Former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro has been the most vocal of the 2020 Democratic candidates on that issue on the contest’s biggest stages. At multiple debates and on social media, Castro has tried to steer the conversation toward police violence, even when the questions are not headed in that direction. That was the case again in Tuesday night’s debate.
On Saturday, Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old black woman, was fatally shot in her Fort Worth home by a white police officer through a closed window. The officer resigned Monday and was later charged with murder.
“Police violence is also gun violence,” Castro said at Tuesday night’s debate, bringing up police shootings in response to a question about gun policy.
“In the places that I grew up in, we weren’t exactly looking for another reason for cops to come banging on the door. And you all saw a couple days ago what happened to Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth,” he said, discussing the idea of police gun-buyback efforts. “And so I am not going to give these police officers another reason to go door-to-door in certain communities, because police violence is also gun violence, and we need to address that.”
Castro served in the Obama administration and was once viewed as having potential to shake up the 2020 race, given his relative youth and potential appeal to Hispanic voters. But he has struggled to gain traction. My colleague Aaron Blake noted Castro’s poor fundraising haul and the likelihood that he won’t qualify for the next Democratic debate.
But his drawing attention to the issue at Tuesday’s debate was well received by many black viewers and activists — some of the people who feel most affected by police violence.
Activist April Reign, who counts Castro among the three candidates she supports most, praised the former San Antonio mayor for consistently addressing an issue that she says media has ignored.
“I expected Secretary Castro to address the issue of police violence, because he has consistently said the names of black people who have been killed at the hands of state-sanctioned violence, both tonight and during previous debates,” Reign told The Fix. “Secretary Castro also has a comprehensive new policing reform plan; not all of the candidates do. I hope all candidates do a better job of affirmatively discussing issues of importance to black women, the most consistent voting bloc that Democrats have. One of those issues is police violence, as we are constantly in fear for our partners, our children, our family members and ourselves.”
During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) highlighted the issue in their quest to win younger black voters. This year, however, it appears that the candidates drawing the most attention to the issue are not gaining significant traction with black voters — or any voters. Former vice president Joe Biden holds the lead with black voters, according to polling, suggesting they are not penalizing him for not leading the conversation on this issue.
But that does not mean black voters won’t continue to pressure candidates to discuss what very much remains a real issue despite a decrease in shooting deaths by police. The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery wrote last year:
While police shootings have continued, the number of unarmed people being killed has dipped and therefore so has the number of videos of such shootings that galvanize the public,
In 2015, 36 unarmed black men were fatally shot by police; footage of the armed yet compliant Castile, 12-year-old Tamir Rice and Walter Scott dying from their wounds prompted massive protests. In 2017, the figure was 19. Of the 33 black people fatally shot by police so far in 2018, only two incidents are known to have been caught on a body camera. Some policing experts say officers have become more cautious.
For real change to happen, an action plan must be articulated, especially to win black voters, said Ibram Kendi, director of the American University Antiracist and Policy Center, a research center focused on developing public policies that fight racism.
“It is not enough to condemn police violence,” he told The Fix. “I want to hear a substantial policy debate about how to curb police violence. I would like the candidates to put forth sweeping policy plans to address this crisis of police violence.”
Kendi said the lack of attention given to this issue at debates may have to do with who is overseeing the debates and their target audience.
“It seems as if the networks and moderators are focused on framing questions that speak to three things: profound policy disagreements between the candidates, topics grabbing persisting national headlines and matters that speak to white moderates,” he said. “Police violence doesn’t fit the mold. White moderates are making up the ‘all lives matter’ crowd. Police violence doesn’t snatch national headlines for more than a day. And all the front-running candidates have spoken out against police violence and racism.”
Dante Barry, co-founder of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, a human rights organization focused on eradicating gun violence, said he expects Castro and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) to aggressively speak out about gun violence, “given their backgrounds and where they come from.” But discussions about gun violence’s impact on people of color appear to be missing from the national conversation, Barry said.
“The conversations around gun violence that get the most amount of attention are mass shootings and school shootings, particularly when the incidents are impacting predominantly white communities, even though mass shootings represent a fraction of the hundreds of lives taken every day by gun violence,” he told The Fix.
For many black voters, police violence should be part of the conversation about gun policy as long as perceptions about systemic discrimination among law enforcement stay prevalent. According to a Pew Research Center survey, the overwhelming majority of black adults, 84 percent, say black people are generally treated less fairly than whites by police.