Terry H. Schwadron
June 21, 2020
Recent analyses show the fragility of assuming that the continuing street protests in 750 cities will buoy Democratic prospects in November.
While political logic would say that, of course, votes of those protesting racial injustice and abusive policing towards black citizens will favor Democrats challenging Donald Trump and incumbent Republicans, there are signs in the crowds that conclusion is no guarantee. After all, Trump’s continued reaction to deaths of George Floyd has been to call for law and order in the streets rather than to even consider the root causes of protest.
But it would seem that candidates for both parties — as well as our businesses, educational institutions, social service agencies and others — need to get busy right now to persuade anti-government, anti-systemic racism that the elections and institutional policy-making matter at all.
Street protests in Minneapolis, New York and other cities have booed mayors identifying as sympathetic, progressive mayors like Jacob Frey and Bill de Blasio — even if they agree with professed protest goals of limits on police procedures like chokeholds.
Indeed, the wider and more amorphous the word from the street towards generalized change to eliminate all signs of racism, the longer the reach to connect back to electoral politics. This movement for racial justice is populist and running on its own anger and emotion outside electoral politics. It even makes it difficult to know whether any legislation, any embrace of “de-funding police,” any executive presidential actions will even address what comes down to very local, very personal perceptions of how we are treated as individuals in a society that only knows broad-brush, negotiated laws and perceptions of traditions.
Let’s be clear: Current national poll trends notwithstanding, given the mechanics of Electoral College decisions in the presidential election, Democratic hopes to topple Trump rely on harnessing votes in six to ten battleground states where black voters made a difference in 2016. Turnout and votes of those in the street matter. Black votes matter.
An article in The Washington Post described a rally in Tampa where activists shut down Mayor Jane Castor, a Democrat who has voiced support for protesters, as reflecting a view that sympathetic words and even targeted actions over policing are relatively hollow gestures against ingrained racial attitudes.
A protest organizer in Philadelphia said he has no intention of widespread mobilizing voting besides casting what he described as a reluctant vote for Joe Biden himself. “I’m tired of going into the same old room with the same old council member and the same state representative who have the same old mind-set. It’s why we keep getting the same old stuff,” he said.
For sure, Democrats from Biden and Barack Obama on down has appealed for protesters to channel energy into votes against Republicans. But interviews the Post did with a dozen protect organizers reflect a deep skepticism of traditional politics as promising big and delivering little.
There is evident fury at Trump, but a certain coolness that any government can deliver changes in day to day racism that comes to light in calls to police at a sighting of a black jogger in the wrong neighborhood or a black birdwatcher in Central Park, or redlining policies by banks, the shift of funds from schools that serve minority neighborhoods or the disproportionate effects of a contagious virus. It was Democratic votes that led to mass incarceration of blacks in drug arrests, for example.
“I don’t believe just having a ‘D’ by your name immediately makes you the savior,” said Bernice Lauredan, the protester who shouted down the Tampa mayor.
Actually, it has been Trump who has argued, strangely, that Democrats promise change but do not deliver, and has asked for black political support based on promised economic gains so broad that they would help minorities along with all Americans. Yet Trump’s actual policies and public remarks on race issues, policing, education, health are widely perceived as antithetical to black and brown communities as well as immigrants.
Biden himself, who became the nominee because of black vote turnout starting in the South Carolina primary, has made efforts to reach out to the streets, with sessions showing that he was listening to protesters, vowing to combat systemic discrimination, meeting with the Floyd family and distancing himself from Trump.
Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation quickly, even winning some bipartisan support, towards chokehold bans, a national database of police brutality claims and other targeted ends.
But some of the reaction on the streets is, as always, that such efforts, while welcome, are only speak to part of systemic racism issues, and will take time to implement. That always been the reaction from the streets, from issues relating to the Civil Rights and right to vote to anti-Vietnam and anti-war protests to these broader goals.
Politicians are “kneeling but not meeting with the organizations that are responsible for moving voters on the ground,” said Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Some black politicians, including Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-SC, and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, have pushed back, saying legislation can’t happen in an instant.
To a certain extent, Democrats seems to be inviting protesters to push them into stronger policy positions on issues affecting housing, universal health insurance, income inequality and prison sentencing.
Rooting out racism in at all levels of society over the course of centuries is a more difficult, more diffuse, more individual target requiring the participation of education, religion, the business community — many more aspects of society than policing alone.