Voters Say Black Lives Matter Protests Were Important. They Disagree On Why

The protests that broke out after the police killing of George Floyd in May were some of the biggest racial justice marches organized in decades. In the early weeks, polling showed broad and deep support for them across the country.

But as the summer wore on and with it, sporadic looting and acts of vandalism, Americans became much more divided in how they saw the protests.

Just how divided became clear on Election Day.

Alfonse Bowman of Philadelphia said that as he cast his ballot for Joseph R. Biden Jr., he was thinking of how just a week before, the police in his hometown had fatally shot a young Black man. Mr. Bowman, who is Black, said he thought to himself of President Trump: “We have to get this man out of office.”

But Anne Marie Kelly, a white medical worker who lives a couple of hours away in Stroudsburg, Pa., said she was horrified by the vandalism and looting that followed protests in some cities. It made her feel that “this is not the America I want to live in anymore,” and reinforced her resolve to vote for Mr. Trump.

As the election grinds to a close, and the nation begins sifting through the results, one thing is clear: The protests this summer and what came after weighed heavily on Americans’ minds.

About nine of every 10 voters said the protests over police violence were a factor in their voting, with more than three-fourths calling it a major factor, according to preliminary data from A.P. VoteCast, a large voter survey conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago. About a fifth of all voters said the protests were the single most important factor in their decision at the ballot box, according to the survey, which interviewed over 140,000 respondents by phone and online.

But these voters were split deeply on who should be in the White House. Among those who cited the protests as a factor, 53 percent voted for Mr. Biden, and 46 percent for Mr. Trump, according to the survey.

Interviews with a number of voters this week showed there were strong differences that often ran along racial lines — with many Black voters viewing the protests through the lens of police violence threatening their lives, while many conservative white voters saw unrest encroaching on their communities.

“All this rioting, it’s childish,” said Crystal Daddario, 32, who was standing in line to vote for Mr. Trump outside a fire station in Reeders, Pa., on Tuesday. Ms. Daddario, who is white, is the wife of an Iraq War veteran, and said they were living in Louisville, Ky., where the police killed Breonna Taylor during a botched raid, but “left because it was getting too close to home.”

The protests, which drew many white Americans as well, were especially potent as an issue in places like Louisville and Minneapolis, where Mr. Floyd was killed. Unrest also roiled Philadelphia, where dozens were arrested and many police officers hurt in late October after the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man with a history of mental illness.

Mr. Bowman, 19, a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta who is taking classes online from home there, said he watched a protest from his car. He said he yelled at the police, and claimed that an officer came over and struck him in the face with a baton, fracturing bones in his face.

The experience “made me want to vote, and it made me want to help other people understand the importance of voting,” he said. His vote for Mr. Biden was the first of his life.

In the heady early days of the protests, several months before Election Day, liberal activists began making calls to “defund the police,” arguing that reducing police department budgets would allow for greater investments into communities struggling with poverty.

The electoral impact of that message is now being debated by Democrats, who emerged from Tuesday’s results with a weakened majority in the House. During a conference call among House Democrats on Thursday, Abigail Spanberger, a centrist Democrat in a Republican-leaning district in Virginia, angrily blamed liberals for embracing the “defund the police” movement. Ms. Spanberger, who narrowly escaped defeat, had faced an opponent who attacked her by tying her to the “defund” message.

But Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, a leader of the Progressive Caucus, said that embracing liberal messages had energized young voters, “who will ultimately save the day in the race for the White House.”

During the campaign Mr. Biden distanced himself from the progressive wing of his party and said he opposed cutting resources for law enforcement. Regardless, Mr. Trump, running on a “law and order” message, often made false claims about Mr. Biden’s record on fighting crime.

It is too early to tell precisely how much of the greatly increased turnout — the highest rate of eligible voters since the turn of the 20th century, according to the United States Elections Project — went to Mr. Biden and whether the protests were a driving force.

The protests were especially potent as an issue in places like Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was killed in a botched drug raid.Credit…Xavier Burrell for The New York Times
But there are clues that they might have helped. In Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, there were more votes cast this year than during Barack Obama’s re-election bid in 2012, a recent high-water mark for Black voter turnout.

In Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, turnout did not reach 2012 levels but rose by more than 10 percent this election compared with 2016.

Bernice Bigham, a 75-year-old Louisville resident, wore a T-shirt into the voting booth that summed up her feelings. It read, in all caps, “Black Voters Matter.” On the back it said, “It’s About Us.”

“I’m fearful,” said Ms. Bigham, who voted for Mr. Biden. “Every time there’s a killing, I’m calling around to make sure that my Black son and my Black grandsons are OK, and that’s no way to live — it’s awful.”

And in Flower Mound, Texas, Brooke Wright, 39, often voted Republican because she opposed abortion, but this fall she voted for Mr. Biden. On down ballot races, she and her husband selected women and minority candidates.

Ms. Wright, who is white and goes to an evangelical church, had gone to her first Black Lives Matter protest this summer. Tears streamed down her face as she held a sign to support her husband, who is Black, and their two biracial young sons.

“The protests made me want change so much,” she said. “I was ready to have the hard conversations with people who didn’t understand why I didn’t vote Republican anymore, instead of quietly staying out of those conversations.”

There is also evidence that the protests helped Mr. Trump.

“Downtown’s tore all to hell,” said Teresa Stidham, 43, a white Louisville resident, noting that the windows of many buildings in downtown have been covered by plywood for months. She said that she voted for Mr. Trump primarily because he would fight for the working class, but that the city’s civil unrest was an important factor, too.

In Minneapolis, Adrian Anderson, a retail worker, said he was turned off by the vandalism and looting of businesses in the aftermath of protests over the killing of Mr. Floyd.

“I don’t think it’s Trump’s fault that the police are acting the way they are acting,” said Mr. Anderson, 30, who is Black, white and Native American. He said he voted for Mr. Trump.

Black voters said they did not think Mr. Biden would be a fix for all of the problems of policing in their communities. But at least he acknowledged systemic racism, they said, something Mr. Trump has refused to do. They hoped that Mr. Trump’s exit would mean more civility.

“We’ve got a lot of people who have shown their face and their horns,” said Lakaisha Stoner, 27, a small-business owner in Louisville, adding that she hoped racism would be less on display in the future. “I’m just ready for a positive change, I can’t stress that enough,” she said.

A new president is the place to start, she added.

In a sign that the video of a police officer killing Mr. Floyd had made an impression on the public, even among the president’s backers, 70 percent of voters polled in the A.P. VoteCast survey said racism in policing was a very serious or somewhat serious problem, and of those voters, three in 10 cast their ballots for Mr. Trump.

And for some immigrants who are neither Black nor white, the protests played in complicated ways. Jose Nunez, an electrician who immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 2002, said he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but this time voted for Mr. Biden. He switched because he had noticed an ugliness among supporters of Mr. Trump with flapping flags and angry signs. But, he said, the Democrats also needed to expand their appeal to him.

“I don’t want to be talking about race or police brutality on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Others badly wanted both parties to talk about other things. Jose Soto, 37, a Navy veteran in Madison, Wis., who now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said he cared most about education and health care, but neither issue seemed to come up in the campaign. He liked Bernie Sanders, saying, “it feels like every time he talks, he talks to me,” and voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. On Tuesday, he voted for Mr. Trump.

“When Democrats focus their speech, it’s not on work or what they have to offer us,” said Mr. Soto, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was 8.

As for protests, he said racial injustice had been around for a long time and the Democrats had not done much to solve it.

“I don’t think any candidate has a solution for that,” he said.

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