Democrats seek balance in backing protests, condemning violence
Democrats are trying to find the right balance between their support for the racial justice protests and their opposition to the destructive elements of the demonstrations that President Trump has used to portray them as the party of rioters and looters.
The Democrats are furious over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., and unequivocal in their support for those marching in the streets to protest the latest incident of police violence against a Black man.
At the same time, Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his allies are sensitive to the idea that Trump’s rhetoric about criminals overrunning Democratic-controlled cities could sway some voters.
Democratic leaders say it’s imperative, even at a time of heightened emotions and demands for police reform, that the party prioritize public safety so as not to risk a backlash among the suburban voters and independents that have gravitated towards Biden.
It’s a tricky balancing act for Democrats, who are inspired by the racial justice protests but on full alert over potential political blind spots as they seek to defeat Trump in November.
“I’m very much in support of the racial justice movement but I’m not for violating the law to cure the problem of racism or unfairness in this country, and that’s what Democrats need to stand for,” said former Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who worked with Biden in the Senate for nearly two decades.
“It’s possible to support racial justice, and at the same time refuse to tolerate violence, even when it may seem justified in the minds of some protesters to get the point across. You can’t break the law. We should emphasize prosecuting police officers that do wrong, but also training and screening them. It’s a point Democrats can’t let slip away.”
After weeks of being accused by Trump of supporting destructive protests, Biden and other Democratic leaders made a point this week to denounce the destruction in Kenosha.
Biden spoke to Blake’s family and said the video of him being shot in the back in front of his children made him “sick.”
But Biden also denounced the violent aspects of the protests, quoting Blake’s mother, who said the mayhem “doesn’t reflect my son or my family.”
“Burning down communities is not protest, it’s needless violence,” Biden said. “Violence that endangers lives. Violence that guts businesses and shutters businesses that serve the community. That’s wrong.”
That sentiment was echoed by other Democratic leaders, including former President Obama, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), who has dealt with months of protests in Portland.
“It’s the same balance we had to find a few months ago with George Floyd,” said one Biden ally close to the campaign. “The ticket needs to really articulate that people should absolutely protest while this is in the forefront, but there has to be an element of not destroying property. … Protest is necessary but destruction is not.”
That’s not always an easy line to walk in a party that is burning with anger that the police officer who shot Blake has not been arrested.
Reports that a young man, who appears to be a Trump supporter, fatally shot two people in the streets of Kenosha has further fueled Democratic outrage and demands for justice.
This week, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted that “looting and vandalism is bad.”
Later, he deleted the tweet, saying it “mistakenly gave the impression that I thought there was an equivalency between property crime and murder.”
“This is complicated stuff and I think there’s a risk of alienating a number of Americans that have a variety of opinions on the issue,” said one Democratic strategist aligned with Biden. “And I think the Biden team has kept him mostly in a reasonable posture with both sides.”
Some Democrats are eager not to overthink the matter.
Despite sustained attacks from Trump, they note that the protests and violence are happening under Trump’s watch as president.
Trump has stuck to one note — a “law and order” message — and has not yet acknowledged Blake’s shooting in public. He’s instead swiped at NBA players who postponed games out of protest.
“What happened … will, in my view, only add to the urgency of those holding the belief that something has to change, and sear even further into the minds of voters that we are in a terrible, bleak place,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in Wisconsin.
“That’s not the sentiment you want widely held if you are the incumbent president facing re-election,” he added.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Biden’s running mate, made a video appearance at Friday’s civil rights event at the National Mall, encouraging the thousands who gathered there to continue fighting for racial justice.
“The road ahead, it is not going to be easy, but if we work together to challenge every instinct our nation has to return to the status quo … we have an opportunity to make history, right here and right now,” she said.
Still, there are some who are warning that Democrats are not taking the public safety piece seriously enough.
Mike Erlandson, the former Democratic party chairman in Minnesota, has personally helped clean up parts of his home town of Minneapolis that were destroyed in protests following the police killing of Gorge Floyd.
He says Minnesotans are inundated with local news reports on the violent aspects of the demonstrations, and he worries that voters in his battleground state will blame Democrats for not doing enough to stop them.
“Some Democratic leaders in some of these cities, including my hometown, have been quieter than perhaps they should be when it comes to speaking out against individuals who choose to perpetrate crime against society or someone else’s property,” Erlandson said.
“That’s different from your constitutional right to protest. Everybody believes the protests should be peaceful activities, so it’s frustrating at times to see people condoning activity that is violent because they are afraid to speak up,” he added. “The vast majority are peaceful protesters but there’s also a bad element that hides among us and uses us for cover.”
There has been some media pressure on Democrats recently to respond to the destructive elements of the protests.
The New York Times and The Atlantic ran stories that served as warnings about electoral backlash to protests that spin out of control.
CNN’s Don Lemon is calling on Biden to give a speech from behind a podium in Washington, D.C., to make clear his opposition to lawbreaking activity, saying he’s seen polling that indicates this is a weak spot for Democrats.
“I am committed to Joe Biden and a Democratic victory across the board in November and to do that, we Democrats need to stand foursquare for racial justice and equity,” said Douglas Schoen, a Democratic pollster and former adviser to President Bill Clinton. “And we also need to stand against lawlessness and tragically the violence we have seen recently and last spring after the tragic and most likely criminal murder of George Floyd last spring.”
Democrats say they have no illusions about pleasing everyone.
“Overall this is about two distinct different pathways and two choices,” said the Biden ally. “One side who is actively calling it mobs and riots and the other side saying these protests are valid. … If you’re a white person who is scared that Black and brown folks are coming to your neighborhood, you’re exactly who Donald Trump is talking to. If that’s a problem for them, I’m not sure we’ll be able to get their support.”