Biden calls for police reform, spotlights ‘The Talk’ at State of the Union: ‘Do something!’

“I never in my life had I that I'd see a president standing in front of an audience that size talking about such a uniquely Black American experience," Svante Myrick, president of People For the American Way, told theGrio.

President Joe Biden spotlighted the issue of race and policing in America in his primetime State of the Union address on Tuesday night, calling on Congress to “do something” after the deadly police beating of Tyre Nichols.

In his more than one-hourlong address before Congress, his presidential cabinet and guests — and to millions of Americans watching from their living rooms — President Biden appealed to lawmakers to act on police reform and accountability measures for law enforcement officers who “violate the public trust” when they abuse their authority in cases like that of Tyre Nichols.

During his remarks, President Biden acknowledged the parents of Nichols, his mother RowVaughn Wells, and stepfather, Rodney Wells, who were special guests sitting in first lady Jill Biden’s box inside the well of the U.S. House of Representatives. “There are no words to describe the heartache or grief of losing a child. But imagine if you lost that child in the hands of the law,” said Biden.

Rodney Wells (2nd L) and RowVaughn Wells (3rd L), parents of Tyre Nichols, are applauded after President Joe Biden acknowledged them during the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on February 7, 2023. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Nichols, 29, died last month after being beaten to death by Memphis police officers, five of whom have since been fired and charged with second-degree murder, among other charges.

In his appeal to the American public, President Biden sought to bring national attention to a conversation known well in Black communities: “The Talk.”

“Imagine having to worry whether your son or daughter came home from walking down the street, playing in the park and just driving a car,” remarked the president. “Most of us in here have never had to have ‘The Talk,’ the talk that brown and Black parents have had to have with their children.”

Making the message more personal to him, President Biden noted: “Beau, Hunter, Ashley — my children — I never had to talk with them.” He added, “I never had to tell them if a police officer pulls you over, turn your interior lights on right away. Don’t reach for your license. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Imagine having to worry like that every single time your kid got in the car.”

Svante Myrick, president of the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way, told theGrio that President Biden’s mention of “The Talk” made clear that he “has been listening and is aware of the challenges that Black Americans face.

“I never in my life thought that I’d see a president standing in front of an audience that size talking about such a uniquely Black American experience,” he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) listen on February 7, 2023 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The speech marks Biden’s first address to the new Republican-controlled House. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images)

Biden’s message on policing was measured in that he was sure not to villainize American police. Instead, he appealed to a universal desire for neighborhoods to be “free of violence,” saying, “We all want the same thing.”

However, the president was clear in his position that “when police officers or police departments violate the public trust they must be held accountable.”

Though the president and Vice President Kamala Harris have urged the 118th Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, Biden did not mention the bill explicitly. Melanie Campbell, activist and president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, told theGrio she thought not naming the Floyd bill was a missed opportunity.

“I think it was a miss not to say y’all need to get together and pass legislation … he didn’t call out the George Floyd act as something that could actually be voted upon and succeed,” said Campbell. 

President Biden did call for measures, including giving “law enforcement the real training they need” and emphasizing the need to “hold them to higher standards.”

“What happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often,” said Biden. “Just as every cop that puts on that badge in the morning and has a right to be able to go home at night, so does everybody else out there.”

Campbell said despite the lack of a mention of the Floyd bill, she thought the president’s message was “balanced” and credited him for linking the issue of policing as fundamental to public safety.

Myrick said that he appreciated the fact that President Biden “didn’t throw his weight behind any one solution” during his remarks. “I’m hoping that by spotlighting the issue and by sending federal resources to cities to solve the issue, he can help us turn the page.”

Demonstrators participate in a protest against the police killing of Tyre Nichols near the White House on January 27, 2023 in Washington, DC. Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died three days after being severely beaten by five Memphis Police Department officers during a traffic stop on January 7, 2023. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Several guests present at Biden’s State of the Union were the families of victims killed or brutalized by police. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus invited them to highlight the importance of addressing America’s policing problem.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina invited Anthony Scott, the brother of Walter Scott, who was fatally shot in the back by a white police officer after a traffic stop. Clyburn told theGrio, “I think it’s important for the communities [and] the people all across the country that this is an issue that’s important to us and still in the forefront.”

The House Democratic assistant leader said, “bringing these people up here will remind the public that we have not forgotten them. And more importantly, it says to these families that just because you’re not in the headlines, it doesn’t means that you’re not on our hearts and minds.”

The chances of passing federal police reform legislation are slim in a divided Congress, where Republicans appear resistant to working with Democrats on the issue. Whether Biden’s address was effective in changing Republicans’ minds or not, Clyburn said, “What happened here in this instance with Tyre Nichols, you don’t need a president of United States to tell you that’s wrong.

“This is about a culture of policing,” said the longtime congressman. “We hold doctors accountable … every professional I know is accountable. But then we see policing as being immune — something’s wrong with that.”

Democrat James Clyburn of South Carolina nominates Democrat Hakeem Jeffries as the search for speaker continued for a fourth day during a meeting of the 118th Congress, Friday, January 6, 2023, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Though Biden has signed executive orders on police reforms in the absence of congressional action, Myrick, the former mayor of Ithaca, New York, said, “The solutions to this issue were never going to come from the federal government” because “they don’t control police departments.

“What they can do is fund the smart thinking that’s happening at the local level,” he remarked.

Myrick said he would like to see “pots of funds” available to municipalities to institute reforms through a “Race to the Top” program. He said reforms like ensuring “psychological examinations, paired with polygraph exams before people got hired on to that force.”

He continued: “Then you would screen out officers that are predisposed to violence and authoritarianism. And Tyre Nichols would be alive today.”

President Biden called on leaders in Washington to “commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mom true — something good must come from this.

“It’s difficult, but it’s simple. All of us in this chamber — we need to rise to this moment,” he declared. “We can’t turn away. Let’s do what we know in our hearts … what we need to do is come together to finish the job on police reform.”

Biden dedicated more than five minutes of his speech to policing, which is significant by State of the Union standards. Myrick said Biden met the moment by using his primetime moment to spotlight Nichols and the issue of police brutality.

“The fact that he brought the parents of Tyre Nichols and dedicated so much time in his speech to the issue also gives me hope,” he said.

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!