Rioting is beginning to turn people off to BLM and protests while Biden has no solution

James S. Robbins

Violence erupted last week in Kenosha, Wisconsin after Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police. The mayhem followed the usual pattern, with daytime protests devolving into night-time looting and arson. But rage-fueled anarchy is no substitute for reform-based policy, and as violence in the streets continues, as it has in Portland, it is becoming a problem for election-year Democrats.

Press outlets have generally tried to downplay the violent aspects of the protests, sometimes going to absurd lengths. CNN’s Omar Jimenez reported live from Kenosha in front of burning businesses while a chyron described the scene as “fiery but mostly peaceful protests.” The narrative “buildings burn at peaceful protest” is Orwellian doublethink in action. This would be like reporting that most protesters were unharmed in Kenosha even though a few were shot and killed. Pro tip: arson and shootings are news, the rest is context.

Riots are turning people off to BLM

Democrats may have hoped that the national reckoning on race would be a favorable issue for 2020. But the street violence has overwhelmed their reform message. CNN’s Don Lemon bemoaned the fact that the rioting is “showing up in the polling” and “showing up in focus groups.” He said the “rioting has to stop” because “it is the only thing right now that is sticking.” 

A Justice for Jacob Blake March and rally in Kenosha on Aug. 29, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Lemon offered no evidence to back up his claim about polls and focus groups, but other reports support it. The Civiqs tracking poll is particularly interesting for understanding the dynamics at play. Net approval for the Black Lives Matter movement peaked back on June 3 and has fallen sharply since. This was just over a week after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, when riots had begun to sweep major cities. Among whites, net approval is already negative and headed downward. And while Democrats and Republicans are as polarized on the issue as one would expect, white Independents have shown a dramatic falloff in BLM support, going from a net 24% in early June to net 3% now, which is lower than before Floyd was killed. Of course BLM is not synonymous with rioting, but this trend may show the extent to which the issues have been conflated in the public mind.

COLUMN:Donald Trump using federal agents as political stage props is anything but ‘law and order’

“Defund the police” has lost its luster as a political issue, if it ever really had any. Some cities have cut police budgets and reallocated funds to social programs, but positive buzz about this on the national level has vanished. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has come out against defunding, while imaginatively charging that President Trump supports it. This may be a response to poor polling on the issue even among African Americans and Trump’s solid backing from police unions. Meanwhile the “defund the police” mural that was painted on 16th Street near the White House with great fanfare in June quietly vanished over two weeks ago. 

Biden needs a concrete solution

Then there are the cases of bad optics. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pegged the entitlement meter when she unapologetically claimed that a heavy police presence around her block during Chicago’s disturbances was necessary because her family has “a right in our home to live in peace.” Unlike, apparently, everyone else in Chicago. Add to that the viral video of white demonstrators hounding a white woman outside a restaurant in Washington’s gentrified Adams Morgan district for not complying with their demand she raise her first in a black power salute. This drew fire from Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser, who said the performative antics did not have “anything to do with demands for social justice,” and encouraged restaurants to call the police if it happens again. Even the Washington Post agreed that this type of bullying “was a misstep that might undermine the protest movement’s intended message.” 

Biden:America needs law and order but not Trump’s intimidation. Biden must make both points.

Some commentators have compared this election season to 1968, when Richard Nixon seized the “law and order” mantle in the wake of that summer’s racial riots. Vice President Hubert Humphrey initially tried to straddle the issue, but when he finally gave a speech in mid-October pledging to crack down on street violence, he alienated civil rights leaders like Rep. John Conyers, Julian Bond, and Coretta Scott King. Biden is in a similar fix, made more difficult given the much greater strength of minority groups and progressives in the contemporary Democratic party. But his real problem is a white electorate that was less engaged with the civil rights cause to begin with and is now turning sour on it. Yes, the riot issue is sticking. President Trump has his answer, sending the FBI and U.S. Marshals to assist in Kenosha. If Joe Biden has a concrete solution to the problem of American cities in flames, he’s keeping it to himself.

James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins

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