Protest Works
The Atlantic|September 2020
How the Black Lives Matter demonstrations will shake up the 2020 election—and reshape American politics for a generation to come
By Daniel Q. Gillion

I drove 1,200 miles, from Philadelphia to Minneapolis, to be a part of the George Floyd protest movement. Throughout the city, from the predominantly white neighborhood of Bancroft to the more diverse streets of Bryant, I saw signs in livingroom windows that read black lives matter and we stand for equality. As I drove up Cedar Avenue, heading to 38th Street, I also saw signs in the windows of stores and restaurants that read minority-owned—an indication that these businesses stood with the Floyd movement, but also that they hoped to be spared should the protests turn violent.

Pressed together with protesters adorned in masks, I stood on the unofficially renamed George Floyd Avenue, across the street from Cup Foods, where Floyd had been killed after allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. As I scanned the crowd, I saw what I had seen in the other cities I’d visited as I made my way west: a shockingly diverse group of protesters. As a Black man, I found myself standing next to many people who did not look like me—sometimes, their cries even drowned out my own. The coalition has changed. It has grown.

Of course, not all Americans have embraced Black Lives Matter. Some look at the men and women demanding reform and see only looters and thugs. ¥ey are nurtured in this view by the president of the United States, who greeted the outcry following Floyd’s murder with threats of violence against the protesters and tweets about “LAW AND ORDER” and the “SILENT MAJORITY.”

Richard Nixon introduced the latter term to the American people during another moment of ferment, one to which the current unrest has been compared. During the 1968 presidential campaign and into his first years in office, as anti-war demonstrations took place across the nation, Nixon sought to ostracize the protesters, painting them as radicals whose views did not reµect those of law-abiding Americans. The term, which he introduced in a speech in 1969, cut along racial lines: ¥e leaders of the civil-rights movement had become prominent opponents of the war in Vietnam, where a disproportionate number of Black Americans were fighting dying. Martin Luther King Jr. went so far as to discourage Black college students from enlisting.

Donald Trump borrowed from Nixon’s playbook during his presidential run in 2016. During a rally in Las Vegas early in his campaign, he villainized a protester by saying, “I would like to punch him in the face.” The rambunctious crowd cheered in response. In the months that followed, as his campaign stops continued to be disrupted, Trump turned the protesters into a useful foil: The roaring crowd was us; the demonstrators were them. They did not belong to the silent majority, whose prerogatives Trump intended to restore. Enterprising supporters even created signs: silent majority stands with Trump. Months after the election, the signs were still available for purchase on Amazon, for the low price of $14.35, with positive reviews for the sturdiness of the paper.

The specter of Nixon’s victory in 1968—and Trump’s in 2016—has haunted the George Floyd protests. By channeling Nixon once again, Trump clearly hopes to revive his political fortunes. Polling shows that a majority of Americans view the protests positively. Trump’s fractious response to the Floyd killing, coming on the heels of his administration’s bungled response to the coronavirus pandemic, seems to have left him badly damaged politically.

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