Michigan voters back Black Lives Matter, oppose 'defunding' police

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Most Michigan voters said they support the Black Lives Matter movement, but 3 out of 4 oppose efforts to "defund" police, including more than half of Black voters and strong Democratic voters, according to a new Detroit News/WDIV-TV survey.

The poll of 600 likely Michigan voters found that 58% back Black Lives Matter, but the push to cut funding for law enforcement had "fringe" support among respondents (18%), said pollster Richard Czuba, president of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group that conducted the Sept. 1-3 survey.

Jae Bass holds up a Black Lives Matter sign before the march for the 100th day of the Detroit Will Breathe movement in Detroit on Sept. 5, 2020.

"The voters roundly reject that, and they're not ready for that," Czuba said.

About 57% of voters surveyed said they favor shifting some police funding to areas that might help combat crime, such as mental health and job assistance, education, homelessness and drug abuse prevention.

That is what many proponents of the movement to “defund the police” say they mean in practical terms, but the effort got stuck with a name that's just “abysmal branding," Czuba said. 

He noted that support for reallocating police funding is tentative, with more respondents saying they "somewhat" support such a move than "strongly" support the idea, perhaps wanting to understand the details and understand what it would do.

“What these three numbers show is Michigan voters overall, particularly Democrats and independents, acknowledge there are problems with racial equality. They understand it. They see it,” Czuba said.

“They recognize that police are important, but that this one-size-fits-all approach to crime fighting may need some further conversation.”

Support for Black Lives Matter diverged sharply along party lines, with most Democrats in favor, most Republicans opposed, and about half of independent voters in support. 

Ninety-four percent of Black voters said they back Black Lives Matter, while 51% of white voters are for the movement and 39% oppose it, the survey found. 

The poll had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points. 

Michigan voters said Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would do a better job improving race relations than President Donald Trump, with the former vice president leading the Republican president on the question by nearly 22 percentage points or 55% to 34%. 

About 90% of Black voters surveyed indicated they trust Biden to help race relations, and no African-American voters said Trump would improve the situation, according to the survey.

"It's very rare to see a zero show up in a column," Czuba said. "Between that and the 1% of Black voters who said they would vote for Donald Trump, these are pretty clear, definitive answers about how Black voters in Michigan feel about Donald Trump."

The strong support for Black Lives Matter is tied to empathy for the effect of racial disparities on the African American community, said Detroit political consultant Mario Morrow. 

“When people visibly see people getting shot and beaten and knees on black folks’ throats, it reminds them of the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s and to some degree the ‘60s: Nothing has changed. It’s gone backwards,” said Morrow, who is African American.

“Support would have been even higher if the protests had not gotten out of hand, and you see outside influencers coming in and having a negative effect on the movement. I think if the Black Lives Matter core leadership was stronger and more focused, their numbers would be a lot higher.”

The president for months has criticized protests that have mostly been peaceful, urged Democratic governors and mayors to crack down, and threatened to send the military to quell riots.

Seattle authorities allowed protesters to occupy several blocks for about two weeks until clearing the area in late June. At least two people were killed and a sexual assault reported in the zone, which Detroit police Chief James Craig vowed not to let happen in the city. 

Trump on Tuesday called BLM protesters "thugs" after a video showed demonstrators confronting people in Pittsburgh dining outdoors.

“BLM Protesters horribly harass elderly Pittsburgh diners, scaring them with loud taunts while taking their food right off their plate," Trump tweeted. "These Anarchists, not protesters, are Biden voters, but he has no control and nothing to say. Disgraceful. Never seen anything like it. Thugs."

Republicans are having a "separate" conversation driven by coverage in conservative media sources focused on calls to "defund" law enforcement and attacks on white people, Czuba said. 

"It's a very different conversation that's taking place in the broader conversation on race relations nationally," he said. 

The broader conversation is more nuanced, he added, with voters paying attention to different voices, for example, on some police funding being redirected instead of abolishing the police. 

Detroiter Kristy Wright, a former home health aide, said she hopes the BLM movement can end racial injustice in the United States but said she does not want to dismantle police departments. 

"Police are important," said Wright, who is Black. 

She's not convinced the protests in Detroit and other places have been effective because "what they are out there protesting is still going on — more and more today than it ever was," she said. 

Christa Haiss, who works as a cashier at Meijer and lives in Manistee, wants to see more funding for police training but also supports shifting money to other areas to boost public safety.

"When you see a young white guy with a gun and they’re talking him down, but you see a black guy without a gun and they end up shooting him because he might have one? There’s a lot of sensitivity training that’s needed," she said. "There’s a double standard."

Haiss said she supports Black Lives Matter and has thought about the privilege she enjoys as a "middle-aged white woman in northern Michigan."

"I have no idea what kind of life they live, but I have white privilege, and it’s stupid to think there isn’t such a thing," she said.

Joe Morello of Chesterfield Township said he dislikes the narrative of Black Lives Matter, saying it suggests it's only important when someone Black is killed by police. 

"A death is a death. It doesn’t matter if you are white, Black, Asian, Hispanic, whatever race or ethnicity you are, religion. People are people. That's why I don't stand with Black Lives Matter. It's exclusive and not inclusive," said Morello, a finish carpenter and member of the Michigan National Guard. 

"If Black Lives Matter was actually geared toward helping the Black community instead of bitching about problems that aren’t necessarily problems, then I would be supportive of it. But for what they stand for now, I'm not." 

Morello also opposes any reduction of funding for police, saying if officials want to help the Black community, more police officers are needed, not fewer. 

"Not all cops are bad. Cutting funding is not going to help anything. It's just going to cause chaos. Look at Portland. Look at all these cities where rioting, police really have no choice but to stand down, or they are leaving," Morello added.

"People cannot run themselves. We need a government."

Morrow said it's going to be difficult for proponents to backtrack on "defunding" police by trying to claim that they didn't mean pulling all funding for law enforcement. 

"Yes, you did. You're talking about shutting the police department down, and that's a problem because — as your polling indicates — even people who support Black Lives Matter do not overwhelmingly support defunding the police," he said. 

"Because, No. 1, there's too many damn criminals running around here. ... We need the police to be fully funded; however, funded properly."

The push to cut funding to law enforcement played into GOP hands, Morrow added, by providing an opportunity to attack the broader movement.

"The Black Lives Matter movement was on a roll. They had universal support, but when you take it too far with a message that does not resonate with all the people who are now supporting you, then you start losing your support base," he said. 

"Because we do not live in a crime-free society, and all police are not bad. Unfortunately, some bad apples are causing a serious image issue with law enforcement."