Handcuffs and gavel
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The conversation between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden about the criminal legal system at Tuesday night’s presidential debate was as muddled and incoherent as the framing of the debate topic itself, “Race and Violence in Our Cities.” The 20 minute discussion—if it can even be called that—painted the Black community and criminal justice as a singular issue, beginning as it did with the candidates’ relationship to the Black community at large and then shifting to their criminal justice records and their support from and for law enforcement. As ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Somil Trivedi tweeted, “[Chris] Wallace let the race question become about law and order. And then asked a question about law and order. This is and always has been America’s national conversation on race.”

Over the course of the debate, while Trump wielded the criminal justice reforms passed under his administration as a talking point against Biden before exposing his actual commitment to using law enforcement as a tool for white supremacy, Biden couched his carceral, moderate values in language around equity and justice. In light of that stark difference, while it is clear the two do not pose equal threats to Black Americans, the content of the discussion revealed the limitations of both Trump and Biden’s understanding of the impact of the criminal legal system beyond talking points, as both candidates crafted incohesive and contradictory arguments about their own records and their commitment to justice. 

Trump repeatedly invoked Biden’s role in the drafting and passing of the 1994 crime bill and the rhetoric around superpredators that accompanied it, before claiming that as president he is currently “letting people out of jail.” His purported interest in early release and decarceration however, appears out of step with the support from law enforcement, military leaders, and generals that Trump later touted and condemned Biden for not garnering himself. 

Later in the debate, however, Trump’s own words belied his much-cited commitment to “law and order”: In a particularly dark moment, Trump was asked if he would explicitly condemn white supremacist, white nationalists, and a far right group. After a flurried exchange between Trump, Biden, and moderator Chris Wallace identifying who specifically the president should address, Trump replied “Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by.” The president’s own record, his past and current alliances, and statements on race leave no questions as to whether he misspoke. Beyond galvanizing current members of the Proud Boys, the call to arms flew in the face of his earlier statements about his commitment to law and order, as the Proud Boys and other similar white supremacist groups have repeatedly incited violence, perhaps most notably through their ties to the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In a dangerous but predictable turn, the Proud Boys apparently heard Trump’s message loud and clear and are now emboldened, even selling “Stand Back and Stand By” merchandise. 

Meanwhile, although Biden has spent some time on the campaign trail apologizing for certain parts of the 1994 crime bill—legislation which is now understood to have been one of the largest contributors of mass incarceration—he missed the mark last night when addressing policies that would shrink shrinking the power of the police even as a broad and growing swath of Americans advocate for it. Biden vehemently opposed the defunding of the police and instead expressed support for investing them with more resources so that they may be accompanied by mental health professionals during 911 calls and can engage in the type of community policing programs that were a core part of the 1994 crime bill and have proven to be deeply ineffective. Biden also spoke of “bad apples” spoiling an otherwise good batch of police and argued that transparency and opening lines of communication between police and communities can help “work this out.”

Throughout the 2016 primaries and presidential campaign, Black Lives Matter activists protested in and around debate venues, rallies, and fundraisers. Nevertheless, during the Democratic presidential debates held in 2015, moderators only posed a single question related to the movement: “Do Black lives matter or do all lives matter?” 

Measured against that baseline, last night’s questions about community control of policing and defunding the police illustrated how activists and organizers have moved the needle on what issues make it to the national stage and what politicians are forced to reckon with. However, despite the way the movement has come to frame the national conversation around policing and justice, the debate also showed the profound gap between those elected to the highest office of the government—men who are calling for law and order and nicer cops—and the desires for abolition and reimagination held by those on the ground.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.