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What Joe Biden Should Say About the Madison Riots

Biden should tell America that he's against lawlessness both in White House and in the streets.
June 25, 2020
What Joe Biden Should Say About the Madison Riots

Dear Vice President Biden,

Things are going great for you right now! You’ve got a huge lead in the national polls and a pretty sizable lead in the battleground states. You are on track to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in almost 30 years: Unseat an incumbent president.

Things are not going so great for the country, though. As one crisis has compounded on top of another—a pandemic, an economic collapse, police violence, racial strife, violent rioting—our current president has only stoked the flames: ignoring the virus, threatening and attacking peaceful protesters, firing off racist tweets.

Here’s where you come in.

We know you can do better than this president. You’ve demonstrated it with your response to the virus and violence. Your speech in Philadelphia earlier this month was excellent. But now, as some on the extreme left diverge from righteous uprising to haphazard mob attack, we need your leadership again. It would be helpful for the nation and—as a happy coincidence—good for your electoral prospects.

We’re sure you saw what happened on Tuesday night in Madison, Wisconsin. Protesters—who set out not to be peaceful—blocked traffic, set fires, broke windows, and assaulted a Democratic state senator. And, as is in vogue these days, these folks then began to topple statues. According to the Wisconsin State Journal:

Protesters set their sights on another statue, one of Col. Hans Christian Heg at the top of King Street, tore it down and dragged it into Lake Monona. Heg was a Norwegian immigrant and journalist who died of his wounds at the Battle of Chickamauga fighting to preserve the United States and end slavery.

That’s right. The violence is so mindless that these jabronis are even going after monuments to abolitionist heroes now.

And this isn’t a one-off. In recent days we’ve seen attacks on monuments to Mahatma Gandhi, Ulysses S. Grant, and others.

America needs you to speak up and condemn these vandals.

We wouldn’t presume to tell you what to say. Your empathy and humility and ability to speak from the heart are a big part of why so many Americans support you.

But we can tell you what everyone in America—left, right, and center—needs to hear from our leaders right now.

Violence isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

If we, as a nation, want to change how periods in America history are recognized, then we do it together, in an orderly process, using the democratic means that the Founders created for just such purposes.

Anyone who thinks that it’s okay for a mob to tear down a statue they don’t like or assault a person they don’t like might as well be working for China or Russia. Because that’s the view of totalitarians. Might makes right in totalitarian societies, but this is America. We have always tried to do it differently here. And even when we fail, we never lose sight of what we’re called to be.

It is to his great shame that President Donald Trump has used violence against peaceful protesters. Americans, including many in his own party, have been rightly horrified by the excessive use of police force. But if Americans start to equate all protesters with these violent few, then the bully’s use of force could start to look justified in retrospect.

And this street violence isn’t just un-American—it’s hurting the cause of real reform and real justice.

It’s perverse that we have the most lawless president in American history now trying to posture and pretend that he’s for “law and order.”

What Americans need to hear is that Democrats are for law and order at every level. On the streets and in the White House.

So let’s stop tearing each other apart. Let’s stop trying to trigger and hurt each other. Let’s listen, and organize, and bring this country to where it’s supposed to be.

Barack Obama used to say that the way to get change was to get together, get energized, and then get organized. That has always been the answer in America. It’s how we’ve won our biggest victories. Because real change is change that we make together, thoughtfully, and intentionally.

You’ll say all of this better than we have, of course, because this has been the message of your entire campaign: That the America we’ve seen over the last four years isn’t who we really are. Your entire mission has been to call us back to our best selves.

And you understand that this means not just conservatives who’ve lost their way, but progressives who’ve come to despair that anything can change without extralegal action.

But just in case it isn’t obvious, Mr. Vice President, the stakes here are larger than your campaign, even.

We are at a moment when American attitudes toward police reform and race relations have tipped over. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, nearly 75 percent of Americans have supported the protesters who have peacefully assembled to demand reform of law enforcement. A majority of Americans now have a positive view of the Black Lives Matter movement. And people are increasingly of the belief that Confederate statues are better suited to museums than public spaces.

The eruptions in Madison and elsewhere have the potential to stall this shift in attitudes because these same Americans emphatically do not want violent chaos. They want to make our justice system more just—but they reject mob rule.

And Donald Trump is going to do everything he can to bind the peaceful protests against police brutality to the criminals who assault innocents, deface and destroy public property, and generally wreak havoc.

If he succeeds, it will squander the profound opportunity the peaceful protesters have given our country. You can stop him by reminding America that being asked to choose between law and order on one hand and reform on the other is a false choice.

You can remind America that you and the Democratic party stand against the mob and are perfectly capable of both enforcing order and making change.

But you should do it soon. Before Trump and his demagogues get to work.

Sarah Longwell and Jonathan V. Last

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark. Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.