As the summer of our discontent draws to a close, it’s worth assessing the damage. The physical damage in cities around the country, as well as the cost in lives, has yet to be tallied. The political cost is being totted up more quickly — and at first glance looks smaller than feared. But that assessment depends on whose losses you’re measuring.
If any state should have been receptive to President Trump’s attempt to tie mainstream Democrats to violence in the streets, and to wrap himself in the mantle of “law and order,” it should have been Wisconsin. And yet, the evidence so far suggests the opposite. Multiple polls taken since the riots in Kenosha have shown Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s standing has improved, rather than deteriorated. The campaign’s messaging — condemning looting and disorder, and blaming Trump for being an arsonist rather than dousing the flames — seems to be effective.
So Trump’s opponents can breathe at least a small sigh of relief about their chances of defeating Trump. What comes after that is a completely different story. For advocates of fundamental changes to policing and criminal justice in America, the signs are less auspicious, and the violence may yet be taking a meaningful toll.
Even as Biden’s poll numbers have held up in Wisconsin, support for Black Lives Matter and for protesters has dropped significantly since late June; net support from BLM dropped from 32 points to 12 points in six weeks, while net support for the protests dropped from 24 points to zero in the same period. A modest decline in support for Black Lives Matter has been observed nationally as well, driven mainly by white voters. If those voters have solidly continued to support Biden, it’s partly because Trump is actually in power, and therefore responsible for the disorder he’s trying to run against, and partly because Biden has been able to find a center between extremes that garners an overwhelming majority of public support. And Black Lives Matter risks being identified with one of the extremes.
In theory, it doesn’t have to be. Much of violence being perpetrated is either freelance criminality or is the work of anarchist and other extremist elements with few or no ties to any real organization. Just about any story on violence at protests describes marchers yelling at hooligans to stop their destructive behavior. It’s not impossible to imagine the leadership of BLM taking precisely the same tack as the Biden campaign has in forcefully denouncing violence and disassociating themselves from anarchist groups, while continuing to demand justice and continuing to mount large and disruptive protests.
But Black Lives Matter is an exceptionally loose organization, founded via social media and largely lacking in hierarchy. That makes it extremely difficult for anyone to speak for the movement, or to impose any kind of discipline on its own supporters. And that, in turn, significantly inhibits its potential effectiveness.
Consider how that lack of institutional authority colors the messaging of something like this August press release from Black Lives Matter Chicago, regarding a police shooting. The release attacks Mayor Lori Lightfoot for demanding an end to looting and vandalism, defends that behavior as a legitimate uprising in response to oppression, contrasts it with the far more egregious “looting” of the city by wealthy interests, and promises continued protests until their demands are met. That kind of message is denounced as extortionate by the right — but a radical could reasonably counter that power only respects power, and that the fight for civil rights was unpopular at the time. Why should BLM concern itself with public opinion, or police its tone to satisfy suburban sensibilities?
But is that message actually a sign of power? If BLM Chicago had demonstrated the ability to discipline protesters and prevent violence, then it might be considered tactically aggressive but still potentially effective. In the absence of that evidence, though, it reads more like the purported leadership following the crowd, and in the process revealing its own impotence. In which case, why negotiate with them? Who’s to say that, even if their demands were met, they’d be able to bring disorder to a halt?
Now consider how all of the above interacts with right-wing violence. The story of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who traveled to Kenosha to “defend” the city and shot three people, killing two of them, is now nationally famous, but he’s far from alone. Right-wing armed militias are an increasing feature of these scenes of violence and disorder, and are frequently condoned or even supported by the police. Astute observers recognize that restoring order will require ending that tacit support and, instead, policing in an evenhanded manner.
But doing that quite obviously requires the police themselves to be more active, which would impact left-wing protests as well. This is precisely the dynamic which contributed to the escalation of the protests back in June. It’s not hard to see how that might easily happen again, and if it does, will public support rally to the protesters as it did last time — particularly if the declared reason for, say, stricter curfews is to prevent street battles between right-wing militias and black-clad anarchists? Count me as doubtful.
Democratically-elected leaders have the responsibility for changing this dynamic. The advocates of radical changes in policing and criminal justice, as well as in economic equity and a host of other issues, are pressing the case that those changes are an indispensable component to restoring order — that without justice, there won’t be peace. To succeed, they need to be able to credibly demonstrate that they have the power to deliver peace — that there are partnerships to be forged, deals to be made. Failure to demonstrate that may not re-elect Trump. Instead, it may encourage a Biden administration to govern from precisely the law-and-order center that he occupied for his entire career.