Column: These Black activists could be pawns in Trump’s evil reelection plan. They don’t care

President Trump tours Kenosha, Wis., in the aftermath of protests against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August.
President Trump tours a block in Kenosha, Wis., that was damaged during protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

James Butler isn’t backing down.

The 22-year-old founder of the upstart Black Future Project spent the summer protesting police brutality in downtown Los Angeles before moving on to get arrested on allegations of disrupting the tranquility of residents in Beverly Hills.

For the record:

8:10 a.m. Sept. 5, 2020A previous version of this column misidentified Joe Biden as a former presidential nominee. Biden is the current Democratic nominee.

He has heard all about President Trump’s recent attempts to smear Black activists like himself as “anarchists” and “looters.” He knows that the stakes are high in this election, especially for Black people, and he’s aware that some suburban voters might actually buy Trump’s claims about Democrats being the enablers of “anti-American riots.”

But he — like many activists in California — still isn’t backing down.

“All of this rhetoric is an attempt to have these right-wing groups look at the Gen Z and millennial people who are predominantly hitting the streets and make us look like uneducated nuisances,” Butler told me by phone from Boston, where he’s planning yet another protest. “But we’re upset and angry, and we see the wrongdoings of the system and we are sick of it.”


These are the kind of words that will surely give baby boomers and some of the Gen Xers in the Democratic Party an ulcer. People such as Willie Brown, former California Assembly speaker, former San Francisco mayor and confidant to Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris.

He recently declared in the San Francisco Chronicle that “the biggest threat to a Democratic election sweep in November isn’t the Republican in the White House, but the demonstrators who are tearing up cities in the name of racial justice.”

And then, as if on cue, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden released an ad that begins with images of vehicles and buildings that were presumably set ablaze in some riot somewhere.

“I want to make it absolutely clear,” Biden intones. “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”

It’s a message he echoed during a campaign stop in Kenosha, Wis., where a handful of city blocks have been ripped apart by protesters enraged over the gruesome and wholly unnecessary police shooting of Jacob Blake.

“Protesting is protesting, my buddy John Lewis used to say. But none of it justifies looting, burning or anything else. So regardless how angry you are, if you loot or you burn, you should be held [as] accountable as someone who does anything else. Period,” Biden said. “It just cannot be tolerated, across the board.”


Easy there, Joe.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wis., on Thursday.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Allow me, for just a moment, to inject a few facts into all of this political fiction.

According to a recent analysis from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, violence occurred at only about 7% of the thousands of protests that popped up across the country this summer after a Minneapolis cop kneeled on George Floyd’s neck.

Put another way, the vast majority of people who took to the streets in support of Black lives did so peacefully and only a tiny fraction of those protests drew police intervention. And this is true despite what has happened in downtown Portland, Ore., and likely will happen again this weekend as that city reaches 100 consecutive nights of protests.

Meanwhile, about 12% of the hundreds of counterprotests that have occurred this summer — many led by belligerent Trump supporters — have ended in violence, according to the analysis.

“We’ve seen people in MAGA hats show up at our weekly protest,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. “We’ve seen people come at us very violently on social media. We’ve had to ramp up our security protocols.”

It’s no wonder then that activists aren’t exactly consumed with worry over whether Trump will use them to win reelection. Rather, they are fed up, as all of us should be.


“How the hell did one minute we were talking about defund the police and killer cops, and now all of a sudden the whole narrative across the nation has been looting and rioters?” said Berry Accius, an activist with Voice of the Youth in Sacramento. “Why are we here? Let’s talk about that.”

The reason, of course, is that the political reality — er, political fiction — of this situation seems complicated. I have enough friends living in the suburbs in the Midwest to believe that what the president is saying will, in fact, resonate with some voters. Especially those who haven’t ventured into “the city” for months and what they know of the protests is limited to what they see on TV and read on Facebook.

But the real question is how much will it resonate? And so far, the answer seems to be not a whole lot.

A new ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 59% of Americans said Biden would do a better job handling the protests, compared with about 39% who said the same about Trump. When it comes to handling racial discrimination, 64% said Biden would do a better job as opposed to nearly 34% for Trump. And on reducing violence in the country overall, Americans favored Biden over Trump, 59% to 39%

All of which makes me wonder why Biden and Harris are giving so much air to Trump’s law-and-order narrative?

Why, at a time when we learn of another Black man shot by police almost every week and when police unions are scuttling legislation in Sacramento to bring about criminal justice reform, make a big stink about being endorsed by law enforcement officials, as the Biden campaign did on Friday?

Why even talk about protests that have been overwhelmingly peaceful?

And why release ads promising to punish the very few who turn to vandalism and theft, instead of solely focusing on why they are out there at all? Didn’t we settle this back in May when everyone lost their mind over people stealing stuff out of a Target in the mayhem after Floyd died in Minneapolis?


“Joe Biden is giving his own version of the ‘very fine people on both sides’ narrative,” Abdullah said. “He should take an unshakable stance on the side of those of us who are protesting police brutality and violence against white supremacist terrorism, but he hasn’t done that.”

To be fair, the former vice president has called out Trump for inciting violence with his rhetoric and for refusing to denounce his supporters who have shown up at peaceful protests with guns and, in at least one case, killed people. The Biden campaign, with Harris at the forefront, also is pushing for police reform.

One thing seems clear, though. If fretful Democrats were hoping that activists marching for Black lives would take a hint and take a break between now and election day, that’s not going to happen. Not in California anyway.

“Nobody’s going to ever make me not protest,” Abdullah said. “The one way they can be sure that we’ll protest harder is to tell us we can’t.”

Perhaps that’s the thinking behind one of the findings in the ABC News/Ipsos poll. When asked if what Biden has been saying is making the protests better, worse or having no effect one way or the other, about half said he hasn’t had much of an effect.

“Hearing a Democrat say something like that, like the rioting is crossing the line? Well, killing Black people is also crossing the line,” Butler said. “What do you expect people to do?”