(Reuters) – Anti-racism protesters recognize the risk that comes with their calls for equal justice, knowing that for all their peaceful protests, scenes of burning buildings will hand U.S. President Donald Trump the images he needs for his “law and order” re-election campaign.
But activists in hotspots such as Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, say they are confident voters are on their side and that they won’t back down from a strategy that includes street demonstrations under the banner of Black Lives Matter.
“We’re not intimidated,” said Veronica King, leader of the Kenosha chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “The voters have seen the videos (of police enforcement against Black men). I believe the voters are behind the movement and want change.”
With Trump, a Republican, trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election, the president has seized on the violence coming from the protests, even though the majority have been peaceful.
“The Democrats never even mentioned the words LAW & ORDER at their National Convention,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. “If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters.'”
In Portland, where there have been more than 100 straight nights of demonstrations, protest leader Demetria Hester of Moms United for Black Lives called the fear campaign a “publicity stunt” and said the movement was undeterred.
“People are still dying and police aren’t getting charged, and people … see that and they aren’t going to back down,” Hester said.
Thousands of demonstrations spread across the United States following the May 25 death of George Floyd when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.
Protests flared anew after police in Kenosha shot Jacob Blake in the back on Aug. 23.
People from across the political spectrum flocked to these crucibles, pitting highly polarized factions against each other, sometimes with deadly results. A volatile mix of local and outside nighttime demonstrators, armed right-wing militias, and heavily equipped police occupied the same streets, leading to clashes.
A 17-year-old rifle-toting Trump supporter has been charged with killing two protesters and wounding a third in Kenosha. His lawyer says it was self-defense. In Portland, left-wing protester Michael Reinoehl was accused of killing a right-wing militiaman before police confronted and shot him. In a Vice interview before his death, the activist maintained he shot the militiaman in self-defense.
While those cases have grabbed headlines, more than 93% of recent demonstrations connected to Black Lives Matter were peaceful, according to a study by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), which monitors political violence in developing countries and started following the United States last year.
Between May 26 and Aug. 22, ACLED recorded over 7,750 demonstrations linked to Black Lives Matter in 2,400 places. Violence was limited to fewer than 220 locations, mostly confined to a few blocks.
Where there is violence, peaceful demonstrators frequently complain of outsiders, often white, breaking windows or setting fires. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review of bookings into the Kenosha County Jail found 52 percent of the more than 250 people arrested one night came from outside the county.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found 53% of American adults said they remain sympathetic to people protesting against racial inequality.
Meanwhile, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has climbed to 49% among all Americans, up 18 points from a similar poll two years ago, rising 28 points among Democrats and 6 points among Republicans.
Still, the Trump campaign believes a law and order message will resonate with Americans. Samantha Zager, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, said Biden lacked the courage to stand up to violence, even though he has repeatedly denounced it.
“(President Trump) has condemned the violence, demanded law and order, and taken action to protect our communities without hesitation,” Zager said.
Clyde McLemore of Black Lives Matter in Lake County, Illinois, near Kenosha, said the movement was being unfairly tarnished by the actions of a few.
“I’m not for looting and I’m not for burning property,” he said. “It was not Black Lives Matter (causing violence). We disperse at eight o’clock.”
Still, he saw no reason to retreat from the streets, saying that would only give Trump what he wants and will delay justice.
“We’re going to protest,” McLemore said. “That’s our constitutional right.”
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Additional reporting by Deborah Bloom and Chris Kahn; Editing by Aurora Ellis)