President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are not the only politicians in Washington making history on Wednesday. The swearing-in of incoming Sens. Raphael Warnock (the first Black senator from Georgia) and Jon Ossoff (the first Jewish one) is proof positive that the Republican Party does not have a stranglehold on the South, and it's a triumph for the Black women organizers who worked to elect them.
By snagging two runoff elections, those organizers transformed the playing field of our nation's politics for at least the next two years. The wins end Sen. Mitch McConnell's majority stranglehold on the Senate and give the Biden administration an opportunity to address America's most pressing crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, record joblessness, looming climate change and police violence.
Their historic wins also discredit what passed for insider conventional wisdom after November's elections. The pundit class and corporate-friendly lawmakers were quick to scapegoat progressives and the racial justice organizers for Democrats' disappointing showings in House and Senate elections. Those Democrats claimed that Republican attacks on words such as "socialist" and slogans such as "defund the police" turned voters away from Democratic candidates, even those who didn't support those ideas.
Former President Barack Obama weighed in, criticizing the slogan used by activists who protested the killing of George Floyd (by a cop who ground a knee into his neck) and Breonna Taylor (killed in her own apartment), and so many others for using the word "defund." And in a leaked call last month, Biden told civil rights leaders he could do nothing on police reform until after the Georgia elections for fear that Republicans would once again turn those three words, "defund the police," into a magic poison that could doom any Democratic candidate.
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But the results in Georgia upend that argument. Republicans ran a disgusting, racist, red-baiting campaign against Warnock, a Black pastor who preaches at the former church of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They hammered him as a "radical" and a "socialist." And yes, they said he wanted to "defund the police."
Warnock didn't use that phrase, of course. But that didn't stop Republicans from attacking him for it, noting his support from groups like the Working Families Party, the organization I lead, which absolutely supports shifting funds away from bloated budgets of our militarized police forces and into resources for social and community services that keep us safe.
According to those centrist Democrats, that should have been the end of Warnock's campaign. But Warnock narrowly outpaced his more moderate counterpart Ossoff, and also beat Biden's November performance in just about every county in Georgia. Black turnout was through the roof. Warnock and Ossoff both made history in a Southern state that has been a Republican stronghold for decades.
There are lots of other plausible explanations for why Democrats didn't fare as well as they thought they would in 2020. Trump clearly juiced turnout among his base and brought in new reactionary voters.
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But the results in Georgia should put the gripes around the "defund the police" slogan to rest. It should also prompt party operatives to reconsider their approach to the debate over police violence.
Democrats sometimes view police reform and other issues of racial justice as political liabilities. That's a trap, but it's easy to see why Democrats fall into it. According to exit polls, Biden won handily among voters who said racism in the United States was one of the most important problems facing Americans. He lost those who thought it was a minor problem - or not a problem at all - by staggering margins.
Effectively, those moderates are suggesting the path to victory lies in losing less badly among voters who don't believe systemic racism is a problem. So they avoid, deflect and minimize the demands of protesters against police violence. It was based on that theory that Biden told civil rights leaders police accountability is something that must wait until the voting has stopped.
A different approach is possible, and we believe the movement organizers who helped Democrats win in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and now twice in Georgia have proved it. The path to victory is to turn out our base - with Black and brown people at the core - and do the hard work of education and organizing so that we increase the share of people who understand that racism is real and does real harm, and who understand what phrases like "defund the police" actually mean. People who honestly understand that don't vote for racists like former President Donald Trump.
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This approach is necessary if we want to live up to our promise of a multiracial democracy. In the space of a few years, Black Lives Matter has become the largest social movement in U.S. history. It is rapidly changing people's views on racial inequality, police violence - and police budgets. The organizers who helped propel Biden, Warnock and Ossoff to victory in Georgia were the same ones shouting "defund the police" over the summer. And it was those summer protests that opened up the eyes of millions of Americans of all races to the persistent stain of racial inequality in America.
Shifting resources away from overmilitarized police forces and investing in our communities is a sound and moral public policy. We are unwavering in our demands and welcome a debate on the merits. But let's abandon the idea that we must choose between righteous policy and electoral victory.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What historic Georgia Senate wins say about 'defund police' activism