The far-right groups triggering violence at peaceful Black Lives Matter protests helped associate BLM with mayhem and spin the media image of the movement into a narrative of chaos and violence in the minds of many independent voters. Donald Trump attempted a similar trick in Portland with a bastardized version of the Nixonian law and order strategy marinated with a bit of Willie Horton. And when many voters view images of the disorder on the news and social media, they are unaware of findings from say, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, or the University of Chicago’s Project on Security that document the patterns of the far right instigating violence at BLM protests, even before the death of George Floyd.
Consider Paul Anderson of Jasper County, Iowa. The BLM protests are one thing that leads him to differ with his political hero, Black Lives Matter ally Bernie Sanders. When the white, 40-year-old owner of a printing company watched the local and national coverage of protests last month, he arrived at one conclusion about BLM: “It’s just a bunch of hoodlums,” he says. But don’t start cheering yet if you’re a Trump supporter: Anderson vows not to vote for Trump and boasts that he has always voted for a winner since his first presidential election in 2000—Bush, Bush, Obama, Obama and Trump. He calls Trump “an idiot who has spent his term trying to undo everything Obama has done”—but says “I don’t know if I can vote for Biden either. I might just not be able to vote for either of them. I would have voted for Bernie or Warren…”
Those topsy-turvy partisan habits of swing voters have become more mysterious and unpredictable, especially as the conversations on race have come to town. Anderson was born and raised in Jasper County, which, judging from the last three elections, is abundant with swing voters like him. So is neighboring Marshall County, where Democrat Steve Sodders, 51, a white former state senator and county sheriff’s deputy, now serves as mayor of the town of State Center. Sodders, who caucused for Barack Obama in 2008, takes pride in his county and state’s roles in Obama’s historic campaign, both in the caucuses and in the general elections in 2008 and 2012. Yet Sodder’s hometown pride slows a bit considering 2016, when Trump carried Marshall County and voters dumped Sodders for a Republican in his state senate race. Across the country, there are 230 Obama-Trump counties like Marshall and Jasper that backed Obama in 2008 and 2012 but went with Trump in 2016. Iowa has 31 such counties, the most of any state.
Nationwide, Black Lives Matter protests and marches have come to 148 of those 230 swing counties nationwide, according to a Daily Beast analysis. On both sides, partisan leaders are trying to weigh the influence of the protests in these places that are destined to heavily influence the 2020 election’s outcome. Will a backlash inspire voters who view the marches like Anderson to vote for Trump? Or will the young people drawn to the streets show up at the polls to help produce Obama-Trump-Biden counties?
“We know that young people don’t vote at a very high rate compared to older voters,” says Kimberly Nalder, a political science professor and director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University at Sacramento. “In many elections we’re always saying ‘maybe this time, the youth are really going to come out to vote.’ I’ll say it again anyway: Maybe this time, since these movements are led by the young people and they feel engaged in the process, it may have an effect of them continuing to be more engaged in politics.”
State Center, the small town that literally sits in the geographic center of Iowa, also wears the distinction of being “the rose capital” of the state. It’s home to a block-long garden of 50 beds of plantings that include 30 different types of roses. When Buffi Horneck, 42, came close to the flowers on a Friday in June, she was a bit lonely in a familiar place. “It was a surreal experience,” says Horneck. “The garden looked beautiful but there was nobody lining up Main Street for the parade.”
The absence of the Rose Festival in the third weekend of June felt like a summer without a normal start; think Thanksgiving without a turkey or a Macy’s Parade. The streets of this town of 1,468 residents normally swell to thousands for the four-day festival that had been held without continuously for 62 years, until COVID ended that run. Some anti-mask rebels fumed with outrage over the board’s decision to cancel the festival. “When I first put out the announcement,” recalls Horneck, who has chaired the festival’s board for the past six years. “There were a few comments like you’re seeing all across the news; ‘get a grip—this is just a kind of flu.’ I think they immediately jumped to a partisan assumption.”
If you thought canceling the Rose Festival was huge, try proposing a Black Lives Matter Protest in State Center, a town with only 48 nonwhite residents, according to the US Census. There had already been a protest in the county’s largest town of Marshalltown, the county seat. A woman who grew up in the town and had just graduated from the University of Iowa proposed the march to her former Little League coach, State Center Mayor Steve Sodders. “She is a shy girl but came to me and said ‘Hey I really want to do something to show support. I know we don't live in a town with a whole bunch of diversity, but we as white people need to say ‘no more of this stuff.’”
When Sodders announced the plan on his mayoral Facebook page, the complaints poured in—some coming from the same people who were opposed to the cancellation of the Rose Festival. The young woman, who declined to be interviewed, and the police chief convened a public meeting with a dozen objectors, including Donnie Bown, 46, who expects there to be a civil war between “the people and the lefties, or the Democrats… if Trump is not re-elected.”
In the end, the event was not called a protest yet featured speeches calling for racial equity and Bown, who owns a grain mill Elevator repair and construction company, showed up. With “a fifth grade reading level and finishing only 10th grade” Bown says he could relate to an African-American teacher who spoke about growing up in the segregated South. “I grew up the same way. Getting judged and stuff so it's not necessarily all a Black thing… The cops are not there to think they have power and to be above us. When people think they are above you, that's when the problems start happening… Trump is not above us. He's like one of us. You listen to him. He can't talk, his speeches are dumb. He's like a normal person. He's not a puppet. And that's the way I look at him. He's a normal guy.”
Mayor Sodders also spoke. After the murder of George Floyd, the first family of State Center began reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi and holding weekly family discussions on each chapter. This included Sodders; his wife, Carrie, 49, director of Head Start at the Mid-Iowa Community Action Center; daughter Maggie, 22, who will begin studying bioscience and aging in graduate school at Iowa State University in the fall; and son, Adam 25, communications director for the Marshalltown school system and his fiancée, Mady, a special education teacher.
“Truthfully, it's not about just marching alongside people of color,” says Sodders. “That's not the only thing that's needed. A bigger part of it is talking to other white people and educating ourselves.”
The book inspired Maggie and Mady to make Black Lives Matter yard signs that the family placed on their front lawn, along with a “Love is Love” sign. “I’m not kidding how many guys — one guy has a Confederate flag and a Trump flag in his truck, rode by and stopped to take pictures of it and were kind of freaking out. So now my old white neighbor across the street put All Lives Matter on a board, a kind of visual art, facing my house. So that’s some kind of fun.”
A police chief in an Iowa swing county goes to his mother-in-law’s house in Des Moines for a family dinner. He brings up George Floyd with his liberal brother-in-law. In separate interviews, both men conveyed the conversation, which began with Thomas reading an article about Floyd’s killing and ended in an exchange of “fuck yous,” almost identically.
“My sister-in-law, who is an attractive redhead, married an African-American male,” says State Center Police Chief Jon Thomas, 45. “He has his masters degree and is one of the smartest and most level-headed guys I know. Here's what disturbed me about that. If two intelligent guys couldn't have a conversation about this, how is anybody else going to have a conversation about this?”
Marquis Wilson, Thomas’ brother-in-law, recalled that he was not open to hearing any defense of the officers who’d killed Floyd even “at the time, when there was still some ambiguity about how Floyd died because of that first autopsy report that was later completely overruled.” The two dug right in:
Jon Thomas: Floyd did not die of asphyxiation. It is a fact that people that can’t breathe don't talk because it takes oxygen to breathe. I guarantee you, I don't think he died of asphyxiation.
Marquis Wilson: That is ridiculous. That's a bunch of bullshit basically. Give me a break.
Thomas: You need to be quiet when I am trying to read.
Wilson: I am a grown-ass man and I don’t need to be quiet.
Thomas: Listen, I think the cops got it wrong, they botched it completely, but I don't think you’re gonna get a murder charge out of this. I don't think that you’re gonna show he had the intent to kill him. Manslaughter, absolutely. Failure to care for a person in custody, absolutely, did they completely screw it up.
Wilson: You need to understand this person is writing this as a way to gaslight people on the TV. The man sitting there saying he can’t breathe, obviously that was the cause of death.”
Thomas: You don't have to raise your voice to have a conversation with me.
Wilson: Motherfucker, I’ll raise my voice if I want to!
Wilson drops his fork on the plate and then utters his parting words: Man go fuck yourself.
Wilson: And fuck you.
Thomas walked out of the house, and didn’t return for six weeks. When Thomas did come back, for a family dinner, Wilson immediately approached him: Hey we need to talk.
The two men exited to the deck for privacy, and Wilson said: I've never thought for a minute that you were Derek Chauvin. I have full faith that you would never treat anyone this way.
Thomas: I get that, Marcus. I also get that I can’t relate to your mentality. I don’t have to worry about my sons being stopped by police in the way you do. I was looking at it from a police standpoint of the evidence available at that point and appropriate use of force and the legal intent of murder. I wasn’t trying to argue with you, but raising your voice just made me turn up the volume.
Wilson: I understand you might not have liked the way I said something, but I do appreciate the fact you are a police officer and I understand the scrutiny that you are under. I want you to understand I’m very supportive of good police officers but not at all supportive at all for police officers who disrespect African-American men, and who don't do their job properly and use excessive force.
For Thomas, conversations about race and police are as difficult as talking about the upcoming election. In his view, the extreme ends of left and right always seem to dominate the public conversation and he sees himself as more centrist. He is now “100 percent undecided” of who he will vote for in November and won’t say who he voted for in 2016. He says that he’s trying to avoid political conversations with his family, which may be wise as his wife, a kindergarten teacher, is extremely blue and very much “anyone but Trump” in 2020. Like mother, like daughter, his mother-in-law is a huge fan of Clinton and worked the phone banks for her in 2016.
“I can tell you that I got hired in law enforcement under President Clinton in 1997 where he and Biden came out with the cops-hiring grant and put more cops on the streets,” says Thomas. “Now Biden seems to have moved to the other extreme of the law and order issue…. I was a big fan of President Clinton, not so much Mrs. Clinton. I think there is a big difference between those two and I can tell you that I have personally been around Mrs. Clinton on security details. She treats uniform law enforcement like shit. And the way you act around closed doors says a lot about your character. This is why I don’t get to talk much about politics around my wife and mother in-law who love Hillary.”
Then there are the divides among his three children. “I have a junior in college, a senior in high school, and a sophomore in high school. I have a blue kid, a purple kid and a red kid. My oldest son is very Democratic like his mother. My daughter, the middle child, is very purple like me and my youngest son is very Republican and more to the right than any of us. He wants to be a cop and he wears a Make America Great Again hat.”
In Sandusky, an Obama-Trump County in Ohio, protest leaders hope their movement inspires voters who stayed home in 2016. “The swing vote is partially made up of not just people who swing back and forth between Democrats and Republicans,” says Josie Steltzer, 67, a retired chemistry professor at Heidelberg University and founder of People for Peace and Justice. “But also people who swing back and forth between voting and not voting, so they vote sometimes, and other times, they’re like “ho hum” and they don’t vote, like in 2016.”
People for Peace and Justice started in 2006 with vigils in opposition to the Gulf War in Fremont, the county seat of Sandusky. With time, the vigils expanded to tackle other social justice issues, but rarely exceeded a crowd of 10. After the death of George Floyd, the group decided to hold a vigil around the issues of racial justice that drew more than 500 protesters, which even included Danny Sanchez, the Republican mayor of Fremont. Since then, the vigil’s focus has remained on anti-racism, expanding to solidarity with Portland protests, with a dozen young people returning to join the original group each week.
In honor of John Lewis, the vigil focused on the importance of voting this week, but Seltzer says the group avoids directly connecting the movement to a pro-Biden or anti-Trump message. For one, organizers do not want to alienate young voters who were strong Bernie supporters but are lukewarm toward Biden. “Certainly I hope they vote for Biden in the end, but we don’t want to push them away since Biden is not an energizer for many young voters,” she says. “And we don’t carry anti-Trump signs and try to discourage others from doing so. If someone shows up with an anti-Trump sign, we have seen it happen that someone takes a picture of us, texts it to some other people, and they show up with their Trump signs and they start arguing with us. We don’t need to have that.”
Kyle Flood, 26, remembers the honking horns and shouts of “n---er-lover” and “race traitor” at his first ever Black Lives Matters march, a majority-white affair on May 31 in Kenosha, an Obama-Trump county in Wisconsin.
Flood says that it “had to be the most historical day I’ve ever experienced in Kenosha.”
Flood was raised by his grandparents who, unlike him, are Trump supporters and consider themselves conservatives. Yet, like him, they also voted for Obama—his grandmother in both 2008 and 2012, his grandfather in 2008. “You can’t trust labels,” he says.
Flood’s activism often puts him in opposition to his grandparents, who were strong supporters of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, while Flood's introduction to politics started with his opposition to Walker’s budget cuts. After wrapping himself in the anti-Walker movement, he found himself winning a school board election when he was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin at Parkside. He served one term and then waged two failing campaigns for city alderman. He now works mostly retail jobs while spending the rest of his time on BLM protests.
As his first march, hundreds of protesters were met by smaller groups of counter-protesters over the day—including two older white men with assault rifles. At the sight of the first one, Flood recalls a “skinny skateboarder” smashing the window of a downtown tattoo parlor.
“Police must have gotten a description of who did it, that it was a skinny white kid on a skateboard,” Flood recalled. So “they started pulling all of these white kids on skateboards and questioning them. I think it was just so obvious that that happened right after we had a gun pulled on us.”
By 6 p.m., the peaceful protest turned violent and, according to police, a crowd of looters emerged, smashing windows of downtown stores. The city then imposed an 8:30 curfew and riot police hit the streets and some in the crowd of protesters began throwing bricks at police. After the curfew, there were 150 people still on the streets, according to police. At 9:45 p.m., the Wisconsin National were deployed to assist in controlling the crowds. Police say random shots were fired throughout the night, some believed to be coming from homeowners in neighborhoods close to downtown.
While Flood saw the seven hours of peaceful protest as a historic moment in the overwhelmingly white town, many older residents saw what followed as something shameful and horrific among many older residents of Kenosha—“and the average guy doesn’t like that kind of chaos,” says Terry Rose, 72, a former Democratic Party chairman and member of the County Board of Supervisors “The average person thinks this is a great country. We don’t like to see violence and property destroyed and public officials sitting by and allowing it.”
For some, like Rose, the Kenosha protests and those in other cities might arouse more for Trump. Flood disagrees. He says BLM protests will mobilize voters who are disgusted with systemic racism—those who could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton in 2016 but learned a lesson in how much worse things can be with Trump. “I think I’m a prime example of that,” he says. “I actually voted for Gary Johnson in 2016. There’s no thought in my mind that I would vote third party this year.”