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USA TODAY Poll: Forceful clearing of Lafayette Square protest was defining moment for president and protests

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The police crackdown to clear protesters from Lafayette Square last week looms as a defining moment in the national debate over race and law enforcement that followed the death of George Floyd.

An exclusive USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll finds Americans overwhelmingly endorse the right of peaceful protest outside the White House – a view held by nearly 9 of 10 people across racial and partisan lines. Nearly 9 of 10 heard about the clashes that cleared demonstrators before President Donald Trump walked across the square to stand in front of historic St. John's Church, holding aloft a Bible.

In their wake, Americans by a huge margin, by 22 percentage points, express more trust in the Black Lives Matter movement to promote justice and racial equality than they do in the president of the United States. Former President Barack Obama is more than twice as likely as Trump to be seen as a president who could best handle this moment of civil unrest.

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A woman walks past a "Black Lives Matter" mural painted on the boarded-up Apple Store, June 6, 2020, in Boston.
A woman walks past a "Black Lives Matter" mural painted on the boarded-up Apple Store, June 6, 2020, in Boston.

Two-thirds of Americans, 63%, oppose the show of force that swept the protesters from the park just north of the White House, the scene of many demonstrations in the past. Almost half, 44%, say they "strongly" oppose it.

"That was a bad call," says Aaron Jones, 40, a Republican from Katy, Texas.

Charles Ritt, 56, a Democrat from Roseville, Minnesota, who watched the scene unfold on TV, called it "disgusting and ridiculous."

Some of those surveyed side with law enforcement.

"That's kind of sad that force had to be used," says Jane Gillespie, 26, a Republican from Glendale, Arizona. "But it seemed like they felt like there was a threat to the president, and that's why they were acting the way they did."

Thirty percent of those surveyed, including 50% of Republicans, support the use of rubber bullets and tear gas in the park.

The online poll of 1,113 adults, taken Monday and Tuesday, has a credibility interval, akin to a margin of error, of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

Divisions along racial and especially partisan lines remain, including when it comes to finding the right balance between protecting peaceful protests and ensuring law and order. Americans are split down the middle: 45% say law and order should be the priority, 44% say the right to protest should be the priority.

Biden more trusted to promote justice

The poll underscores the degree to which the president's provocative comments about the demonstrations in particular and the issue of racial justice in general seem out of step with the mood of the country.

The poll was in the field when Trump posted a controversial tweet Tuesday that promoted an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory about a 75-year-old protester who was pushed to the ground and injured by police in Buffalo, New York.

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Mike Desmond,  75, a protester falls to the ground after being shoved by Buffalo, N.Y., police, on June 4 after Buffalo's curfew went into effect.
Mike Desmond, 75, a protester falls to the ground after being shoved by Buffalo, N.Y., police, on June 4 after Buffalo's curfew went into effect.

Thirty-eight percent of Americans say they trust Trump to promote justice and equal treatment for people of all races – much lower than the Black Lives Matter movement, trusted by 60%, or the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, trusted by 51%.

Asked to choose among the current president and the four former presidents who are living, 45% of Americans identify Obama as the one best suited to handle the challenges. Twenty percent choose Trump.

Among Democrats, 75% choose Obama. Among Republicans, 43% choose Trump, lower than the support he and his actions generally command within the GOP. Eighteen percent of Republicans choose former President George W. Bush and 15% choose Obama.

"I think it speaks volumes that the (former) presidents have kind of unified and that so much of the country is unified in its feeling," says Brittany Baca, 31, a Democrat from Oregon City, Oregon, referring to public statements issued by former presidents expressing support for the protesters. Trump "is making opposite, opposing statements" that she calls "atrocious."

Baca, the daughter of a police officer, says cellphone videos showing police violence against Floyd and other African Americans were an awakening for her and others. "It just breaks our hearts to hear what's going on in the country," she says in a follow-up phone interview. "This feels terrible to say, but it's really opened our eyes to the fact that it's happening."

Mostly peaceful or mostly violent?

On some questions, the partisan divide is yawning.

  • Three-fourths of Democrats, 73%, say the protests after Floyd's death have been mostly peaceful; a 54% majority of Republicans say they have been mostly violent.

  • Two-thirds of Democrats, 65%, say the right to protest is the most important thing to ensure, "even if it means there are some incidents of violence." Two-thirds of Republicans, 69%, say law and order is the most important thing to ensure, "even if it means limiting peaceful protests."

  • Three-fourths of Democrats, 75%, oppose the idea of deploying U.S. military forces to states in the wake of the Lafayette Square protest. Two-thirds of Republicans, 68%, support the idea.

"Views toward George Floyd's killing and the subsequent protests tell a tale of two Americas," says Cliff Young, president of Ipsos. "The vast difference of opinions and experiences here highlight not only a deep racial divide but one based on partisanship."

There are jarring differences along partisan lines about what institutions and forces can be trusted to promote justice and equal treatment. Republicans most trust the U.S. military (89%) and police and law enforcement (79%). Democrats most trust Black Lives Matter (84%) and Joe Biden (78%).

The divide is also racial. Black people express much lower levels of trust in police and law enforcement than white people do, 28% compared with 65%.

A solid majority of Americans agree on some basics. Sixty percent say Floyd was murdered; just 2% say the police officer "did nothing wrong." Sixty-five percent support the protests that followed, and 87% support protesting peacefully outside the White House.

Ten days after demonstrators were cleared from Lafayette Square, it continues to be a center of protest activity. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed a section of the street "Black Lives Matter Plaza," and a makeshift shrine to Floyd covers part of an expanded security fence that was erected around the White House.

"By protesting and reacting, that shows me that people still have a sense of humanity about them, and they believe ... that their expression of how they feel and what they think can still have the desired effect," says Maira Nigam, 62, a Democrat from Stamford, Connecticut, though she adds with a touch of skepticism: "So they still have hope. We'll see if that holds up."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trust high in Black Lives Matter; photo op defining moment for Trump

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