For months, many Americans had feared that clashes between demonstrators, counter-demonstrators, and police eventually would end in tragedy. Now it has. Three Black Lives Matter protesters were shot and two were killed in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week, followed by the shooting death of a right-wing counter-protester in Portland, Oregon.
The rise of street battles between armed political factions irresistibly calls to mind similar conflicts that led to the demise of the Weimar Republic. The comparison is overdrawn, but the street brawling has coincided with a spike in violent crime as well as outbreaks of looting and arson that have overlapped with nonviolent demonstrations against police brutality. The voters’ interpretation of why this apparent breakdown in public order has occurred, and who is to blame for it, may well determine the outcome of this year’s elections.
The present rise in violence has to be seen in the context of a historic rise in US crime from the late 1950s through the early 1990s, followed by an equally historic fall. During the years when crime was in the ascent, conservative Republicans from Richard Nixon onward benefited politically from exploiting fears of crime. “Law and order” politics inevitably had a racial dimension, since African Americans disproportionately were both victims and arrested for violent crime, and the massive riots of the 1960s in nearly all cases were sparked by minorities reacting against police abuses.
Democrats paid a high political price for crime. Then as now, most cities were run by Democrats, and trust in urban governments cratered when they seemed unable to fulfill their most basic duty of protecting the lives and property of its citizens. Crime dissolved the mutual sympathies and solidarities on which liberalism depends, particularly in riot-scarred urban areas that hemorrhaged population following the riots. The exodus of white working-class voters from the Democratic party accelerated when progressives dismissed their crime fears. The voters who became Reagan Democrats also deeply resented progressive arguments that minimized the suffering of crime victims and seemed to excuse criminals for their actions by emphasizing their deprived upbringings.
Violent crime peaked in the modern era in 1991, when the violent crime rate was roughly double what it is now. There is no consensus about the causes of its decline. The tough-on-crime efforts of New Democrats like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden helped the party reverse the perception that it had moved too far from the political center. But mass incarceration – which accelerated in part due to the Biden-authored 1994 crime bill – took a heavy toll on African American communities without having a directly observable impact on crime reduction. The more important causes of the great urban crime decline of the past three decades, according to sociologists like Patrick Sharkey, were the unheralded actions of community groups, better data available to police forces, and the increase in population density that was itself the product of decreasing crime.
Murders in New York City decreased from over 2,000 a year in the early 1990s to 311 in 2019; similar declines took place in most urban areas across the country. In 1992, 83% of Americans felt the system was “not tough enough” on crime; by 2016, that sentiment had fallen to 45% . It certainly was what underlay the bipartisan efforts toward criminal justice reform that resulted in the restoration of voting rights to former felons in Florida and other states as well as passage of the First Step Act, which enabled sentencing reforms and modest reductions in incarcerations.
The pandemic’s onset led to an upsurge of homicides in many cities, for reasons that are still unclear but may be related to a decline in arrests for weapons possession. New York City police chief Terence Monahan may have been giving vent to his officers’ conservative grievances against progressive mayor Bill de Blasio when he claimed that they are afraid to make arrests because of recently mandated restrictions on use of force. But it’s undeniable that shooting incidents in New York City soared by 130% in June compared to the previous year, and by 177% in July.
Obviously we are nowhere near the peaks of the early ’90s. But the recent increase in the incidence of crime is not only worrisome in itself; it inspires fears that the low-crime era may be coming to an end.
The rise in crime coincided with the nationwide protests for criminal justice reform that followed several widely publicized examples of police and white vigilante violence against unarmed black men and women. The vast majority of these protests were peaceful, but some were accompanied by opportunistic outbreaks of looting and arson when rioters outnumbered the police. Other protests devolved into property destruction of police stations, court houses, and other symbols of institutional authority as well as violent attacks on the police themselves. Some of this property destruction has been linked to people loosely affiliated with Antifa or anarchist groups. In some cases, protesters discouraged the property destruction and arson, in other cases not.
The pandemic also sparked protests against business closures and mask-wearing by conservatives, mostly white and pro-Trump, some of them associated with militias and other gun-toting groups. Some of these protests drew in members of alt-right groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, which for years have battled Antifa and other left-wing groups.
In Kenosha, where Black Lives Matter protests erupted after police shot an unarmed black man at close range, a self-styled militia group used social media to summon armed vigilantes to the city. One of them was Kyle Rittenhouse, who at 17 years old was too young to legally possess the AR-15 style rifle he brought to Kenosha. Grainy and poorly focused cell phone videos captured footage of Rittenhouse apparently shooting to death two left-wing protesters and wounding a third, under circumstances that may or may not have been self-defense.
Several days later, a convoy of right-wingers in Portland rolled through the downtown taunting and skirmishing with Black Lives Matter and left-wing protesters. Hours later, one of the Patriot Prayer supporters was fatally shot.
It’s not clear what political benefit or damage from the mayhem in Kenosha and Portland will accrue to Biden or Trump. Since it’s occurring on Trump’s watch, one might think that voters would blame him. But Trump apparently is staking the success of his campaign on the claim that the present political violence is only a foretaste of a complete collapse in public order under President Biden.
Trump doesn’t have much else to run on. His administration’s incompetent response to the pandemic, and the likelihood that he will end his term with the worst record for new job creation of any modern American president, has shattered his claim to superior economic stewardship. But since Democratic mayors and administrators run most of the large cities where crime is up and demonstrations have run amok, he might make a plausible case with suburban swing voters that Democrats can’t be trusted to maintain order – particularly if they can envision the unrest spreading to their neighborhoods. National approval for Black Lives Matter peaked in early June and has fallen ever since.
Already Republicans are capitalizing on progressive statements that echo the kind of soft-on-crime rhetoric that led to Democrats losing elections in past decades, including calls to defund the police and the claim that looting is a form of protest, or reparations, or (in the words of the author of a recent book) a “joyous and liberatory” communal celebration. And Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway has boasted that “chaos and anarchy” boost the president’s re-election odds, since voters presumably will favor the stronger and more authoritarian leader – much as they did in the last days of Weimar, one might add.
Joe Biden, so far, has avoided the trap Republicans hope to set for him. He has consistently opposed defunding the police. In a recent speech in Pittsburgh, he condemned the urban unrest in forceful terms, insisting that rioting and looting are lawlessness, not an acceptable way of bringing change: “It will only bring destruction. It’s wrong in every way.” Biden also blamed Trump for increasing racial unrest and cast his refusal to condemn his armed supporters as a sign of weakness. At the same time, Biden has also insisted on the necessity of constructive, nonviolent protest against systemic racism and police brutality.
Can Biden allay middle-class fears of violence without alienating his party’s progressives? Time, and the unpredictable unfolding of this season of protest and counter-protest, will supply the answer.