As two months of protesting has spread across America since the killing of George Floyd, I find myself torn between support for the cause of racial justice and anger at the landscape of shattered glass store fronts, looted businesses and burned buildings left in its wake.
It may be impossible to apportion responsibility for the destruction and violence between Black Lives Matter protesters and outside opportunists. That said, while many have protested peacefully, there is no shortage of reports, photos and videos of protesters throwing bottles at police, shining lasers in their eyes, ripping down pieces of the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, and trying to set the building on fire.
What began as righteous protests, in response to the unjustified killing of a Black man by a white police officer, have partly morphed in some places into rioting by an angry mob.
If the combination of President Donald Trump and coronavirus had forced people to turn off their TVs for the past two months, in an effort to preserve their sanity, tuning back in today would give people little idea what prompted the chaos playing out on the streets of Portland. That’s because since the federal agents went in, there has been scant discussion about the unfair treatment African Americans often receive at the hands of police, and lots of discussion about goon squads tossing protesters into unmarked vans.
Trump is manipulating Democrats
Placing the complex legal issues aside, there’s plenty to criticize about unidentified federal agents in military gear stuffing protesters into unmarked vehicles and driving off into the dead of night. But Democrats-resisters-Americans, step back and see the larger picture: You’re being manipulated by the president of the United States.
There was a surge of unity across political borderlines as this country spent nine brutal minutes watching a police officer squeeze the life out of a Black man, as his face was pressed to a cement street in America’s heartland. The raw horror of Floyd’s killing made it acceptable for the words “Black lives matter” to escape Republican lips.
The uncharacteristic display of empathy from some Republicans, for people who do not look like them, was a sobering blow to a reelection campaign that relies on the racist undercurrent permeating many of Trump’s most die-hard supporters. So Trump did what he does best: He co-opted the public narrative and changed it to one he thinks he can win.
The president has no control over local police. But Attorney General William Barr’s surrender of Justice Department independence, and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf’s zeal to please his boss, have allowed Trump to send droves of federal law enforcement agents to cities under the guise of protecting federal buildings.
By design rather than circumstance, federal officers were offered as bait. Protesters were drawn to feds in combat gear like moths to a flame. When federal agents responded with force, the protesters responded with force — which made the agents respond with even more force.
We could review reams of video tape and endless accounts of bloodied protesters in an effort to assess whether each canister of tear gas shot, and each baton whack delivered, was a reasonable use of force or an abuse. But for every minute of CNN or MSNBC airtime spent on that analysis, there is a minute less to spend discussing needed police reform, a lethal virus that is raging across the country, and the Trump administration’s failure to adequately address either.
Weary of wanton destruction
America is transfixed on the fight between David and Goliath. Trump has cast the battle between protesters and federal law enforcement in the same way he cast “The Apprentice” — with heroes and villains and an audience that does not know it is being played.
The irony is that federal law enforcement has historically offered redress to local prosecutions that have failed to hold white police officers accountable for unjustifiable violence against African Americans. When a California state jury acquitted police officers of the 1991 beating of Rodney King, it was the Justice Department that took the unusual step of bringing federal charges on the heels of state charges for the same conduct. And it was in a federal courthouse, like the one under attack in Portland, that two police officers were sentenced to prison for their assault on King.
Ninety-five percent of Democrats support peaceful protests against racial injustice. But many Democrats are also weary of the wanton destruction arising from the demonstrations. Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, a self-described "member of the resistance," recently made a Twitter plea to all protesters to stop the destruction.
Daily images of chaos in the streets are a lifeline to Trump’s tanking reelection campaign. People are understandably frightened by the instability that comes with mobs of people trashing property and attacking law enforcement officers — even if its genesis is a virtuous cause.
The images have allowed Trump to remake himself as a law-and-order president while painting Democrats and presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden as supportive of calls to “defund the police.” And while Biden has expressly rejected the notion of defunding the police, that has not stopped Trump from releasing an unnerving TV ad of “Biden’s America,” in which an answering machine picks up a 911 call and suggests leaving a message to report a murder.
Civil rights and Democratic leaders need to do what they can to put an end to the destruction and violence accompanying ongoing protests. This is not a time for splintered messaging, criticisms of our candidate or moves that offer ammunition to Trump and the GOP.
The next 97 days is an all hands on deck, save the Supreme Court, drive your elderly neighbors to the polls, red light fire alarm. This is Democrats’ election to lose. But losing is not an option. It’s not hyperbole to say what we all know: American Democracy will not survive another four years under the Trump regime.
Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Violent protests are a lifeline for Trump's tanking reelection campaign