WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) - The demonstrations convulsing U.S. cities have forced Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden to strike a careful balance between validating anger over police mistreatment of minorities while condemning violence as a response.
In one city after another, thousands have vented outrage in sometimes violent clashes over last week’s death of George Floyd, a black man shown on video gasping for breath as a white Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck.
For Biden, the protests represent a chance to advance his campaign’s core argument: that he is an empathetic leader who will bring a sense of calm after years of deep polarization under President Donald Trump.
But the moment is also fraught for a candidate whose path to victory relies on stitching together a coalition that includes both young activists seeking sweeping policing reform as well as more moderate voters who want order restored to their neighborhoods.
“This is the case for Joe Biden: He can be a uniter, he can be a safe, trusted voice, but he can also signal a return to some sanity around race politics for some people who have been turned off by the Trump era,” said Joel Payne, a political strategist who oversaw African-American advertising for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump, a Republican, has shown little interest in conciliation, instead returning to the law-and-order theme that animated his campaign four years ago, while accusing the “radical left” of fomenting violence - a message that may resonate with some voters if the unrest continues unabated.
At the White House on Monday, Trump said states needed to use “overwhelming” police presence to quell protests and warned he would deploy the military if needed to “quickly solve the problem.”
Biden, who was vice president under Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, has said he decided to run for the White House after hearing Trump say there were “fine people on both sides” of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in 2017.
Biden supporters say he can offer reassurance to all Americans by expressing solidarity with the anguish on display without endorsing violent solutions.
“We have to help white suburban Americans understand that this is a human life and what if it was your son, or your brother, or your uncle,” said Representative Val Demings, a black former police chief and Democrat from Florida being considered as a running mate for Biden. “This is wrong, and it does not excuse the destruction of human property, but his life was worth more.”
After visiting with community and faith leaders in Wilmington, Delaware, on Monday, Biden hosted a conference call with several mayors to discuss the protests.
“Protesting is a natural American response to injustice, but burning down communities is not,” he said.
Black Democratic leaders, including Representative John Lewis, a civil rights hero, and Obama, have struck the same tone, voicing support for peaceful protests and denouncing violence.
Biden on Tuesday will give remarks in Philadelphia about the ongoing civil unrest across the country, his campaign said.
On Monday, Biden said he would appoint a police oversight board in his first 100 days in office.
But he may need to offer a more forceful policy response if he wants to attract more activist voters. A community leader told Biden in Wilmington that many young voters were wary of Biden over his backing of a 1994 crime bill as a senator that some blame for more incarceration of black people.
Angela Rye, a Democratic activist and former executive director for the Congressional Black Caucus, said she was disappointed Biden had not denounced police brutality more explicitly.
“I don’t know how you soothe people, how you meet people where they are, how you tell people: ‘I feel your pain,’ without saying where their pain comes from,” she said.
Biden often talks about being shaped in his early career by the National Guard’s deployment in Wilmington in 1968 after riots following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
The National Guard was a source of relief for white residents but was viewed with fear in black neighborhoods, Biden recounted in his memoir. That year, Republican Richard Nixon won the White House after promising to restore order in the streets.
In a statement to Reuters, Trump re-election campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said: “Biden is so beholden to the most extreme, leftist elements of his party that it took him four days even to mildly criticize the widespread looting, violence, and mayhem happening in many American cities.”
Georgia-based political consultant Dominick Perkins said Trump would “definitely try” to weaponize the issue of street violence against Democrats.
But Payne said Biden simply needed to offer compassion and an openness to reform to draw a winning contrast with Trump.
“He has to demonstrate a genuine interest in the solution, but there needs to be an understanding that Biden is not going to be the elixir,” he said. “A lot of people are just frustrated - they want change, and they want somebody to listen to them.”
Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Wilmington, Delaware, and Joseph Ax in Dorset, Vermont; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney