New York Times - May 31, 2020
COLUMBIA, S.C. — In an on-camera address after a week of destructive protests, former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr. pleaded with his audience to imagine life for black people in America. Imagine, he said, “if every time your husband or son, wife or daughter left the house, you feared for their safety.” Imagine the police called on you for sitting in Starbucks.
“The anger and frustration and the exhaustion, it’s undeniable,” he said.
Exhaustion. For many black Americans across the country, what a year this month has been. The coronavirus pandemic has continued to disproportionately kill black people, and a spate of high profile killings in recent months in Georgia, Kentucky, and Minnesota, the latter two at the hands of the police, led to widespread demonstrations nationwide.
Protests shook more than three dozen cities on Saturday as crowds expressed outrage over the death of George Floyd, a black security guard who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis. Demonstrators shut down freeways, set fires and battled police batons and tear gas, the pain and frustration of the moment spilling out into the streets.
In Columbia, the city where Mr. Biden delivered his victory speech after the South Carolina primary just over three months ago, demonstrators on Saturday said they were demanding more than what it seemed like an election in November would deliver. Not only justice for the death of George Floyd, but change in political and economic power that would prevent the death of another black person in police custody, another brutal video going viral.
“I’m tired of coming out here,” said Devean Moon, a 21-year-old Columbia resident, one of hundreds who participated in the peaceful protests in the city. “I’m tired of feeling forced to do all this.”
It dawned on Sierra Moore, 24, who attended the protests carrying a homemade sign that read “No Justice, No Peace,” that she and her grandmother have been protesting the same issues over the course of a century.
She looked at the racially diverse group of thousands, which gathered for a short program on the State House steps before leading a march to the local police station.
Next to her was another sign: “Respect my existence or expect my resistance.”
“I just don’t think that’s how change happens,” Ms. Moore said of voting. “They’ve been telling us to do that for so long — and we’ve done it — and look at everything that’s still going on.”
Her words — expressing a sentiment shared by her peers — serve notice to politicians, civil rights groups and Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee who has urged unity amid the frustration. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote,” said Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, but interviews with activists and leading Democratic figures including Stacey Abrams of Georgia, the longtime civil rights leader and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, and Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, flipped that typical framework: If Democrats want people to vote, party leaders need to listen to why people are angry.
Ms. Abrams described the events of the past week as what happens when people are desperate for “their pain to be validated.”
“You cannot motivate someone to a behavior that they don’t believe will actually bring change,” she said. “We have to start by saying what you feel and what you fear is real.”
As he seeks to win the White House for the Democrats, the party that is the political home of most black Americans, Mr. Biden has attempted to strike this balance. He made clear that he has spoken to Mr. Floyd’s family. “We are a nation enraged, but we cannot allow our rage to consume us,” he said in a statement released early Sunday morning. “We are a nation exhausted, but we will not allow our exhaustion to defeat us.”
“The very soul of America is at stake,” he said, tying the tension between the police and black communities to removing President Trump from the White House.
The moment may still test Mr. Biden’s priorities, as a weary black electorate desires far greater change than the promise of a return to normalcy that has fueled his campaign. Energizing those voters, activists and elected leaders say, means addressing their demands for change and the realities of racism. But the former vice president, one of the Senate architects of the modern criminal justice system, cannot confront racism without addressing systemic inequalities, and he cannot address systemic inequalities by simply returning to a pre-Trump America.
“Our needs aren’t moderate,” Mr. Jackson said in a recent interview. “The absence of Trump is not enough.” ...
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