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Strange but true: Joe Biden may be tougher on crime than Trump.

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The shooting of Jacob Blake, seven times in the back, by police in Kenosha Wisconsin in August was one of the most appalling acts of police violence ever recorded on video. The casualness with which officers used lethal force against a black man, who appeared to be offering little threat, was truly shocking. 

Yet the response to that atrocity was strangely muted. We didn’t see the international out-pouring of anger and protest that followed the killing of George Floyd in May – at least not outside Kenosha, and the war-zones of Portland and Seattle. 

After Floyd, Black Lives Matter rocked the planet. Young people in American and British cities defied pandemic social distancing and held mass demonstrations claiming: “Silence is Violence” and “No Justice; No Peace”. The call to defund or even abolish the police was embraced by a number of Democrat-led city administrations in the US, like New York and Minneapolis. 

That was then. The climate has changed on Black Lives Matter. Public tolerance of the riots and looting that followed many protests faded as cities were torched night after night. Often, as even the New York Times has reported, it has been black and minority ethnic areas that have been hit hardest. Businesses have boarded up their premises and plastered them with appeals to spare them from arson. Then came the vigilantes with their guns.

The call to defund the police lost its lustre. If the police weren’t around, who exactly would have arrested and charged Rittenhouse? Wisconsin is an “open carry” state and, like many American cities, awash with guns. Since the BLM call to abolish or defund the police there has been a notable increase in crimes of violence in many of America’s cities – especially those with Democrat Mayors. 

President elect Joe Biden, realised early in the election campaign that American voters are not be entirely happy with the idea of replacing the police with social workers and conflict-resolution consultants. He sought to upstage President Trump on crime by burnishing his own law and order credentials.

“You know me” he told voters in Pennsylvania, “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?”. Not perhaps to anyone who knows him, but this was a strikingly direct condemnation of BLM militants like Antifa. Democrats have generally followed the line that BLM demonstrations are “mostly peaceful” – which in general they are, at least during daylight. 

The political threat to the Dems is not just the torching and looting of businesses, which is localised and doesn’t really have an impact in suburbia. It is middle class families worrying that, without the police, they will be left defenceless against crime and that armed vigilantes will take over city streets. 

Joe Biden may not have endorsed defunding the police, but many prominent Democrats have adopted it for him. In New York, the Democrat Mayor, Bill de Blasio, cut the NYPD budget by £1billion. Yet, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most prominent Democrat Congresswomen in America, insisted that this wasn’t enough. “Defunding the police means DEFUNDING the police” she said, insisting that the cuts were largely reallocations of the police budget. 

She is not alone. Democrat Mayors in cities like Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis are actively dismantling police resources. They hope to use enlightened, community-based organisations to cure violence by treating it as a health issue. Their problem is that violent crime has increased dramatically in precisely those cities.

In Minneapolis, there has been a 17% increase in violent crime – 42 homicides are currently being investigated, twice as many as this time last year. In New York, a 166% increase in shootings were recorded in August. In Seattle, the city’s first ever black police chief, Carmen Best, resigned in September over cuts in police budget and “lack of respect for officers”.

Jo Biden sought to blame Donald Trump for all this. “He’s rooting for chaos and violence”, he told supporters in Pennsylvania.   There may well be some truth in that, given Trump’s confrontational style. Sending armed federal agents in military fatigues into cities like Portland may well have inflamed tensions in the streets. 

However, it is stretching credulity to claim that Trump was personally responsible for the rioting and looting that often followed Black Lives Matters protests. Liberal academics and politicians, not the President, have sought to portray the violence as a justified response to white supremacy, the legacy of slavery and racism in the police. The BLM organiser, Ariel Atkins, said that looting is “reparations” and that peaceful protests were pointless. “Winning has come through revolts”, she said. Winning has come through riots.”

It may seem implausible for the Democrats to pivot to law and order. But the irony is that Joe Biden is arguably tougher on crime than Trump. He was a sponsor of the 1994 Crime Bill with its infamous “3-strikes and you’re out” policy, which incarcerated vast numbers of young black men. Donald Trump’s First Step Act represented an attempt to reduce the prison population. The Washington Post said it was the one measure Trump should be given credit for. He should also perhaps be given credit for not starting any new wars, which have tended to disproportionately hit the working class black and ethnic people hardest.

The left should not delude themselves that Joe Biden will endorse the political objectives of many BLM activists, like disrupting the nuclear family and dismantling capitalism, or that he will condone violence and looting on the streets. Nor would he hesitate to send in the national guard. Both of his predecessors, Presidents Bush and Obama, send troops to police the US-Mexico border. The New York Times is likely to find itself in a tight spot if and when Joe Biden does the same.

James Clyburn, the House majority whip and Democratic “kingmaker”, who played a major role in the Biden campaign, has warned that slogans about defunding the police only helped the Trump campaign. Many black and ethnic minority voters depend on the police for security in the inner cities, not least against angry white men with semi-automatic weapons. When violence erupts again in Kenosha, Portland or Seattle, don’t expect Joe Biden to be apologising for looting or supporting police no go zones. Biden may use the language of reform, but his instincts are those of a law and order Democrat.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?

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