Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York and other major cities are experiencing a breakdown of order — violence and conflict that is a mixture of left-wing revolution, racial unrest and old-fashioned crime. Whatever else they might have in common, all these cities are governed by progressive Democrats, and all owe their current disorder in some part to the failure of progressive Democratic policies on the issue of public safety.
That should be an advantage for a Republican president running for reelection. What is unclear is whether President Trump can make it work for his campaign.
What has been striking to many observers of the rioting following the March 25 death of George Floyd has been the degree to which local officials allowed — and sometimes seemingly encouraged — the forces of disorder to run wild in their cities.
In early June, a crowd in St. Paul, Minnesota, looped a rope around the neck of a statue of Christopher Columbus near the state capitol and pulled it to the ground. Looking at a video of the event, the question is natural: Where are the police? Certainly no one tried to stop the destruction. In the wake of Floyd’s death in police custody, the city council, following the phrase popular on the left, instead voted to defund the police.
Scenes of unrest erupted around the country. In Seattle, after several nights of violent protests, an anarchist group took over a police precinct building and then a six-block section of city, which they renamed the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ. (It later became known as CHOP, for Capitol Hill Organized Protest.)
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan did nothing to stop it. Durkan said the occupation had a “block party atmosphere” and might turn into a “summer of love.” Media coverage followed her lead.
Now, emerging accounts of CHAZ/CHOP show that life in the zone was more dystopian hell than summer of love. Violence. Looting. Property destruction. Armed men demanding protection money. Businesses disappearing, with years of work lost. The disaster lasted for 24 days until the rioters showed up at Durkan’s house, and the mayor finally took action to shut it all down.
But that did not stop the disorder in Seattle. On July 24, weeks after the zone was closed, the city’s police chief sent a message to residents and businesses. The city council had outlawed pepper spray and other crowd-control tools, the chief said, so police would have “no ability to safely intercede to preserve property in the midst of a large violent crowd.” The unspoken message from the city to its residents: You’re on your own. On Tuesday, faced with massive cuts to her department, the Seattle police chief retired.
The situation in Portland, Oregon, has become a national issue — and embarrassment. For more than 70 nights, rioters have attacked the substance and symbols of the rule of law: the U.S. courthouse in the city and various police facilities. For weeks, armed officers of the Department of Homeland Security protected the federal courthouse. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler condemned federal law enforcement and claimed repeatedly that the presence of those forces, ordered there by President Trump, was responsible for the mayhem.
Then the feds left, and the riots continued, mostly targeting city police. Wheeler recently lost his temper with the rioters, telling them, “You are not demonstrating, you are attempting to commit murder.” But who encouraged them in the first place? In the end, even after all the violence, the worst thing Wheeler could say was that the disorder might help to reelect Trump.
New York has not had nightly Portland-style demonstrations. But Mayor Bill de Blasio’s policies of slashing the police budget, weakening police crime-investigating abilities and freeing prisoners has resulted in a horrendous crime wave that has people fleeing the city. “Shootings were up 201% in the four-week period ended Aug. 2, compared with the same period in 2019,” The Wall Street Journal reported, “while the number of shooting victims rose 165%, and the number of homicides climbed by 50%.” Increases like that have not happened in decades.
Chicago has seen its already-horrendous violent crime rate spike again — murders up 55% since this time last year. And then, on Monday, hundreds of looters attacked the city’s Miracle Mile shopping area, smashing windows, stealing anything they could carry and at one point getting into a shootout with police. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pronounced herself “shocked” by the violence, although it is not clear why she would have been. Lightfoot has said she would welcome federal help to go after licensed gun dealers; other than that, she wants federal law enforcement to stay out.
Other cities with progressive leadership are discussing proposals to defund the police. They often deny that they want to actually “defund” the police; they simply propose to “redirect” police funding to other purposes, like mental health treatment or affordable housing. But the bottom line is, as progressives discuss weakening police forces around the country, the threat of violence and disorder grows.
This is an election year. Election years are times for partisan arguments. They don’t have to be nuanced. They don’t have to be subtle. And one Republican message this year is: The people who are tolerating and even cheering on the forces of disorder are Democrats. What will the Democratic candidate for president, Joe Biden, do about that?
Probably not much. Do not look for Biden to have what in the 1990s was called a “Sister Souljah moment” — to take a stand against extremists on his own side. Instead, Biden, who has apologized for his role in the Bill Clinton-era crime bill, is trying to play both sides of the street. For example, he has said that he does not support defunding the police, but when interviewed by progressive activists who asked whether he would support redirecting funds away from police, he agrees.
Down in the polls, time running out, President Trump faces a daunting reelection battle. But the failure of progressive governance to ensure public safety around the country has given him an opportunity, if he can take it.