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Intimidation tactics could backfire on protesters, sway voters in November

Police officers and protestors clash during a "Trump/Pence Out Now" rally at Black Lives Matter plaza August 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. Protesters gathered as the Republican National Convention on its final night was set to nominate President Donald Trump for a second term in office.  (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Police officers and protestors clash during a "Trump/Pence Out Now" rally at Black Lives Matter plaza August 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. Protesters gathered as the Republican National Convention on its final night was set to nominate President Donald Trump for a second term in office. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
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Cell phone videos posted to social media in recent days have shown instances of protesters confronting random bystanders, threatening Republican conventiongoers and demanding a show of solidarity with their cause.

Though employed by a small fraction of protesters, experts warned the aggressive tactics could erode support for a just cause while fueling the narrative promoted at this week's Republican National Convention of the country falling to "mob rule." With the Trump campaign putting "law and order" at the center of the president's reelection campaign, these mostly isolated incidents could influence voters in November.

Late Thursday night, groups of protesters surrounded guests of the Republican National Convention as they were leaving the White House, where President Donald Trump delivered his acceptance speech.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and his wife, Kelly, had police escort them away from the White House after they were surrounded by dozens of protesters demanding the senator acknowledge the killing of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville, Kentucky.

WARNING: The following video contains strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.

Paul, who was violently assaulted by one of his neighbors two years ago, tweeted early Friday morning, "Just got attacked by an angry mob of over 100, one block away from the White House. Thank you to @DCPoliceDept for literally saving our lives from a crazed mob."

In an interview about the incident, Paul said he believed he could have been killed or seriously injured if the police hadn't been there. "I truly believe this with every fiber of my being, had they gotten at us they would have gotten us to the ground," the senator told Fox News.

Others were confronted as well. Protesters challenged Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Florida, an Army combat veteran who lost both legs in Afghanistan. Several activists shouted in his face asking him how he felt about police killing Black people. "Anybody murdered is wrong," Mast said, prompting activists to repeat the question.

Several protesters followed RNC committeeman Chris Ager and his wife to their hotel, cursing and asking him to comment on the killing of Black people in America. At one point a female protester told Ager, "I'll f*** you up" after he apparently touched her elbow.

In another incident, an older white man was surrounded by protesters, punched in the back of the head and wound up on the ground after he reportedly hit a Black woman. He denied hitting anyone and was accused of being an instigator. Several people showed up to the demonstrations intending to provoke a reaction, including a man wearing blackface.

There's an array of protest tactics that are protected. It crosses into potentially legally actionable behavior is when protesters enter private property and when they invade an individual's personal space, explained Joseph Hoelscher, a legal scholar and director of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. "Property damage, violence, or threats of violence all cross the line, even in public," he added.

In Washington, D.C. this week, a group of protesters swarmed white diners in Adams Morgan. Chanting, "White silence is violence," the demonstrators called on diners raise their fists in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. One woman refused and she was surrounded by predominantly white protesters who shouted in her face. One protester could be heard in the video asking the woman, "Are you a Christian?"

WARNING: The following video contains strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.

The incident repeated at another restaurant where white diners were told they had to raise their fists in the air. One man walked away and was told he would be exposed as a "racist."

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser denounced the protest tactics as "highly inappropriate." Black Lives Matter denied any role in the protest but they did not condemn the action, telling WJLA that "a man getting shot seven times was more important than someone being yelled at."

There have been similar incidents reported in other parts of the country. In Wisconsin, a state that is still reeling from the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, there were incidents of bystanders being harassed and assaulted by protesters in Appleton.

Hoelscher emphasized that "there's no moral equivalency" between scattered incidents of harassment and the issues of police brutality and racial inequality in the justice system. Still, incidents like these hurt activists' cause "just as hypocrisy hurts any cause," said Hoelscher.

"These incidents cause sympathy for the cause's opponents," he continued. The behavior of a small minority of protesters and some violent agitators was "playing into the hand of Trump and everyone trying to convince the public that military-style policing is required for our safety."

Much of the Republican National Convention was spent highlighting protests in cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, Portland and Kenosha that turned violent. In his acceptance speech, President Trump warned of "rioters and criminals" spreading "anarchy and mayhem" across U.S. cities. Trump accused his political opponents of doing nothing while offering federal law enforcement units to "take care of your problem in a matter of hours."

Outgoing White House counselor Kellyanne Conway acknowledged in an interview Friday that "the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for" President Trump's reelection.

There's a reason the Trump campaign is spending so much time and money on the issue, explained Leonard Sipes, a retired senior federal spokesperson and creator of the crime research site

According to a recent Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll, 77% of Americans said they were concerned that crime is rising in the nation's cities. "It's the highest fear of crime figure I've seen," Sipes said. Violent crime remains close to 30-year lows. It has been rising steadily since 2015 and several major cities have seen dramatic spikes in gun violence and other crimes after the coronavirus lockdowns were lifted.

"This may be the first election where increasing violence 'and' protests decided an election," Sipes said, noting the combination of the two "is profoundly scaring and angering the American public."

Past politicians have run on the issue of crime with success and the Republican Party proved at its convention that it considers it a winning issue. In the 1980s, then-Senator Joe Biden reportedly pleaded with the Democratic Party, "Give me the crime issue and you’ll never have trouble with it in an election."

Sipes noted, "Mr. Biden was right then. He's correct now."

There is already evidence of public opinion turning against otherwise legitimate demonstrations. According to a recent poll taken in the swing state of Wisconsin, support for the racial justice protests among Wisconsinites declined from 61% to 48% between June and August. In that same period, support for Black Lives Matter plunged 10%.

The same poll found respondents narrowly split in their views of the protest with 48% saying they were most peaceful and 41% saying they were mostly violent. Notably, the August poll was taken before Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake, which prompted a fresh wave of nationwide demonstrations, including protests in Wisconsin that devolved into riots and deadly vigilante violence.

According to Todd Powell-Williams, a sociology professor at August University, it is not clear what will have a greater impact on voters: protests that get out of hand or heavy-handed attempts by federal, state or local authorities to put down demonstrations.

"November is very close," Powell-Williams noted. "The caution for authorities is if they overplay their hard, they lose sympathy. And the caution is the same for the protest groups. This is a very nuanced dance."

The demonstrations are so complex and fluid that it's almost impossible to predict the outcome of any single event, Powell-Williams added. Moreover, conflicting or new actors within the protest movement could send events sideways at a moment's notice.

The appearance of armed vigilantes in Kenosha, Wisconsin led to a fatal shooting earlier this week. A 17-year-old was charged with shooting three protesters. He reportedly responded to calls on social media to "take up arms and defend" the city against rioters. In a video of the incident, the teenager can be seen walking through a line of police cars carrying an AR-15 style rifle after allegedly shooting three protesters. He was not arrested until the following day.

Major protests were taking place Friday and over the weekend in Washington, D.C on the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Tens of thousands of people traveled from around the country in a massive show of force for racial justice.

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In a speech Friday afternoon, Rev. Al Sharpton called for a national reckoning on racism, bigotry, hate and violence against the Black community. "We didn’t come to start trouble, we came to stop trouble," he told the crowd.

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