Protests and Pressure: Why is Trump Responding to the Black Lives Matter Movement Now?

Today, Donald Trump is scheduled to sign an executive order on police reform. According to senior White House officials, the order will create a database to track police officers with histories of misconduct and use federal monies to incentivize police departments to meet higher standards on the use of force. The order will not address concerns regarding systemic racism in law enforcement, nor will it initiate an effort to re-imagine public safety to include a reinvestment in education, social services, and more equitable law enforcement practices. The focus, according to White House officials, is to bring communities together, not to demonize police.

While Trump’s positioning himself as a “law and order president” will remain intact, arguably, this is a seismic shift from his position two weeks ago when he threatened to use the military to end protests and “dominate the streets.” What accounts for Trump’s sudden about face on the this issue of police reform? Here are three reasons Trump is making a change.

Shifts in Public Opinion

The protests have a great deal of public support. The Upshot, which tracked voter support for the Black Lives Matter movement over a two week period, found that support for the cause had increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years.  Likewise, a survey conducted by the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project found that white Americans’ support for police dropped double-digits in a single week (from 72% to 61%) as police targeted peaceful protesters, and, in a CBS News polls, 81% of respondents reported that African Americans face discrimination. Couple these polls with Trump’s on approval ratings, which according to FiveThirtyEight are at 40.8%, Trump’s hard nose position on protest is hard to maintain – especially during an election year.

The Protests Got Political Legs

Disruption to the social, economic or political order can create unrest and the conditions for protest. The pandemic and the governmental response to it created uncertainty and led to the loss of lives, particularly in black communities. As the economy fell apart around Americans and unemployment spiked, the killing of George Floyd by police gave citizens a place to direct their attention and anger – not to mention gave them a problem that they might be able to begin to fix. Certainly, undoing racism is a heady task, and it will take more than fixing law enforcement or the criminal justice system to rectify hundreds of years of oppression. The point here is that addressing racist practices and a racist system seems a much easier task than stopping the march of Covid-19. Most citizens are not virologists or scientists poised to take on the Covid-19 pandemic beyond taking measures to try and prevent its spread through social distance and mask use. They are, however, able to begin to address the pandemic of racism in the U.S. by making themselves heard in the streets and outside of statehouses, by meeting with politicians and police chiefs, and pressuring politicians and candidates to do better before their up for reelection. And, the motivation for fighting against the pandemic of racism is renewed every time a citizen dies at the hand of a police officer.

Protesters have Institutional Support

Although Trump has taken a hard line on these particular protests, plenty of governors, mayors, county officials, police chiefs and religious leaders have publicly supported peaceful and lawful protests. supporters. Even America’s top military advisor, General Milley, apologized for participating in Trump’s photo op outside of St. John’s Episcopal Church since it gave the impression that the U.S. military was involved in domestic politics. Part of the relative outpouring of official support for protests, of course, is strategic. Politicians are hard pressed to condemn protests over racial discrimination when weeks earlier protesters stormed statehouses to force politicians to reopen the economy with little political reaction, and military officials, above all, want to maintain the legitimacy of their institution.

The institutional support for fighting racism, however, is more widespread. The NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, apologized for not listening to players about racism and pledged his support to their right to protest. A&E pulled the plug on its hit show, Live P.D., citing the current climate for the reason for its decision (although arguably there were other reasons as well). The popular show, Cops, was cancelled too – and many other shows, including Paw Patrol and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, have come under fire for valorizing police officers.

The pressure on Trump, in short, is coming from all sides – the streets, the military, other politicians, religious leaders, sports leaders and even television producer – but the message is the same. It is time to start addressing racism in America.

Dr. Deana Rohlinger is a professor of Sociology. She studies politics, political participation and digital media.

The featured image is from Vox.

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