As presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden enjoys a growing pool of top talent—from longtime advisers and close aides to on-camera surrogates—to help him craft and disseminate nearly every facet of his political agenda against President Trump.
But when it comes to his Black Lives Matter brain trust—individuals who the former vice president relies on to inform his thinking about the movement that’s shaping the national dialogue around race—his campaign is hesitant to reveal who’s doing the work behind the scenes.
The Daily Beast sought to obtain basic information about the network Biden is consulting to address concerns brought forward by activists and allies supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and related racial justice causes. Pressed several times for a list of names or groups, within his own team or externally through Biden’s decades-long network, the campaign opted for a boilerplate statement.
The Biden campaign told The Daily Beast that the former vice president supports numerous reform proposals currently before Congress, including a national ban on chokeholds, the creation of a model use-of-force standard, and giving the Department of Justice subpoena power for pattern or practice investigations into local law enforcement.
A senior Biden adviser said in a text message that all of his advisers “advise on a range of issues.”
In late May, the campaign made a high-profile hire by bringing on former Obama campaign and White House alum Karine Jean-Pierre as a senior adviser to work on a range of issues, including those facing key communities like Black voters, women, and progressives. Jean-Pierre did not respond when asked whether she is advising the Biden campaign on the Black Lives Matter movement specifically.
But questions for increased transparency within the Biden campaign come as the candidate himself has sought to make a stark, public contrast with Trump on racial justice issues. As the president tried to militarize police in an attempt to crackdown on protests against institutional racism following George Floyd’s death, Biden endeavored to take on a counselor-in-chief role, including visiting with peaceful protesters in Delaware and meeting privately with Floyd’s family in Houston.
“Now is the time for racial justice,” Biden said in an emotional video offering his condolences. “That’s the answer we must give to our children when they ask why. Because when there is justice for George Floyd, we will truly be on our way to racial justice in America.”
On Monday night during a fundraiser, Biden condemned the fact that “systemic racism still affects every part of our society,” an acknowledgment he often offers in public and private events. But when it comes to who, specifically, helped craft that language—or any of the other efforts he has undertaken regarding criminal justice, police brutality, or the Black Lives Matter movement broadly in the past several weeks, the answer is less clear.
In releasing his “Lift Every Voice” plan for Black America in May, Biden was equally vague, writing in a statement, “I look forward to making it a reality with the help of lawmakers, community leaders, and families across the country who aspire to the dream of Dr. King.”
But the campaign has yet to release names of individuals who have Biden’s ear on the cause. The opaque nature also runs counter to more transparent public statements they have released touting new hires or top leaders on an array of other areas.
Earlier in the primary, while Biden was one of several Democratic contenders, his team released several lists of key hires in battleground states, including paragraph-long descriptions in some cases of new aides’ background and roles. Members of his staff have also promoted new digital hires with specific aides called out by name. Most recently, the campaign released a list of people in charge of running the vice presidential search committee.
But in other critical areas, like Biden’s advisory team on the economy, the campaign has actively demanded that those advisers not make their roles public.
Last week, The New York Times reported that members of Biden campaign’s economic policy committee were instructed in a memo “not to disclose the names of others who are involved in the committee to nonmembers.”
Symone Sanders, who served as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) press secretary in 2016 and worked as an analyst at CNN, has long spoken about Biden’s commitment to civil rights and racial justice. Sanders was appointed to the criminal justice joint unity task force between Sen. Sanders and Biden’s campaign, along with Tennessee state Sen. Raumesh Akbari Chiraag Bains, South Carolina state Rep. Justin Bamberg, former acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), and Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker in Iowa.
Reached by The Daily Beast, Walker, a Sanders supporter selected for the joint task force, said he had not been consulted by anyone in the Biden campaign about the Black Lives Matter movement, but noted that Symone Sanders “has a very good understanding of these issues.”
Throughout the Democratic primary, Biden had the strong support of many Black political leaders, racking up endorsements throughout the country, including in the South. Leading up to the South Carolina primary, Biden secured Majority Whip James Clyburn’s endorsement, and performed overwhelmingly well with Black voters nationally, helping him sweep the state by a landslide and teeing off a series of unstoppable victories that led him to swiftly secure the nomination. (A representative for Clyburn did not respond to a specific question about if he is helping Biden navigate the movement).
Biden also enjoys the backing of other top leaders in the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), who co-chairs his campaign. The congressman did not respond to a text message about whether he is advising Biden on that particular issue. Other prominent members, including the current chair Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), who endorsed Biden in March, is leading reforms in the House regarding policing, and had a lengthy discussion on that subject with The Washington Post.
The Biden campaign noted that the former vice president and his team engage a diverse array of advisers, thought leaders, activists, and everyday Americans on proposals. But obtaining additional information about who is helping Biden navigate the Black Lives Matter movement comes with particular relevance, as some activists have raised concerns that Biden needs to do more to meet the needs of the current climate.
In interviews, several activists and advocates told The Daily Beast that Biden’s initial criminal justice platform, which was first released in July 2019, is in need of revisiting in the context of the protest movement sparked by Floyd’s death.
“In retrospect from where he stood last year, given the whole change in political climate, and seeing a modern-day lynching by the police on TV, just going back to where he stood a year ago… that needs to be more aggressive,” said Russell Drake, vice president of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida and former president of the Orange County Black Caucus. Drake said that even the most progressive criminal justice reform proposals put forward during the primary now seem behind the times—particularly when it comes to the question of increased funding for community policing and additional training.
“The police assault people and people say, ‘oh they need access training.’ And I’m like, I don’t think a person really needs training to know not to put a knee on somebody’s neck for five minutes,” Drake said. “It doesn’t require training to know that if somebody is running away, you don’t need to shoot them in the back.”
Drake said that a police culture of “immunity and impunity” has undercut previous attempts at internal reform, citing in particular the organized opposition of police unions even against reform-minded police chiefs. That culture, Drake said, can only be addressed by reexamining qualified immunity for police officers—a proposal that Biden’s platform does not address.
“When people aren’t held liable and there’s no way they can [be], it gives them an almost invincible feeling,” said Drake, who as head of the Orange County Black Caucus has worked with leading vice presidential contender Rep. Val Demings on law enforcement issues. “People say it’s racial—it may be for some individuals, but I don't think it’s just race… It’s a police culture that’s generated, you know, over several decades, maybe even a century, that led police to start to feel more emboldened and invincible, and to take advantage of people with no recourse.”
Other activists are even less confident that the reform in Biden’s current plan—including $300 million in additional funding for community policing, contingent in police force demographics tracking those of the communities they serve—is enough to fix deep-seated issues in law enforcement.
“Law enforcement’s got enough money—it wasn’t a priority until now because you're getting caught,” said Lawanna Gelzer, president of the National Action Network’s Central Florida chapter and a longtime critic of the Orlando Police Department. Gelzer told The Daily Beast that unless Biden’s criminal justice platform includes redirecting funds from armed officers to social programs that address the roots of crime—which the plan currently does not do—it will amount to a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.
“That’s what the community is saying” about defunding the police, Gelzer said. “It’s not stripping you of all your money, it’s reallocating and putting money into services and needs that we need. They're like the fire department—the fire department do not patrol my neighborhood. They come when I need them.”
"Vice President Biden believes we need to reform, train, and invest in the programs we know work to help and protect communities,” National Press Secretary Jamal Brown said in a statement. “At the same time, he knows we need to invest in funding for schools, summer programs, and mental health and substance abuse treatment separate from funding for policing, so that our officers can focus on the job of policing.”
“Congressional Democrats have put forward a plan. Now it is up to Donald Trump and Republicans to step up. It’s clear we need reform but we haven’t seen any proposals from Trump - just attacks and attempts to divide our country.”
On Tuesday evening, Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield sought to put the attention back on Trump, who incorrectly asserted that Obama and Biden “never even tried to fix this during their eight-year period.”
"Donald Trump says President Obama and Vice President Biden didn't do anything on policing reform, but he knows that isn’t true because he has spent the past three years tearing down the very reforms the Obama-Biden Administration pursued,” Bedingfield said in a statement, noting several efforts to address police misconduct in Ferguson, Missouri, and limit the flow of military weapons to police departments, among others taken under the previous administration.
“President Trump issued an insufficient executive order piecing together a few of the recommendations of the Obama-Biden policing task force, but he isn't delivering the comprehensive policing reform we need,” she said.