Democrats say President Trump has inflamed racial tensions and — in the words of rival Joe Biden on Monday — “fomented” violence through his comments and rhetoric amid the ongoing unrest in cities across the country.
But some Democrats and critics of Trump also have a history of encouraging supporters to be confrontational with counter-protesters and even local law enforcement.
The most memorable example is that of Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who in the summer of 2018 urged people to “absolutely harass” members of Trump’s staff when they’re spotted in public.
Speaking on MSNBC at the time, the California congresswoman said administration officials who defend Trump “know what they’re doing is wrong” and said they soon won’t be able to peacefully appear in public without being harassed.
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“They’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant, they’re not going to be able to stop at a gas station, they’re not going to be able to shop at a department store,” Waters said. “The people are going to turn on them, they’re going to protest, they’re going to absolutely harass them.”
Waters told supporters at a rally in Los Angeles that she wanted “history to record that we stood up, that we pushed back, that we fought that we did not consider ourselves victims of this president.” She called on people to “create a crowd” and “push back.”
The comments from Waters came as some key members of Trump’s administration were harassed while in public, amid controversy over separations of migrant families.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was confronted by an angry mob at a Mexican restaurant in Washington and later was taunted outside her townhouse in Virginia. Then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was also asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia after the co-owner said it “has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation.”
Waters’ comments, however, did draw criticism from now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“In the crucial months ahead, we must strive to make America beautiful again,” Pelosi, then the House minority leader, tweeted alongside a link to a story about Waters’ comments. “Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable.”
More recently, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., another Democratic lawmaker, has called for “unrest in the streets” over both racial injustice and Trump and his political allies turning a “deaf ear” to Americans’ concerns, including those about the “dismantling” of the U.S. Postal Service.
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“This is as much about public outcry, organizing and mobilizing and applying pressure,” Pressley said on MSNBC’s “AM Joy” earlier this month, after mentioning steps Democratic lawmakers can take, “so that this GOP-led Senate and these governors that continue to carry water for this administration, putting American people in harm’s way, turning a deaf ear to the needs of our families and our communities – hold them accountable.”
“Make the phone calls, send the emails, show up,” she continued. “You know, there needs to be unrest in the streets for as long as there’s unrest in our lives.”
Pressley also called on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, whom the Postal Service Board of Governors appointed in May, to resign for “corruption” over his restructuring of the Postal Service.
Protesters gathered outside DeJoy’s home in mid-August amid concerns that Postal Service changes could make mail-in voting more difficult and disenfranchise voters, Washington’s WUSA-TV reported.
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It’s not just Democrats in Congress who have encouraged more active unrest: Local officials and even television personalities have voiced their support for the turbulence gripping some American cities.
CNN anchor Chris Cuomo — the brother of New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo — questioned in June why people expect protests to be “polite and peaceful.”
“Please, show me where it says that protests are supposed to be polite and peaceful,” he said. “Because I can show you that outraged citizens are what made the country what she is and led to any major milestone. To be honest, this is not a tranquil time.”
Cuomo’s comments came as cities across the country saw widespread protests following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died while in Minneapolis police custody.
Following the death of another Black man, Freddie Gray, in 2015 while in Baltimore police custody, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was heavily criticized for a comment she made about giving protesters “who wished to destroy space to do that.”
“I’ve made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech,” Rawlings-Blake said
She added: “It’s a very delicate balancing act because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well, and we work very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate.”
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After a swift backlash, Rawlings-Blake tried to clarify her comments and blamed the media for misconstruing her meaning.
“I did not instruct police to give space to protesters who were seeking to create violence or destruction of property,” she clarified. “Taken in context, I explained that, in giving peaceful demonstrators room to share their message, unfortunately, those who were seeking to incite violence also had space to operate.”
While Democrats have not been as quick to criticize their fellow party members amid the current unrest following the death of Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., Biden has openly condemned the violence that engulfed Portland over the weekend. One person was shot and killed late Saturday in the city, as a large caravan of Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter protesters clashed in the streets.
“The deadly violence we saw overnight in Portland is unacceptable. Shooting in the streets of a great American city is unacceptable. I condemn this violence unequivocally. I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right,” Biden said over the weekend.
“And I challenge Donald Trump to do the same. It does not matter if you find the political views of your opponents abhorrent, any loss of life is a tragedy,” Biden added. “We must not become a country at war with ourselves. A country that accepts the killing of fellow Americans who do not agree with you. A country that vows vengeance toward one another. But that is the America that President Trump wants us to be, the America he believes we are.”
On Monday, Biden again challenged Trump, saying, “This president long ago forfeited any moral leadership in this country. He can’t stop the violence – because for years he has fomented it … fires are burning and we have a president who fans the flames rather than fighting the flames.”
Fox News’ Paul Steinhauser, Nicole Darrah and Brie Stimson contributed to this report.