Riots in Minneapolis and across the US triggered by video footage showing George Floyd, a black man, killed under the knee of a police officer, has caused a dramatic shift in the national political debate in America and thrust race to the center of the stage.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden offered divergent responses that point to an even more divisive political debate on race relations and between Democrats and Republicans playing out in the months ahead.
The president, in a tweet in the early hours of Friday, warned that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Later on Friday the former vice-president in a video address called for national unity and serious police reform, saying: “This is no time for incendiary tweets. This is no time to encourage violence. This is a national crisis, and we need real leadership right now.”
Shortly afterward at a separate press conference in the Rose Garden where the president seemed poised to follow up and further address Floyd’s death and the riots, Trump instead announced that the US would withdraw from the World Health Organization.
He did not mention the riots or Floyd’s death.
Meanwhile, Biden revealed he had already spoken to Floyd’s grieving family and spoke emotionally of the shock at his killing and society’s racial problems. “We’re a country with an open wound. None of us any longer can hear the words ‘I can’t breathe’ and do nothing,” he said.
The wildly different responses by the two men battling for the White House under the ongoing cloud of the coronavirus pandemic has left party leaders unsure of what exactly the final months of the presidential election will now look like.
But leaders and strategists agree on one thing: the months ahead are likely to be a bareknuckle brawl over what the most pressing problems facing the US are.
The president usually thrives on culture wars. But I think this flame is probably going to engulf his presidencyBakari Sellers
“The question is whether Democrats are going to adjust to the reality of what is going to be a brutal, vicious and mean campaign cycle and if we don’t, we’re going to lose,” said the former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed.
Bakari Sellers, a former member of the South Carolina house of representatives, said: “The president usually thrives on culture wars. But I think this flame is probably going to engulf his presidency.”
Leah Daughtry, a veteran Democratic political operative, warned Trump’s late-night tweet on shooting looters was a deliberate attempt to incite his base of supporters rather than push for unity or any kind of de-escalation of tensions.
“I think the president’s tweet does what it’s intended to do and [was] directed to the audience it’s intended for him to reach … it’s clearly intended to incite and engage a particular part of his audience,” Daughtry said.
On Friday, Minnesota’s governor, Tim Walz, visibly frustrated, held an extended press conference where he called for healing and tried to address the long-simmering tensions that have erupted over Floyd’s death. At the same time, Walz also stressed the importance that he and other officials maintain order during the protests.
But that was not the uniform reaction among other major political figures . The Delaware senator Chris Coons, a member of the Senate judiciary committee, argued on Fox News that that panel should “look into the whole string of tragic killings, of incidents that are deeply wounding to our country, of police violence and then of response by communities”.
On Friday afternoon, the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, issued a statement bashing Trump for his “pathetic” Rose Garden event.
“Our communities are hurting from senseless murders and years of racism and injustice. But President Trump is only interested in scapegoating and divisiveness when he should be leading,” Schumer said.
The lack of anything close to a unified national response highlights the frustration people are feeling, said Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes.
“People are frustrated and rightfully so. There’s a lot of righteous anger out there and a lot of it is from being ignored, not taken seriously and the allowing of these types of things to continue,” Barnes said. “What it feels like is that it’s desensitized people, and I think that it has in a way.”
That’s only exacerbated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, argued the Democratic activist Abdul El-Sayed.
“Look, the police have been executing black men in this country for a long time. We’re just now understanding it in the last five to 10 years because everybody’s got a camera in their pocket,” El-Sayed said. “I think people are sick of it but then it’s not just that, it’s the fact that you look at Covid-19, which has been the story for the past four months, rightly so, 100,000 lives lost. Those lives are disproportionately black folks’ lives. As a function of the same exact structural forces that have allowed black people to be executed by law enforcement.”
There’s a lot of righteous anger out there and a lot of it is from being ignored, not taken seriously and the allowing of these types of things to continueMandela Barnes
The intense national focus on Floyd’s death and the responses by top political figures comes about a week after Biden’s campaign had to do damage control after the former vice-president suggested during an interview that anyone who supported Trump isn’t really black.
At the time, it seemed like Biden was at risk of losing some African American support. But since then that narrative has shifted dramatically. Jim Clyburn, the highest ranking Democratic member of Congress, said Friday that the riots damaged the Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar’s chances of being picked as Biden’s running mate due to her record as a prosecutor in the city.
Clyburn has argued that Biden should pick an African American woman, which would certainly draw a sharp contrast with Trump.
“I think right now what you’re seeing is black voters get to see how Donald Trump reacts to things like this. It’s a reminder of his history, his history of calling on law enforcement to be more aggressive, to be more brutal in their enforcement of the law,” said the Democratic strategist Brandon Davis.
Davis added: “I think in the next several months this is going to continue to be front and center in the conversation. I think over that time period people are going to see how Joe Biden deals with these issues, how he reacts to these issues, and I think they’ll get to see, again, where Donald Trump is.”
This is hardly the first time the country has had to grapple with the dynamics around an African American dying at the hands of the police, but Daughtry suggested that this may be its own unique flashpoint.
“This feels different,” Daughtry said. “It could be because the world is smaller and information travels more quickly. But I wonder if it’s not the intersection of a president whose rhetoric and demeanor and actions have unleashed a part of America that’s been hidden, underground and in the closet for decades.”