WASHINGTON — The protests that have erupted nationwide in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd have combined expressions of anger toward President Trump with calls for police reform and a push to address systemic racism. Yet, even as protesters gather on Trump’s doorstep, many in the crowds are reluctant to embrace his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The ambivalence about Biden, and the Trump campaign’s attempts to capitalize on it, is part of a larger dynamic playing out in the presidential race, where razor-thin margins in swing states could determine who wins the national election. In those states, it may not be enough for voters to dislike Trump; they have to be willing to go to the polls and vote for Biden, and some at the protests say they won’t do so.
Ryan Walker, a 30-year-old African-American teacher with a shaved head, stood among the crowd outside the newly fenced-in Lafayette Square and declared he was “very unhappy” Biden had emerged as the Democratic nominee. Walker explained that he preferred Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a progressive who was Biden’s top rival in the Democratic primary.
“I will not be supporting Joe Biden,” Walker said, adding, “Even if he made a bunch of campaign promises, he has 50 years in public service. We can look at his record for how he views our community. The war on crime — he’s very responsible for mass incarceration, and he needs to take ownership of that.”
As a presidential candidate, Biden has presented a criminal justice reform plan and a platform for African-Americans focused on increasing their economic mobility and eliminating the racial wealth gap. He has also issued clear expressions of support for the protests and condemnation of Floyd’s death.
However, Biden has faced criticism for some previous positions from his lengthy career, particularly his support as a senator for the 1994 crime bill, which critics see as a major driver of mass incarceration. More recently, he came under fire for a May 22 interview on a hip-hop radio show where he declared, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
Standing on the edge of Lafayette Square, Walker brought up that comment, saying he felt it showed Biden “felt very entitled” to black votes. He described it as a larger issue within the Democratic Party, which has won the support of roughly 90 percent of black voters in recent elections.
Walker was so bothered by Biden’s remark that he bought a $30 T-shirt from the Trump campaign that highlighted the comment, even though it meant donating to the Republican’s campaign.
“I don’t support Trump,” Walker explained. “I’m not going to vote for him, but that shirt, it means something, and I thought it was worth buying.”
He added, “I’m very passionate about how horrible of a politician I think Biden will be for our community.”
That quickly produced T-shirt, which bore the hashtag “#YouAintBlack” over Biden’s name, reflects the Trump team’s eagerness to exploit Biden’s vulnerabilities, particularly among younger African-American men. While recent polls conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News showed that more than 90 percent of black women back Biden, that number drops to 80 percent for African-American men. His support in those polls goes down to 70 percent among black men under 50.
That likely won’t translate to much Trump support — exit polls show that more than 90 percent of black voters overall and about 80 percent of black men voted against Trump in 2016 — but it could still benefit him if his campaign keeps those voters away from the polls. Overall black turnout dipped in 2016 compared with four years earlier, when Barack Obama, the first African-American president, ran for reelection. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 40 percent of eligible black voters didn’t cast ballots in the 2016 election, which was decided by a small number of votes.
Four years ago, Trump’s team openly discussed its desire to “suppress” votes from African-Americans, young people and other groups who weren’t enthusiastic about the Democratic nominee in that race, Hillary Clinton. This time around, Trump’s campaign is clearly eager to pounce on any weakness Biden might have among black voters.
Senior Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson cited Biden’s past support for the 1994 crime bill and other legislation, including mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers, while touting Trump’s record on black issues.
“At the end of the day, [Biden has] taken black voters for granted and even questioned the race and blood of those who dare to think independently when he said, ‘You ain’t black,’” Pierson said.
Despite the Trump campaign’s pitch, the vast majority of black voters do not back the president, and a recent poll conducted by Yahoo News and YouGov found most Americans believe Trump is “racist.” “F*** Trump!” has become one of the most common refrains among protest crowds, along with chants of “Black lives matter!” and “No justice, no peace!”
Yet for some at the protests, animosity toward Trump will not be enough to push them to vote for Biden.
Yasuke Sisay, who said he was the local chief of staff for the New Black Panther Party in Charlotte, N.C., was out in front of the White House on Saturday evening with two other members of the group in their trademark berets. Sisay said he is currently planning to “stand neutral” in the presidential race, though he opposes Trump.
“If I had to go with anyone, I would say Biden, but … I’m not voting,” Sisay said.
Ty Hobson-Powell, one of the lead organizers of an activist group called Concerned Citizens, which formed around the protests, said what he wants to see from the Democrats is a proposal for real reforms. “What we want is substantive policy,” he said. “We want the things that will actually be the reason we don’t have to come out here and protest.”
Concerned Citizens has declined to weigh in specifically on the presidential candidates and instead focused on its policy goals. When asked what Trump or Biden could do to engage with the protests, Hobson-Powell suggested they need to work on legislation.
“If they were adequately addressing it, we wouldn’t be out here,” he said of the demonstrations. “I’d like to see more leadership from all parts of America on this. It’s no longer a Democrat or a Republican issue. It’s a human rights issue.”
Biden’s criminal justice reform plan includes steps to end mandatory minimum sentencing at the federal and state levels, and incentives for states to reduce their incarcerated populations. However, his proposals fall well short of some of the demands articulated by some of the protesters, including mandatory civilian review boards and decreased funding for police departments.
Whatever disagreements the protesters might have with Biden, Trump’s platform is clearly further from their criminal justice reform agenda. Trump signed the First Step Act, which included sentencing reforms and spending for programs to reduce recidivism, into law in 2018. However, he has also repeatedly called for more aggressive policing.
Some of the protesters do plan to cast votes for Biden, even if they will do so reluctantly. Outside the White House on Friday night, hours after Biden officially secured the nomination, 68-year-old Walter Wiggins, who was wearing a hat and jersey from Washington’s football team, said he had no reservations about the former vice president. Wiggins offered a simple reason for supporting Biden.
“I just want this guy out of here,” he said, gesturing toward the White House.
Near Lafayette Square in the early hours of Saturday morning, Melvin, who declined to give his last name, cited the president’s handling of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests as reasons for opposing Trump. “I’ve never been a fan of Donald Trump, and he’s really shown his lack of care for all of America lately with coronavirus, with the way he’s handled police killings and systemic racism,” he said.
Melvin said he was a native of the Washington, D.C., area and recently lost his job in a restaurant due to the pandemic, which has led to record unemployment. He voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary and accused Biden of having a “voting history that’s not been kind to young black men.”
Nonetheless, Melvin said beating Trump is paramount. “I am not particularly excited about Joe Biden, but this is an urgent issue. I am going to be voting for him,” he said.
That’s a sentiment shared by Shantasia Mitchell, a 31-year-old photographer from northeast Washington, D.C., who said she didn’t vote in 2016 even though she is opposed to Trump. This year, Mitchell voted for Sanders in the primary but now is ready to cast a ballot for Biden.
“I did vote for Bernie. Unfortunately, he didn’t win,” Mitchell said. “I do have, I guess, Joe Biden to vote for.”
While some of the protesters may have ambivalence toward Biden, the former vice president’s lead in national polls has grown as the demonstrations have spread throughout the country. The protests — and Trump’s aggressive response to them — may be driving up support for Biden. Even in the crowds, it seems that, despite the complex feelings on display, many of the protesters are lining up to back Biden.
Mitchell said that while she’s not necessarily excited about Biden, she’s optimistic about his chance of winning based on conversations she’s had in the crowds on the D.C. streets.
“I do feel like Joe Biden’s going to win this election simply just because of what I’ve seen over the week and a half that I’ve been out here,” Mitchell said as she gestured to the crowds in the square. “I’ve talked to plenty of them. They’re ready to vote for Joe Biden. They’re ready to get Trump out of there.”
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