersey, leaned back and put a hand into his pocket. He smiled and raised one eyebrow mischievously. “This is a gift,” he declared. “If it wasn’t complete abdication of Senate procedures and esteem, I would walk over there and hug my colleague from Alabama.”

Booker was referring to an amendment to the 2022 budget — which was the subject of the Senate’s marathon session — and to Tommy Tuberville, Alabama’s newly elected senator, who proposed it moments earlier. “My amendment is pretty simple,” Tuberville said. “If your City Council wants to defund their police, don’t expect the federal government to make up the difference.” Local leaders across the country, he went on, “have decided the woke thing to do is cancel their city’s police force,” but Alabamians would not “pick up the tab” for the “woke defund-the-police movement.”

Woke, cancel, defund — Tuberville was practically auditioning for a spot on Tucker Carlson’s show the next day. But in his turn at the lectern, Booker out-Foxed him. Tuberville’s amendment was a gift, he said, because it would “put to bed the scurrilous accusation that somebody in this great esteemed body would want to” — he paused for faux-shocked effect — “defund the police.” Booker urged every senator to “not walk, but sashay down” to vote for Tuberville’s amendment. He ended by calling on the Senate to add language expressing its unanimous support for “God, country and” — knuckle rap of the lectern — “apple pie.”

Booker was, in other words, laying it on thick. The tone was a departure from his typical register, which calls to mind a preacher-turned-therapist. If Tuberville hoped to pin Democratic senators as all-cops-are-bastards radicals — or as beholden to Twitter activists of that ilk — Booker saw an opportunity to set the record straight. His clip drew chuckles from commentators on CNN and MSNBC, effectively foiling Tuberville’s plans. And substantively, Booker got his wish. Tuberville’s amendment passed by a vote of 99 to 0, thus completing a canny political turn for Democrats on the tricky matter of policing.

A summer ago, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the racial-justice protests that followed, the party seemed genuinely split over whether to back growing calls on the left to defund the police. House members from swing districts, like Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, said that the defund movement played into the hands of Republicans by alienating moderate voters. House members from safe districts, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City, advocated cutting police budgets and redirecting the money toward other public-safety measures.

A core aspiration of the defund movement is to reduce violent encounters between officers and the public by deploying mental-health professionals to respond to some 911 calls. Some cities have started adding such services. Denver, for example, set up an alternative 911 response, with social workers answering some calls; similar pilot projects are in the works in Oakland and Portland, Ore. But however promising, these local experiments aren’t what many of the loudest advocates for defunding the police had in mind — and it’s not what their slogan, fairly or not, has come to stand for. Defunding the police has become associated with calls to take officers off the streets or even disband departments entirely — which can be hard to imagine in real-world terms. What would a city look like if unarmed public-safety officers replaced all the cops with guns? How do you take firearms away from the law enforcers in a country that has tens of millions more guns than citizens?

If Booker successfully distanced his party from the defund movement, the question is what Democrats in Congress will have to show for it.

Most Americans, across all demographics, share these concerns. In March 2021, a USA Today/Ipsos poll showed that just 18 percent support “defund.” For Black Americans, the figure was a bit higher: 28 percent. But 43 percent of all respondents backed redirecting some police funds to social services. In New Haven, the majority-Black-and-Latino city where I live, the mayor’s office is working on a new Department of Community Resilience to address violence prevention and crisis response, as well as homelessness, mental health, drug use and prison re-entry. But with homicides and shootings on the rise, the city is also putting more money into the police. Defunding is a nonstarter.

Democrats can come across as craven when they disavow the passionate stance of the left wing of their party. Bill Clinton brought this criticism on himself when he singled out the activist Sister Souljah for her burst of anger toward white people in the midst of the Los Angeles riots in 1992. The “Sister Souljah moment” has since become shorthand for any strategic break between Democratic politicians and the activist base. Booker’s bit of theater in the Senate not only punched left but also aligned Democrats in the chamber with President Biden, who has been in favor of more money for cops for decades.

If Booker successfully distanced his party from the defund movement, the question is what Democrats in Congress will have to show for it. The point of getting the politics right on an issue, after all, is to create a space to make policy. Booker, who has been one of the Senate’s most engaged members on criminal-justice reform, has worked for months on the Senate’s version of a police-reform bill named for George Floyd. “I’ve been bending and contorting myself in every way to try to make a bill that can attract people on both sides of the aisle,” Booker told ABC News last month.

But it has been a thankless task. Booker negotiated with two major police unions seeking a broad agreement that would pass muster with Republicans, but when he thought he had the basis for a deal, other law-enforcement unions objected. This led Senator Lindsey Graham to publicly denounce the proposal. Booker’s talks with Senator Tim Scott, the negotiator for the Republicans, continue, but it’s not clear where they’re going.

If Congress does nothing, despite all the promises and the heartbreak of police killings, it will shoulder responsibility for a half-measure the country has seen many times before: more money for the police but no new checks on their power. Democrats who have found their way to safe ground on the politics of defunding now have to keep making the case for what they want to do about policing. Solutions, though, don’t often produce punchy TV clips.

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