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Protest signs are affixed to the fence around Lafayette Square, near the White House, in Washington, on June 8, 2020.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The anti-racism protests sparked by the death of George Floyd have triggered a tidal wave of public support for police reform in the U.S. and an avalanche of political promises. A string of polls has shown a sharp rise in backing for Black Lives Matter. Everyone from city councillors to members of Congress to President Donald Trump have unveiled proposals for change.

But it is still unclear whether the momentum from the streets will carry through to the ballot box in November. Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, has struggled to attract the young voters driving the current wave of protests. And Mr. Trump, despite some tentative reform measures, has tried to rally his white base with a crackdown on the demonstrations.

Since Mr. Floyd, who was Black, died under the knee of white police officer Derek Chauvin last month, the movement against racism and police brutality has seen a surge in popular support. One Civiqs poll found 53 per cent of respondents backed Black Lives Matter, up from 40 per cent at the start of the year. In a Monmouth University survey, 57 per cent of people agreed Black Americans were more likely to be killed by police, a 24-point increase from December, 2014.

Such numbers have the potential to rock the election this fall as Mr. Trump, a nationalistic President frequently accused of racism, seeks a second term. Democratic organizers are trying hard to channel that energy.

EJ Scott, chair of the Democratic Black Caucus of Virginia, said she has seen a surge of interest in the election. Her group brings voter registration forms to Black Lives Matter protests in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington – a key electoral battleground that helped give Democrats control of the House of Representatives in 2018 – and has signed up droves of voters.

“We are very encouraged by the diversity of the people who are showing their concern,” she said. “People are understanding that Black issues are American issues.”

Ms. Scott has also been pressing the state to make absentee voting easier. And she is co-ordinating with other Black Democratic groups across the country to organize a major get-out-the-vote push.

Such turnout will prove crucial. Even as Hillary Clinton won nearly 90 per cent of Black votes in 2016, 7 per cent fewer Black voters cast ballots than in 2012, a factor that contributed to her narrow loss of key swing states. The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has stymied most voter registration drives this spring. In April, Virginia saw only 5,467 voter registrations compared with 20,460 for the same month in 2016.

While Mr. Biden handily won Black voters in the Democratic primaries, he struggled to bring in the young people who are now fuelling the demonstrations. In South Carolina, for instance, Mr. Biden won 61 per cent of Black voters over all, but just 36 per cent of Black voters under the age of 30, according to an NBC News exit poll.

Part of the problem is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a 1994 law originally written by Mr. Biden when he was a Delaware senator; it deployed tens of thousands more police officers and expanded the country’s prison system. The effect has largely been felt by Black Americans, who are targeted by police and incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate.

Tehama Lopez Bunyasi, co-author of Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter, said the combination of police shootings and a pandemic that has disproportionately hurt Black Americans and people of colour has created “a seething anger that will not go quietly,” which Mr. Biden and the Democrats cannot ignore. The electoral effect of this movement, she said, will depend on the work of grassroots activism.

“Thousands of savvy organizations across the country have been organizing for years to bring about progressive political change, including police reform, gun control and decarceration,” said Prof. Lopez Bunyasi, who teaches at George Mason University. “These organizations will play a huge role in voter turnout.”

The Democrats are trying to seize the moment with a package of police reform legislation that would, among other things, stop protecting police officers from legal liability over brutality cases and ban the use of chokeholds. Even Mr. Trump has backed more limited reforms, such as creating a database of cases of excessive use of force that all police departments can access.

But the President is mostly banking on the opposite strategy: that he can stoke a white backlash to the protests. Mr. Trump portrays the demonstrators as dangerous rioters and sent the military into Washington to police them. “Liberal THUGS are destroying our streets. Restore LAW & ORDER!” his re-election campaign wrote in one recent text message blast to supporters.

Mr. Trump’s polling numbers have been growing steadily worse throughout the pandemic. A FiveThirtyEight average of polls shows the President with a 55-per-cent disapproval rating. An Ipsos survey this week found him trailing Mr. Biden by 13 points in the general election.

In the end, however, the presidency may turn out to be secondary for activists determined to translate popular upheaval into lasting change.

Julian Hayter, an expert in African-American history at the University of Richmond, said the most significant reforms have to happen at the local level, which exerts the most direct control over policing. The civil-rights movement offers precedent, with campaigns for white-dominated police forces to hire more Black officers. The movement succeeded in getting these demands met in the 1970s and ’80s by mobilizing voters to elect mayors in line with their agenda, including Henry Marsh in Richmond, Va., and Harold Washington in Chicago.

“What we’ll see are reformatory measures taking place on a city-by-city, county-by-county basis, and that might lead to a critical mass,” Prof. Hayter said. “But I don’t expect to see that come from federal elected officials, because they’ve almost always served as bulwarks for law enforcement.”

Following weeks of protests over the death of George Floyd while in police custody, curators from the Smithsonian in Washington have begun collecting artifacts for an eventual exhibit.


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