Every Democrat, every progressive with a brain in their head knows the urgency and centrality of winning the 2020 elections and defeating Trump and his authoritarian cronies. But there is also great urgency and import in winning the central definitional fight with the Trump machine over the nature of what is going on in America right now. If Trump can succeed at defining the Black Lives Matter protests as merely violence and thuggery, we will not only likely lose this election: we will have lost a historic opportunity to actually make real progress on both racial and economic justice.
To make the most obvious point imaginable, Donald Trump is trying to scare the shit out of voters with his chaos and riots-in-the-streets message. It is one of the last things he has with the potential to change the dynamics in this race. What he is doing is overtly conflating protest about police shootings and racial injustice with violence and rioting, saying they are one and the same.
Progressives must not, cannot allow this definition of protest and riots to stand.
There is so much going on right now, so much bullshit needs to be responded to every single day. Chaos and short attention span are the hallmarks of the Trump campaign. But this fight over the definition of the Black Lives Matter protests is central to not only the campaign, but the future of racial justice. When the huge new round of BLM protests began after George Floyd’s death, the American people responded with a remarkable amount of empathy and support. Millions of people of all ages, races, and religions, joined protests all over the country, in small towns, suburbs, and big cities in every state. Polling showed that two thirds of Americans supported the protesters and their goals for racial justice, which was a remarkable number given past attitudes among white Americans about policing reforms. Our movement and message were getting through.
The biggest reason the protests were working was the discipline and creativity of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests were brilliantly executed, were overwhelmingly peaceful, and drew literally millions of marchers from all walks of life. They were reminiscent of the kind of protests that MLK and John Lewis had so iconically organized in the 1950s and ‘60s, except with online organizing and social media adding to the power of them. The brilliance of those protests and the widespread support coincided with Joe Biden’s best polling numbers in the campaign.
Trump and the right-wing, white supremacist militia forces that back him are working very hard to disrupt not only the protests themselves, but the narrative around them. They want to turn the beauty and power of those protests into something far more unsettling, into something chaotic and violent and out of control. Into “riots" and ”looting" and “thuggery.”
All of this is well known: Trump and his private militias are encouraging heavily armed men to go into cities and be intentionally disruptive. In some cases, police officers and departments are being overly aggressive and violent in going after peaceful demonstrators. In other cases, police have been documented in cooperating and coordinating with the right-wing militias. And Trump constantly is making everything worse, including sending unidentified federal cops to grab protesters off the streets and put them into unmarked vans.
Meanwhile, other forces are taking advantage of the demonstrations and the aggressiveness of police and militias countering them. In some cities, organized crime groups have been taking trucks and breaking into warehouses while protests have been going on, so that the looting can be blamed on the demonstrators. And yes, while rare, unfortunately some young people tired of being bullied by police and militias are allowing their anger to overcome their common sense and are engaging in violence themselves.
The violence and chaos in the streets is making more people question the righteousness of our cause.
The progressive movement needs to be very clear: the vast majority of protests and protesters are peaceful. We are going to keep protesting until things actually begin to change, but we reject violence and are going to model the proud non-violent discipline of King, Lewis, and others whose shoulders we stand on.
Democratic Party politicians should be very clear as well. They should be supporting the BLM protests, and making people understand the truth, that most of these protests are peaceful and that their cause is just, even while rejecting the violence on the streets.
Folks, we have to win this argument over the definition and values of these protests. We can’t let Trump and his team turn them into something they are not. We win by embracing the discipline of non-violence and by making it clear that Trump’s definition of these protests is dead wrong.