Recent comments from Attorney General William P. Barr suggest that the doubts of black voters were valid.
During a speech delivered at a Justice Department ceremony to honor police officers on Tuesday, Barr suggested that Americans who don’t “respect” authority could lose access to police services. While discussing how respect for law enforcement and service members has increased since the Vietnam War, Barr said that even greater reverence of law enforcement is needed:
Today, the American people have to focus on something else, which is the sacrifice and the service that is given by our law enforcement officers. And they have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves. And if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.
Barr didn’t specify which “communities” he meant, but his comments were interpreted by many to refer to groups that have protested police violence against people of color — activists and others who have been viewed by some conservatives as not supporting and respecting police officers. As a result, Barr’s words were met with shock and criticism.
The Justice Department did not respond to a Fix request for clarification of the remarks.
Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of the African American studies department at Princeton University, tweeted a link to a Post article on the comments and said: “This man does not believe in democracy.”
Atlantic writer Adam Serwer suggested that Barr indirectly meant to send a message to communities that are critical of law enforcement.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called Barr’s comments an “appalling, unacceptable statement and threat.”
“The obligation of public officers - whether police, the AG, or the President - to fulfill the oath and requirements of their office is not contingent on an acquiescent, unquestioning public,” she tweeted. “Not in a democracy.”
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement’s magnifying the issue of police violence against black Americans, the Obama Justice Department put in place guidelines for law enforcement to, among other things, improve the relationship between black communities and law enforcement. While these directives did not fully resolve the long-standing issues between black Americans and police, some activists believed that things were moving in the right direction.
But there was great fear that a Trump presidency could reverse whatever gains were made under Obama. After all, Trump campaigned on reversing much of what his predecessor had put in place and regularly embraced and defended police officers as a maligned group in an era too concerned about political correctness and advancing liberal policies. Once Trump took office, his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, oversaw decisions that erased the Obama-era guidelines that aimed to solve policing issues.
The Post’s Devlin Barrett reported that the Justice Department has rolled back initiatives Obama put in place investigating local police departments and issuing public reports about their shortcomings.
There have been changes in the leadership at the Justice Department: Sessions is no longer at the top. But not much has convinced black voters that Trump’s presidency is the best of their electoral options. He still receives very low approval ratings from black voters. And for some, Barr’s words simply confirm a real concern: There is much to lose under a Trump presidency.
Trump recently relaunched his black voter outreach as a part of his 2020 campaign, emphasizing his support for criminal justice reform, an issue of great importance to many black voters. But messaging, such as Barr’s, from key leaders in the administration could make it difficult for Trump to do better with the black electorate. Questions about the details of what Barr meant could leave many black voters heading into the upcoming election reflecting on what they may have to lose under four more years of Trump.