“When this moment ends, let’s make sure we never stop saying their names,” said Philonise Floyd, one of George Floyd’s brothers, echoing one of the protesters’ slogans.
The demonstrators have urged Americans to remember the names of the victims of police brutality, rather than consigning them to anonymity as has happened so often in the past. Overall, the night’s program reflected a remarkable development in American politics, as a major party sought to associate itself fully with an emerging protest movement.
The full-fledged support showcased the effort by Joe Biden’s campaign and the Democrats to tap into the energy that has brought tens of thousands of people into the streets to protest systemic racism. Biden’s team has said they hope to boost turnout among Black voters and young people, two groups that have fueled the demonstrations.
Washington Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, speaking from a downtown balcony overlooking a blocks-long “Black Lives Matter” message painted on a city street in front of the White House, recalled the dramatic days in early June when President Trump allowed forceful tactics to be used against peaceful protesters outside the White House.
“If he did this to D.C., he would do it to your city or your town,” Bowser said. “And that’s when I said, ‘Enough’. I said, ‘Enough for every Black and Brown American who has experienced injustice, enough for every American who believes in justice.’ ”
Bowser also castigated Trump for fanning tensions and said she renamed the area now called Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House in response.
“While we were protesting, Donald Trump was plotting,” Bowser said. “He stood in front of one of our most treasured houses of worship and held a Bible for a photo op. He sent troops in camouflage into our streets. He sent tear gas into the air and federal helicopters, too.”
But identifying too closely with the current movement could carry political risk, particularly if the protests take a more violent turn. Days of heightened unrest in places such as Seattle and Portland, Ore., threatened to turn off some of the more conservative voters who dislike Trump and are considering casting a vote for Biden.
The Trump campaign signaled its intent to seize on the Democrats’ decision to embrace Black Lives Matter, suggesting that the movement shows contempt for the police. After Bowser spoke, the campaign tweeted, “D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said she was ‘proud’ of protesters painting DEFUND THE POLICE on the city street. She refused to remove it. Joe Biden and his party show nothing but disrespect to law enforcement.”
Biden has walked a careful path regarding the protests, showing empathy with the peaceful demonstrators while resisting the more far-reaching rhetoric from activists, including calls to defund the police. Instead, Biden’s criminal justice plan would increase resources for police departments across the country.
Trump’s campaign has tried to paint Biden as a leader who would dismantle the country’s police departments and presented himself as the “law and order” candidate. Biden’s campaign, however, noted that Trump has proposed cuts to law enforcement funding in his budget.
Even as he was leading a conversation with a panel that included Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, a Black man who was killed after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold, Biden was careful to distinguish between what he characterized as a small percentage of bad actors on the force and the larger population of law enforcement that he supports.
“Most cops are good,” Biden said. “But the fact is the bad ones have to be identified and prosecuted and out. Period.”
After offering this defense of most police, Biden turned to Carr and asked how she was doing and what she hoped would happen next. “We can’t let things settle down,” she said, saying that the outrage dissipated after her son died.
“We have to go to the politicians, but we have to hold their feet to the fire because otherwise the big uprising is not going to mean a lot,” Carr said.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo expressed similar worries and said Americans should make sure “that we actually use the death of George Floyd and others to take it to the next level.”
Biden told the panel, “I think the people are ready. We just have to keep pushing.”
Throughout the night, speakers referred to the protests and called for actions to address racial justice. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who is facing a tough reelection race in a conservative state, stood in front of a civil rights memorial as he spoke about Alabama’s long civil rights history.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who ran against Biden for the Democratic nomination, referred to Trump’s appearance in June across from the White House. “We need a president who, instead of using the Bible for a prop, will heed its words” and honors Floyd’s memory, Klobuchar said.
Organizers of previous Democratic conventions that unfolded in tumultuous times have struggled to balance a desire to embrace the calls for social change with a push to reassure voters who crave stability.
In 1948, then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey electrified convention delegates by urging the party to “walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” When the convention responded by adopting a civil rights plank, many Southern delegates walked out — and formed another party, the Dixiecrats.
In 1968, when Democrats convened in Chicago, competing slates from several Southern states vied to be seated. The convention was torn apart by pro-war and antiwar factions, while police furiously attacked protesters outside.
In contrast, the 2020 convention aligned itself Monday with the Black Lives Matter movement without dissent. Of course, given the convention’s virtual presentation, there were no delegates or protesters to raise a ruckus — but there also was nothing to suggest the message was controversial within the party.
Former first lady Michelle Obama, who gave a closing speech, took aim at Trump, saying, “Stating the simple fact that a Black life matters is still met by derision from the nation’s highest office.”
The night concluded with Stephen Stills and Billy Porter performing Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 song “For What It’s Worth,” as Black Lives Matter signs and protesters flashed by in the background. It was a hard-to-miss effort to draw a line between the activism of the 1960s and the protests of 2020.
Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.