But before Jane Castor could speak, she was greeted by an organizer brandishing a bullhorn.
“Go home Jane!” yelled Bernice Lauredan, 28, an activist with Tampa Dream Defenders. “You are not welcome here.”
More than a thousand miles away, Dennis Maurice Dumpson has been helping to organize strategy sessions with activists in Philadelphia, a city where Democrats hope that protests will ignite a massive voter turnout and propel presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden to victory in battleground Pennsylvania. But Dumpson has no intention of mobilizing his growing list of followers to help Biden or any other politician. The most he intends to do for the Democrats, if anything, is cast a reluctant vote.
“We’ve seen enough to know how this goes and how this plays out,” Dumpson said. “I’m tired of going into the same old room with the same old council member and the same state representative who have the same old mind-set. It’s why we keep getting the same old stuff.”
Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last month ignited protests in more than 750 U.S. cities, an avalanche of outrage that echoes the moral overtones of the 1960s civil rights movement, with the added power of drawing support from participants of all races in every corner of the country.
The uprising is also a potential boon for Democrats, inspiring thousands of new grass-roots organizers, many in their 20s and 30s and new to activism, just as the party seeks to mobilize young voters and other core liberals to defeat President Trump and retake the Senate. Many of the country’s top Democrats, including former president Barack Obama, have exhorted the activists to channel their energy toward the election.
But the Democrats have so far failed to tap into the newly emerging protest movement, even turning off some activists who see early outreach efforts as hollow gestures, according to interviews with more than a dozen organizers who have been leading protests across the country in recent weeks. Many said they remain deeply skeptical of the traditional political system and the Democratic Party, which they said has a history of promising change and falling short.
Although the activists agreed that Trump is a racist who should be defeated, many said they think neither party is equipped to address the roots of the fury in America’s streets. That, they said, would require a willingness to embrace changes that have historically been deemed too radical by many mainstream politicians, such as defunding police forces that routinely target black communities and rolling back drug laws that lead to mass incarceration. Biden and Democratic lawmakers have said they don’t support defunding police, though they have backed redirecting funding for public safety programs.
“I don’t believe just having a ‘D’ by your name immediately makes you the savior,” said Lauredan, the organizer who shouted down the Tampa mayor. “And I would say that for every Democrat I know, we have to look at solutions that are really going to invest in our communities. . . . We need to change not just the surface-level issues.”
Organizers noted that while some Democrats have made their presence known at various protests, activists are wary of political leaders who seek to capitalize on the outrage without giving a full hearing to their message.
“[Politicians are] kneeling but not meeting with the organizations that are responsible for moving voters on the ground,” said Alicia Garza, principal for Black Futures Lab and co founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. “When October comes along, they’re going to say can we have you on our [Instagram] live? Can we have you come to this fundraiser. And October is too late to start courting people. October is the time to begin capitalizing on the relationships you’ve made — not to start building them.”
Obama took note of the emerging tension between activists and Democratic political leaders earlier this month, when he urged protesters to get involved in politics.
“I’ve been hearing a little bit of chatter in the Internet about voting versus protest, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action,” Obama said. “This is not an either-or — this is a both-and. To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable.”
But so far, efforts by some leading Democrats have done little to bring the movement into the political fold.
Some activists, for instance, were turned off by the rollout last week of the Justice in Policing Act. Co-sponsored by more than 200 Democrats in both houses of Congress, the bill would ban chokeholds like the one that killed Floyd and no-knock warrants like the one that led to the death of Breonna Taylor. It also would make it easier to hold officers accountable for misconduct in civil and criminal courts.
But Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a Philadelphia-based activist, had trouble seeing past the kente cloth. The Democratic leadership walked out in stoles made of the brightly colored fabric of Ghanaian origin. They also knelt for 8 minutes, 46 seconds — the amount of time Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin spent with his knee on Floyd’s neck.
Muhammad saw it as a performative photo op, specifically because leaders intimated it may take months — and a new president as well as a Senate majority — for the bill to be passed.
“It was uber-pandering. It was like super-pander, or pandering on steroids,” Muhammad said. “You’re doing it to show some faux solidarity with black people and you failed miserably.”
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African American in House leadership, said he was irked by the criticism of the moment.
He said he also worries that demonstrators energized by Floyd’s death are too quick to criticize people who seek to enact social change in a different way — or at a different pace.
“We all have a role to play,” he said. “My role is to pass legislation and count votes. You can’t reject my role because it doesn’t go as fast as you want it.”
“What does it get us for anybody to be insulting to Nancy Pelosi,” Clyburn added later, referring to the House speaker who, along with other lawmakers, appeared in kente cloth. “We asked Nancy Pelosi to identify with us, to carry water for us. She made a gesture that identifies with us and we insult her.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination and is under consideration to be Biden’s running mate, said she shares the activists’ concerns that change will come too slow.
“But my optimism overrides that fear, because we are seeing people take to the streets who seemingly have nothing in common, but have this issue in common, and are unifying and coalition building around this issue,” she said.
Other top Democrats have looked for ways to tap into the movement.
Biden has expressed solidarity with the protesters — vowing to combat systemic discrimination, meeting with the Floyd family, and saying in a video message to his funeral that America must “turn away from racism that stings at our very soul.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), whose bid to take the majority in his chamber relies on mobilizing voters in a handful of races targeting vulnerable Republican members, said he has been in touch with some grass-roots organizations. He said many activists know that change requires their engagement in the country’s political debates.
“They understand you have to accept the idea that you have to push Washington around,” Schumer said.
Schumer added that he has sought advice from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose two unsuccessful presidential campaigns were able to excite a movement of young activists.
“What are the things that we can get to motivate people?” Schumer said he asked Sanders, though he would not detail more of their conversation.
Nina Turner, a chief surrogate for Sanders’s presidential campaign, said those conversations seem redundant. The senator’s bid for the presidency identified many of the policies activists are asking lawmakers to enact.
“There are already a list of things. There’s no need to study, no need to have a task force; the ideas are already out there,” she said. “You’re either going to do universal health care or you’re not. You’re going to legalize marijuana, take it off of Schedule I, or you’re not. You’re either going to have a $15 minimum wage or you’re not.”
Tension around the pace of progress and disappointment in establishment politicians was also a hallmark of the civil rights protests of the past, said Matthew F. Delmont, a Dartmouth College professor who focuses on African American history. Malcolm X warned people that neither Democrats nor Republicans had adequate plans to help black Americans in his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech. And Martin Luther King Jr. called on his followers to not accept political stalling.
“It’s always come down to the question of time,” Delmont said. “Dr. King had so many great sermons or speeches about time and how that group of activists just could not wait. People feel the same way today. You can’t wait for Biden to get elected. You can’t wait four years. We can’t wait on politicians if we want to see these things change.”
But while civil rights protesters of the 1960s were able to direct pressure on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to win landmark legislation rolling back state-sponsored discrimination, today’s protesters face the challenge of seeking changes that extend beyond the political realm — rooting out racism baked in at all levels of society over the course of centuries, or what Delmont called the “unresolved policy issues from the 1960s movement.”
Some activists mobilized by Floyd’s death say they would have a hard time overcoming long-standing disappointment with Democrats.
Marjaan Sirdar, a Minneapolis activist who lives a few blocks from where Floyd was killed, noted that his city has seen years of Democratic leadership that promoted initiatives to advance racial equality. At the same time, Sirdar said, the city was not working hard enough to root out racism in its police department.
“The Democrats created this problem,” Sirdar said. “Anybody can pay for a $200, $300 training and learn how to sound anti-racist. They learn the language of anti-racism and they just become better gatekeepers of white supremacy.”
Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a lawyer who has advised activists and is now running for a Florida state House seat, said she understands demonstrators’ distrust of many politicians, but thinks a Biden election would be a step forward, particularly if he selects a black woman as vice president.
“I hear the concerns of folks, and I don’t want to discount those concerns, but I also think we can’t get lost or caught up in the minutiae of he doesn’t do this or he doesn’t do that. We literally have an anti-black president in office right now.”
Stephanie Keene, a Philadelphia organizer who wants to abolish the police and prison system, said many who are inspired to protest this year see politicians as part of the problem.
“Some people are like I’m . . . done accepting what the Democratic Party has offered us. It’s not getting better,” said Keene, 37. “This current moment is a reflection of the United States’ inability to meet any of the demands black people have put forward. I wish they would stop holding black people responsible for the failures of the Democratic Party. Why aren’t y’all responsible for not giving us a candidate worth voting for?”
Dumpson, the author and activist from Philadelphia, said he, too, is wary of politicians “not really wanting to really sit down with us,” but is not yet ready to check out of the political system entirely.
That is why, he said, Biden will have his vote but not his enthusiasm.
“We act like Trump is the only opposing force, but there’s also the opposing force of people not wanting to really sit down with organizers agitators and solve problems,” he said. “But the reality is that somebody is going to be president next. Now it’s about who is the person that can be in the presidency that you can work around the most.”
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