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Joe Biden to strike careful balance amid escalating racial tensions
THE demonstrations convulsing US cities have forced Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden to strike a careful balance between validating anger over police mistreatment of minorities while condemning violence as a response.
In one city after another, thousands have vented outrage in sometimes violent clashes over last week's death of George Floyd, a black man shown on video gasping for breath as a white Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck.
For Mr Biden, the protests represent a chance to advance his campaign's core argument: that he is an empathetic leader who will bring a sense of calm after deep polarisation under President Donald Trump.
But the moment is also fraught for a candidate whose path to victory relies on stitching together a coalition that includes both young activists seeking sweeping policing reform, as well as more moderate voters who want order restored to their neighbourhoods.
"This is the case for Joe Biden: He can be a uniter, he can be a safe, trusted voice, but he can also signal a return to some sanity around race politics for some people who have been turned off by the Trump era," said Joel Payne, a political strategist who oversaw African-American advertising for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.
Mr Trump, a Republican, has shown little interest in conciliation, instead returning to the law-and-order theme that animated his campaign four years ago, while accusing the "radical left" of fomenting violence - a message that may resonate with some voters if the unrest continues unabated.
Mr Biden, who was vice-president under Barack Obama, the first black US president, has said he decided to run for the White House after hearing Mr Trump say there were "fine people on both sides" of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in 2017.
His supporters say he can offer reassurance to all Americans by expressing solidarity with the anguish on display without endorsing violent solutions.
"We have to help white suburban Americans understand that this is a human life and what if it was your son, or your brother, or your uncle," said Representative Val Demings, a black former police chief and Democrat from Florida being considered as a running mate for Mr Biden. "This is wrong, and it does not excuse the destruction of human property, but his life was worth more."
After visiting with community and faith leaders in Wilmington, Delaware, on Monday, Mr Biden hosted a conference call with several mayors to discuss the protests.
"Protesting is a natural American response to injustice, but burning down communities is not," he said.
Black Democratic leaders, including Representative John Lewis, a civil rights hero, and Mr Obama, have struck the same tone, voicing support for peaceful protests and denouncing violence.
On Monday, Mr Biden said he would appoint a police oversight board in his first 100 days in office.
But he may need to offer a more forceful policy response if he wants to attract more activist voters. A community leader told him in Wilmington that many young voters were wary of him over his backing of a 1994 crime bill as a senator, which some blame for more incarceration of black people.
Angela Rye, a Democratic activist and former executive director for the Congressional Black Caucus, said she was disappointed Mr Biden had not denounced police brutality more explicitly.
"I don't know how you soothe people, how you meet people where they are, how you tell people: 'I feel your pain', without saying where their pain comes from," she said.
But Mr Payne said Mr Biden simply needed to offer compassion and an openness to reform to draw a winning contrast with Mr Trump.
"He has to demonstrate a genuine interest in the solution, but there needs to be an understanding that Biden is not going to be the elixir," he said. "A lot of people are just frustrated - they want change, and they want somebody to listen to them." REUTERS