US anti-racism protests give way to the question of what comes next

America Letter: Trump’s response to rallies has highlighted issues with his re-election bid

Angelica and Zayden Cuevas look at signs on a temporary security fence at Lafayette Square in front of the White House in Washington, DC, US. File photograph: Michael A McCoy/The New York Times

Angelica and Zayden Cuevas look at signs on a temporary security fence at Lafayette Square in front of the White House in Washington, DC, US. File photograph: Michael A McCoy/The New York Times

 

The handmade signs and makeshift posters were still there this week, fluttering in the breeze. Some hung on strings from trees, others were taped roughly to a boarded-up construction site.

Since authorities began to dismantle the protective barrier wrapped around Lafayette Square in front of the White House, a conversation has begun about preserving the symbols of the anti-racism protests that had gripped Washington, DC, in previous days.

In a deep irony, the steel mesh fence erected as a fortress outside the White House as the Trump administration ordered law enforcement to face off with peaceful protesters had become a wall of art, a reminder of the passion and solidarity that prompted widespread demonstrations following the death of black American George Floyd at the hands of white police officers.

While in Washington a conversation has begun about saving some of the signs for posterity, across the country a broader conversation is taking place about what’s next for the anti-racism protests that erupted following the death of Floyd.

In most cities, the nightly demonstrations have subsided, though in Seattle an interesting experiment in police-free living is under way. After a week of standoffs between the police and protesters near a police station in an area of the city, officers blinked first. They vacated the building, boarded up the windows and allowed the demonstrators to continue their sit-in within what was now a semi-autonomous civic zone.

Seizing momentum

By and large, the mass protests that spread throughout the country from Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, have been peaceful; the instances of looting and destruction in the early days of the protests were not replicated as the demonstrations went on.

But as former president Barack Obama urged in his first public comments on the protests last week, those demonstrating need to seize the momentum.

“To bring about real change we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to transform that into practical solutions,” he said.

The first obvious step is police reform.

On Monday, Democrats in Congress unveiled a proposal that would ban the use of chokeholds – which restrict or block the flow of air through the windpipe – by police, create a national database to track police misconduct and end “qualified immunity”, a legal concept that gives protections to police officers.

But given that much of the US’s policing is managed at local and state level – there are almost 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country – change must happen locally, a point raised by Obama, who has highlighted the central role played by local elected government officials in criminal justice and police practices.

Trump's gamble to appeal to a core minority of the American public may not work in November’s election

Nonetheless, there appears to be movement on the issue. Republicans in Congress have been considering their own police reform legislation, and some kind of executive action from the White House could be in the offing.

The catalyst may well be public opinion.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll has found that 69 per cent of people think there is a problem with law enforcement in the country, higher than in previous polls.

Similarly, a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week found that most Americans – including Republicans – support many of the measures contained in the Democratic Bill. Eighty-nine per cent also think police who stop people should be required to give their name, badge and the reason for an arrest.

Presidential intervention

One figure who seems unsure about the direction of the debate is Donald Trump. The US president has continued to weigh in on the side of law enforcement officers. Sporadic tweets shouting “Law and Order!” emanated from his Twitter account this week – a hark back to Richard Nixon’s election strategy in 1968.

While Trump has condemned Floyd’s death, his criticism has been tempered by a refusal to acknowledge any systemic racism in the police force, instead pointing to “bad apples” within its ranks.

Similarly, he has adopted an unyielding stance on the Confederate monument controversy that has resurfaced. He ruled out this week renaming army bases in the south named after Confederate generals, even as the Pentagon, a typically conservative institution, was examining the issue.

Trump is banking on his popularity among the white, mostly male, core base who helped propel him to victory in 2016. But his gamble to appeal to a core minority of the American public may not work in November’s election, when he can no longer bank on a sizeable anti-Clinton vote.

Several polls this week have again put Trump’s presumed opponent, Joe Biden, well ahead of the president if the election was held tomorrow.

Trump, famed for his instinctive ability to read the Republican base, may need to recover his ability to sense which way the wind is blowing if he is to repeat his electoral success of four years ago.

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