Something extraordinary is happening in America: 14 days of protests from coast to coast against police brutality and racism have produced a wave of change in public opinion on police reform.
The gruesome video of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has prompted the kind of soul searching about the role of police in society and the systemic racism in the criminal justice system that many advocates have been pushing for decades. And in Washington and in cities and states across the country, political leaders are beginning to listen.
A rare bipartisan consensus has emerged that police reform will be necessary to respond to the groundswell.
Now, Republican officials in red states like Texas, purple states like Wisconsin, and lawmakers in Washington are scrambling to appear responsive to the groundswell calling for change.
On Monday, Democrats unveiled a sweeping police reform bill in response to protests. And by Tuesday, congressional Republicans in the House and Senate said they planned to introduce their own reform proposals.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has said publicly that he would be open to supporting some provisions in the Democrats’ bill including linking police training to federal funds, making it easier to remove officers who are accused of misconduct, and a provision to prevent officers from moving from city to city in an effort to escape past misconduct allegations.
“I want to work and see that we get law. This is a moment in time,” McCarthy told the Los Angeles Times. “This is the moment where we ought to find where we can come together on.”
The lone African American Senate Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina, presented ideas on police reform to Republicans during their lunch on Tuesday. In the House, a GOP aide said Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, would be releasing their own proposal this week.
In Texas, where Floyd grew up, that state’s Republican Gov. Greg Abbott appeared to go further. Speaking to reporters outside of Floyd’s memorial in Houston, Abbott directly linked reform to the issue of racism.
“I promised his family, that I would use and incorporate their family in these discussions, of the discussions about the pathway forward will not be taken over by politicians but will be led by family members, that will be led by victims, that will be led by people who have suffered because of racism for far too long in this state and in this country,” Abbott said. “Other actions are being worked on to make sure that we will not have police brutality like what happened to George Floyd.”
Grassroots activists push for change
Democrats have long pushed for police reforms and have opposed the increased militarization of local police departments – especially after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown in 2014.
But some activists, disillusioned by some of the reforms that have been made since then that have not slowed the rate of killings of unarmed people at the hands of police, are now pushing for more extreme changes.
The “defund” and “abolish” police movements represent some of the most dramatic proposals being put forward at the grassroots level. In Minneapolis, the city council pledged in a veto-proof vote that they would seek to defund that city’s police department following Floyd’s death.
Trump has focused on a “law and order” message from the White House. And Republicans have seized on the defund police movement, seeking to tie national Democrats to the proposal.
Yet most Democrats at the national level, including former Vice President Joe Biden have said they do not support defunding the police.
Still, Biden said in an interview with CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell that he “absolutely” believes that there is systemic racism in law enforcement.
“But it’s not just in law enforcement, it’s across the board. It’s in housing, it’s in education, and it’s in everything we do. It’s real. It’s genuine. It’s serious,” he said.
“Look, not all law enforcement officers are racist. My lord, there are some really good, good cops out there. But the way in which it works right now is we’ve seen too many examples of it.”
Democrats and Republicans are each seeking their own reforms, which itself represents a degree of bipartisan agreement that has been virtually impossible to find on other issues in Washington.
A case in point: former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, an ally of the President, presented this choice to voters in a tweet on Monday.
“Reform the police or defund the police? I pick reform,” Walker wrote.
The reason is clear: the American public overwhelmingly supports change. In poll after poll in the last two weeks, voters have made it clear that they believe there are problems with American policing.
A dramatic shift in opinion
A new CNN/SSRS poll found that 67% of Americans believe the criminal justice system favors white people over black people in this country. And the same percent say that racism is a big problem today, compared to just 49% in 2015, a year after Brown’s death in Ferguson.
Those findings were echoed in a recent Monmouth University poll that found 57% of Americans believe police are more likely to use excessive force against black people – up from 34% in 2016.
That shift is dramatic and rare, according to one well-known pollster.
“In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago,” wrote Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “The consequences politically, economically, and socially are too great to fit into a tweet.
“This is big. This is ‘Beatles on Ed Sullivan’ big,” he said.
To explain why this may be happening, and why Republicans in particular may be forced to listen, just look at where protests are being held.
People are taking to the streets in the big cities, yes. But they are also showing up in tiny towns.
In Whitefish, Montana, Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets in the predominantly white town to call for an end to police brutality.
A similar scene unfolded in overwhelmingly white Vidor, Texas – population 10,000 – as residents took a knee in silence in honor of Floyd.
While Trump and his top aides have denied that systemic racism exists in policing, the ground has been shifting under them.
Karl Rove, the mastermind behind Bush’s political rise, sees the writing on the wall.
“Do white Americans feel the same pressure that black and brown families do? Do white families fear their kids will be pulled over for no reason other than the color of their skin? No. So, they’ll never relate in exactly the same way,” Rove told POLITICO’s Tim Alberta. “But I do think they relate a lot more than they did 10 or 20 years ago. And I do think that changes the party, to some degree, moving forward.”
“But the days of ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ are long gone. It’s just no longer sufficient,” he said.
This story has been updated with additional comments from Joe Biden.
CNN’s Jennifer Agiesta and Haley Byrd contributed to this report.