COLUMBIA, S.C. — In an on-camera address after a week of destructive protests, former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr. pleaded with his audience to imagine life for black people in America. Imagine, he said, “if every time your husband or son, wife or daughter left the house, you feared for their safety.” Imagine the police called on you for sitting in Starbucks.
“The anger and frustration and the exhaustion, it’s undeniable,” he said.
Exhaustion. For many black Americans across the country, what a year this month has been. The coronavirus pandemic has continued to disproportionately kill black people, and a spate of high profile killings in recent months in Georgia, Kentucky, and Minnesota, the latter two at the hands of the police, led to widespread demonstrations nationwide.
Protests shook more than three dozen cities on Saturday as crowds expressed outrage over the death of George Floyd, a black security guard who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis. Demonstrators shut down freeways, set fires and battled police batons and tear gas, the pain and frustration of the moment spilling out into the streets.
In Columbia, the city where Mr. Biden delivered his victory speech after the South Carolina primary just over three months ago, demonstrators on Saturday said they were demanding more than what it seemed like an election in November would deliver. Not only justice for the death of George Floyd, but change in political and economic power that would prevent the death of another black person in police custody, another brutal video going viral.
“I’m tired of coming out here,” said Devean Moon, a 21-year-old Columbia resident, one of hundreds who participated in the peaceful protests in the city. “I’m tired of feeling forced to do all this.”
It dawned on Sierra Moore, 24, who attended the protests carrying a homemade sign that read “No Justice, No Peace,” that she and her grandmother have been protesting the same issues over the course of a century.
She looked at the racially diverse group of thousands, which gathered for a short program on the State House steps before leading a march to the local police station.
Next to her was another sign: “Respect my existence or expect my resistance.”
“I just don’t think that’s how change happens,” Ms. Moore said of voting. “They’ve been telling us to do that for so long — and we’ve done it — and look at everything that’s still going on.”
Her words — expressing a sentiment shared by her peers — serve notice to politicians, civil rights groups and Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee who has urged unity amid the frustration. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote,” said Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, but interviews with activists and leading Democratic figures including Stacey Abrams of Georgia, the longtime civil rights leader and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, and Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, flipped that typical framework: If Democrats want people to vote, party leaders need to listen to why people are angry.
Ms. Abrams described the events of the past week as what happens when people are desperate for “their pain to be validated.”
“You cannot motivate someone to a behavior that they don’t believe will actually bring change,” she said. “We have to start by saying what you feel and what you fear is real.”
As he seeks to win the White House for the Democrats, the party that is the political home of most black Americans, Mr. Biden has attempted to strike this balance. He made clear that he has spoken to Mr. Floyd’s family. “We are a nation enraged, but we cannot allow our rage to consume us,” he said in a statement released early Sunday morning. “We are a nation exhausted, but we will not allow our exhaustion to defeat us.”
“The very soul of America is at stake,” he said, tying the tension between the police and black communities to removing President Trump from the White House.
The moment may still test Mr. Biden’s priorities, as a weary black electorate desires far greater change than the promise of a return to normalcy that has fueled his campaign. Energizing those voters, activists and elected leaders say, means addressing their demands for change and the realities of racism. But the former vice president, one of the Senate architects of the modern criminal justice system, cannot confront racism without addressing systemic inequalities, and he cannot address systemic inequalities by simply returning to a pre-Trump America.
“Our needs aren’t moderate,” Mr. Jackson said in a recent interview. “The absence of Trump is not enough.”
Mr. Biden’s win in South Carolina was a turning point for his once-flailing campaign. His support came from across all demographics, but his particular strength was older black voters — people who said the community’s familiarity with and trust of Mr. Biden, combined with his perceived ability to beat Mr. Trump, earned their backing.
To win in November, and to deliver on his promise of American unity, Mr. Biden is likely to need more than the coalition that brought him his primary victory. And to engage younger voters, he’ll need to offer more than the promise of ousting Mr. Trump as an answer to current despair.
On the policy front, a task force with criminal justice experts that supported Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has already been convened. Mr. Biden recently released a “Plan for Black America,” covering economic inequality and voting rights. Mr. Jackson, who supported Mr. Sanders in the primary, said Mr. Biden is “a consensus builder” and, if surrounded by the right people, the quality should serve him well.
But Mr. Biden also must minimize mistakes, said Mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, alluding to the recent controversy in which Mr. Biden apologized after saying “you ain’t black” to black people uncertain whether to support him or Mr. Trump.
“The greatest asset that every candidate has, for better or for worse, is authenticity,” Mr. Benjamin said. He views authenticity as a prerequisite to leveling with people who are used to being disappointed. “I do believe, that if the vice president is authentically Joe, a legitimately good man who cares, I think people will gravitate to that authenticity.”
Engaging with a community that feels disaffected by the political system can be difficult. Mr. Trump has made a public show of trying to coax black Americans away from the Democratic Party, though he inadvertently made clear in comments to reporters on Saturday how little progress he has made: “MAGA is Make America Great Again,” he said, discussing his voting base. “By the way, they love African-American people, they love black people. MAGA loves the black people.”
Last October, Mr. Trump was in Columbia to address a forum on policing and criminal justice — many of the issues protesters are taking to the streets over — held at Benedict College, a historically black institution. He spoke a day ahead of some of the 2020 Democratic candidates, including Mr. Biden.
“The Democratic policies have let African-Americans down and taken them for granted,” Mr. Trump said then.
Progressive black leaders are extremely critical of Mr. Trump, as are many black voters. But they also believe that Democrats have sometimes been their greatest obstacle in addressing police brutality and racial inequality.
“Part of the reason these are systemic inequalities is that they transcend not only party, but time,” said Ms. Abrams, who is among those being vetted by Mr. Biden as a potential running mate. She also noted that:“We have to be very intentional about saying this is not about one moment or one murder — but the entire infrastructure of justice.”
Ms. Pressley, one of the House members who introduced a resolution to condemn police brutality, racial profiling, and the excessive use of force in Congress this past week, pointed to the confluence of issues facing black communities: a public health crisis, an economic crisis and, with the threat of police violence, “just trying to stay alive.”
Economic experts have predicted that even as the country faces a nationwide downturn, black communities may be hit particularly hard. Access to capital will dry up more quickly, especially for black business owners, and a coming “avalanche of evictions” could displace black renters across the country.
Ms. Pressley, an insurgent progressive in 2018 who beat a Democratic incumbent partly with a strategy to engage nontypical voters, said if elected officials want to speak to people’s pain, they have to understand the “deficit of trust” they’re operating under.
“People don’t participate, not because they’re ignorant and they don’t know enough,” she said. “It’s because they know too much. They live it every day.”
At Saturday’s march in South Carolina’s capital, thousands gathered at a state capitol rich with its own racial back story. The Old Carolina State House was burned to the ground during the Civil War, and the new building includes monuments to 19th-century state figures who were open racists — such as Dr. J. Marion Sims, a pioneer in the field of surgery who experimented on enslaved black women, and Benjamin Tillman, a former U.S. senator and South Carolina governor who spoke positively about lynch mobs that killed black residents.
On Saturday, the state house steps were filled with many black South Carolinians, demanding the right to live without fear, an echo of what some people fought for more than a century ago, in the days of Mr. Sims and Mr. Tillman.
“Clearly our voices are not enough,” said Kayla Brabham, a 28-year-old student at Benedict College who skipped Mr. Trump’s speech at her school.
“It’s not just the last couple years or months, it’s the whole time I’ve been alive,” she said. “We should not have to come out here to make y’all feel like we’re important.”
Even her name, she said, was a reminder of the country’s legacy of black violence.
“B-R-A-B-H-A-M, ” she said, spelling it out. “We got that from our slave masters. My great-great-grandmother was a slave in Hampton, South Carolina.”