President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on March 11, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on March 11, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Community leaders are encouraged by early actions and statements, but they want the president’s intentions to turn into real reforms.

Now 100 days into his tenure, President Joe Biden has given racial justice leaders in Wisconsin a sense of cautious optimism, as they are happy with Biden’s initial steps toward equity but continue pushing him and Democratic lawmakers in Congress to follow through on key election promises.

“President Biden’s mandate isn’t just to reverse the damage that the Trump administration caused and to deal with the crises that his administration passed on,” said Chris Ott, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. “It’s to work toward a country that is better, that does a much better job of providing justice, fairness, and equality for all of us.”

Biden inherited multiple crises, such as ongoing police brutality against Black Americans, an increase in hate crimes against Asian people, and an immigration system in desperate need of reform. He has taken early actions like issuing an executive order affirming a commitment to racial equity, repeatedly denouncing white supremacy and systemic racism, and proposing an immigration reform bill. He has also appointed a historically diverse cabinet, giving his administration a decidedly different look and set of backgrounds than any previous president.

“We’re still continuing to see a lot of these challenges, and by no means are they going to be solved in the first hundred days,” said Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. “But I think it’s encouraging to know that at least on some of these issues, the president is making them a priority. But as always, I always think that there’s more that can be done, too.”

Calls for police reform hit home last August when a Kenosha Police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times at point-blank range, sparking protests and riots and garnering visits from both then-candidate Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Justin Blake, Jacob Blake’s uncle, said he has not been pleased with Biden so far. While he initially spoke highly of Biden after attending the inauguration and speaking with the president about police reform, Justin said he is now “pissed off.” The Blake family has not heard any updates about the ongoing federal civil rights investigation into the shooting, Justin said.

“I’m not these other people that just wanna meet with the president,” said Justin, who has remained an active protester and advocate in Wisconsin after his nephew’s shooting. “I don’t give a damn about meeting with the president. I want to see something done in our community that makes sense.… What we want is for Black people to stop dying at the [hands] of primarily caucasian police officers.”

Supporters of Jacob Blake march Jan. 4, 2020, in anticipation of a decision from Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Gravely on whether to charge Kenosha Police Officer Rusten Sheskey for shooting Blake seven times at point-blank range. At center, holding the flag, is Blake’s uncle Justin Blake; at his right is Tanya McLean, executive director of Leaders of Kenosha. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Merrick Garland, Biden’s attorney general, on Monday opened a federal investigation into the police department in Louisville, Kentucky, where officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor last year during a botched no-knock warrant, and this month he rolled back a Trump-era rule that limited the Department of Justice’s power to force departments to implement changes 

Justin Blake said he hopes to see a similar department-wide investigation in any city where a police shooting takes place, including Kenosha.

In his address to Congress Wednesday night, Biden urged the Senate to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a police reform bill that would ban police use of chokeholds and end qualified immunity, among other reforms. The bill easily passed the House but has stalled in the Senate.

“Let’s get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death,” Biden said.

Biden almost immediately reversed some of former President Donald Trump’s most controversial policies, lifting the Muslim ban, ending family separation, and stopping construction on Trump’s easily breached wall at the US-Mexico border. But, advocates said, it is now time for Biden to build his own legacy.

Democrats have forwarded bills to provide citizenship for as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants, and Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, said Wisconsin’s Latino community is awaiting action on those proposals. The most important thing for Democrats to do, she said, is to provide citizenship for undocumented immigrants who work in essential jobs.

“We really need to see the president and Democrats who now have been given a majority in Congress—even if it’s a simple majority, it’s a majority—to really fulfill a long overdue promise of immigration reform,” Neumann-Ortiz said.

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Biden’s immigration proposal would provide a pathway to citizenship for such immigrants, and some Democratic lawmakers have requested that Biden include similar reforms in his sweeping “American Families Plan” that he unveiled Wednesday.

However, advocates have consistently criticized Biden for failing to reunite any migrant families separated under Trump despite forming a task force to do so, initially refusing to allow press into border facilities, and twice flip-flopping on raising the nation’s refugee cap that was drastically lowered under Trump.

Neumann-Ortiz said Democrats need to remember the election “wasn’t just to reject the bad, it was for the fulfillment of those promises” of immigration reform. She said she worries of people becoming disengaged with the political process “because they don’t believe that … the promises were kept.”

“We need to see stronger leadership in terms of getting it right and prioritizing this,” Neumann-Ortiz added.

Much of Biden’s legacy is yet to be determined. He has already run into roadblocks in the Senate, where fellow Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have shot down proposals to reform or end the filibuster, all but ensuring Democrats will not be able to muster the 60 votes required to pass key legislation like voting rights expansion and police reform.

But what Biden has already done has at least set a good tone, Wisconsin advocates said.

“There’s a lot more work to do,” Ott said. “Yes, there are definitely encouraging signs. Yes, they have made some real progress at addressing the crises that they’ve inherited and undoing some of the harms that the Trump administration inflicted on people, including immigrants, but we need to see a lot more.”