As South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s profile has risen among 2020 Democratic candidates, he has tried to repair concerns based on a controversial 2015 statement and give voters, particularly black voters, confidence that he will address issues of police brutality and mistreatment aimed at people of color.
Now, after the shooting death of a black man in South Bend by a police officer, Buttigieg will have to show the depths of his knowledge about the concerns black Americans regularly have with law enforcement in the city he leads — and the country he hopes to.
Buttigieg has spent the past few months trying to convince black voters that he hears, and understands, their concerns when it comes to issues of police violence against people of color — and that he will work to address those concerns if elected president.
In response to the shooting, Buttigieg has canceled campaign events, with the goal of giving South Bend residents the opportunity to voice their concerns, among other things.
During Buttigieg’s 2015 State of the City address, he used the phrase “all lives matter,” which critics say displayed a lack of awareness or a lack of sensitivity about the ongoing tensions between law enforcement and communities of color:
There is no contradiction between respecting the risks police officers take every day in order to protect this community and recognizing the need to overcome the biases implicit in a justice system that treats people from different backgrounds differently, even when they are accused of the same offenses. We need to take both those things seriously, for the simple and profound reason that all lives matter.
“All Lives Matter” is a phrase often used to counter the argument made by those invoking “Black Lives Matter,” a slogan used to draw attention to police brutality against black people. The young mayor has said he was trying to acknowledge that police are worthy of respect for putting their lives on the line while also acknowledging implicit biases in the criminal justice system harm people of color.
The incident also happened around the same time that Buttigieg demoted South Bend’s first black police chief after he was accused of illegally recording officers’ conversations. Some in the community suspect that the officers were making racist remarks.
Buttigieg told attendees at the annual convention of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in April that he did not understand the impact or origins of “all lives matter."
“Since learning about how that phrase was being used to push back on that activism, I stopped using it in that context,” he said.
A police officer shot Eric Jack Logan, 54, on Sunday morning after responding to a call about a “suspicious individual going through cars,” according to the South Bend’s WSBT 22. The officer said he shot Logan after Logan approached with a knife raised. Logan was taken to a hospital, where he died.
Buttigieg stepped off the presidential campaign trail to respond to the community’s concerns about the incident.
“The community is tested when there is an incident like this,” Buttigieg told local journalists. “The relationship between police officers who are sworn to keep this community safe and everybody who lives here is among the most important things we have as a city.”
Buttigieg said he and others in his administration will meet with “faith leaders, neighborhood leaders, activists, anybody who cares enough about the city that they’re concerned to know not only what happened but how we as a community can do a good job of healing, even as we wait for more facts to come in.”
Logan’s family members have already expressed a lack of confidence in the city’s police department.
Buttigieg spoke at a forum this past weekend about some of the challenges black Americans face compared with white Americans, including issues with the criminal justice system.
Buttigieg has to be careful not to appear to let political concerns factor into how he handles the shooting. But because the implications for his candidacy are so grave, it’s worth examining them here.
Being sympathetic to law enforcement can erode support among black voters — one of the Democratic Party’s most influential constituencies. Taking a position too aligned with police officers could cause Buttigieg to lose support among those independent voters whose worldviews align more with law enforcement than the Democratic Party’s base. If his response is viewed primarily through the lens of his political ambitions and doesn’t center on the grieving individuals involved, there could be a backlash toward Buttigieg that lingers in South Bend long after the election is over.
One of the reasons Buttigieg has arguably experienced the success he has is his ability to present himself as a centrist who sees both sides of issues and therefore could work toward finding common ground. However, the issue of police brutality against black people has proved a deeply polarizing one, and it could test that ability at a critical moment for his campaign.