Why Biden's protest problem has reached deep-blue California and why it matters

Los Angeles, CA - June 15: A Pro-Palestine person protest while holding a sign as President Biden fundraiser donors wait in line for a campaign fundraiser for President Biden's campaign at Peacock Theater on Saturday, June 15, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)
A pro-Palestinian demonstrator holds a sign near attendees of President Biden's fundraiser Saturday night at the Peacock Theater in downtown Los Angeles. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

As former President Trump's motorcade coursed through Beverly Hills, Newport Beach and San Francisco last week, packs of MAGA hat-wearing, flag-waving fans lined the posh streets and coastal highways and cheered.

Yet when Vice President Kamala Harris, who was raised among community activists in Berkeley, headed to a San Francisco fundraiser the same week, a throng of more than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators chanted, “Shame on you!” As President Biden landed in Los Angeles on Saturday evening for a star-studded fundraiser, a crowd of protesters greeted him with "Biden, Biden you're a liar! We demand a cease-fire!"

The disparate treatment — at least via street protests — has been building for months, amid a spring dominated by college campus protests. But the snapshot of love for Trump and anger with Harris and Biden has grown more striking as the protests move to the campaign trail, especially in deep-blue California, where large majorities of voters agree with Harris and Biden that Trump represents a threat to democracy.

Activists and political leaders in California and around the country point to a range of reasons for protesting against Biden, their would-be ally, more than Trump, whom they see as a wannabe dictator.

Biden is bearing the burden of incumbency that he didn’t face four years ago, facing a tough-love approach from some left-leaning activists who believe they can still push him further left. And while some protesters favor neither candidate, most have rejected Trump, whom they see as irredeemable.

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Support for the president in California remains high — Biden has a 20-point lead over Trump in the state, according to polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight. But Democrats at the national level are concerned that the optics of anti-Biden protests could hurt the president, as many polls show him either locked in a tie or losing to Trump.

“The thing that we're all worried about, of course, is when it comes time for politics, can people reconcile that while the Middle East policy choices may not have been exactly right by Biden, is he still the best political choice?” said Faiz Shakir, chief political advisor for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a progressive independent. “And the jury is still out on that.”

Protests do not equal votes, of course. But anti-Trump fervor in California has been a powerful and persistent force on the left since 2016, sparking clashes with counterprotesters that turned violent at times, drawing police presence, massive crowds and headlines. Anti-Trump sentiment carried into Trump’s presidency, and the 2020 election, even amid pandemic-era social distancing rules, helping fuel a coalition that defeated him.

“Donald Trump is being rejected by large swaths of his own party. … They are rejecting his failed leadership, his divisive rhetoric, and his threats of political violence against demonstrators or anyone who dares to disagree with Dictator Trump,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Sarafina Chitika in a statement to The Times. “President Biden, meanwhile, is able to bring people together even when they don’t always agree."

Some activists say privately that the violence at those events has deterred some activists from going out into the streets. And though many protesters on the left say they fear a return to office for Trump, many do not see themselves as aligned with the Democratic Party. Their main goal is changing policy, not electing a president.

Even so, many say a Trump presidency could put all of their goals at extreme risk, starting with the right to protest.

The Biden administration's stance on the war between Israel and Hamas, which is fueling much of the anger among activists, is much closer to the protesters’ than that of Trump, who has endorsed Israeli control of contested lands and urged Israel to “get the job done” in Gaza.

“At some point, you have this bubbling up. I don’t believe the protesters are saying, ‘We are protesting Biden because we want Trump.' They already know what Trump is,” said the Rev. William Barber II, one of the nation’s leading civil rights and anti-poverty activists who directs the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale University.

Read more: Biden vs. Trump: Where they stand on Israel, Palestinians, Middle East

When Trump arrived in Newport Beach on June 8, Orange County Democrats were too busy getting out the vote for down-ballot races to worry about the top of the ticket, said Ada Briceño, chair of the county party. Volunteers were knocking on doors, touting Dave Min for Congress and attending an ice cream social for Tammy Kim’s mayoral campaign in Irvine.

Susan Hildreth, president of the Democrats of Rossmoor in the Bay Area, said her volunteers have also kept busy writing postcards and door-knocking for Central Valley congressional candidates such as Rudy Salas. Her group is mostly composed of people over 55 who are less inclined to participate in protests, she said.

“We're ardently, ardently anti-Trump,” said Hildreth, 72. The lack of Trump critics taking to the streets "may have more to do with the general age of this group than anything else. It doesn’t mean that we don't care!”

Still, the California Democrats hadn’t entirely neglected Trump. A couple of antagonists made their way into the Newport Beach MAGA crowd along the motorcade, crying “Happy Pride!” and eliciting some heckles. An “Orange County votes Biden/Harris 2024” banner trailed behind an airplane.

In San Francisco, an inflatable Trump-like chicken decked in black-and-white prison stripes was ferried around the bay on a boat labeled "Alcatraz Prison Transport."

Armand Domalewski, a 34-year-old data analyst, pulled together a group of about 50 people to stand across a San Francisco street from hordes of Trump supporters, who he said occasionally crossed over to taunt his side.

"There's just an odd asymmetry between the parties,” Domalewski said, noting that Democrats, as well as Republicans, have been protesting against Democrats. That reality "makes it really hard, because that's both sides protesting us.”

Though he’s attended many protests, last week was the first time Domalewski had coordinated one himself — because no one else did, he said. The Trump supporters were evidently more organized. Vocal too. Some, anticipating Trump's birthday, sang "Happy Birthday." (He turned 78 Friday.)

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Even in 2020, Biden was never a movement candidate like Sanders or Trump, who held big inspirational rallies and raised small-dollar donations from die-hard fans; Biden also did some campaigning virtually to protect against COVID-19. And unlike Trump, who regularly employs violent language and rousing images at his rallies, Biden has campaigned as a calming unifier.

“We have not seen a fighting Joe Biden,” Shakir said.

Though Biden has governed in some respects as a progressive, “he isn't a populist by nature who gives you the sort of emotional satisfaction of a cause and a movement and a mission,” Shakir said. His argument is competence and good judgment, he added, which doesn’t play as well in an arena.

Trump has been the galvanizing force in politics to both his supporters and his detractors. One of the biggest protests against him occurred in 2017, the day after his inauguration, when thousands of women gathered in Washington and across the country to denounce him and stand up for gender equality.

But the political group that formed in the wake of that protest, the Women’s March, has so far endorsed candidates only in local and state races and is rethinking its approach to confronting Trump. Street protests may not be the best strategy.

Trump “vowed to be a dictator on day one, so we know that he would not take protests seriously. He would not take global human rights concerns seriously,” said Tamika Middleton, the group’s managing director.

But Women's March may keep its focus on reproductive rights and women’s equality to avoid giving Trump a platform, noting that he has raised money and won attention in adverse situations, including his 34 felony convictions.

Trump “sort of revels in the kind of attention of a women's march going head to head,” she said.

Biden returned to California for a posh downtown Los Angeles fundraiser Saturday, featuring Hollywood elites such as George Clooney and Julia Roberts, as well as former President Obama.

Jewish Voice for Peace greeted his arrival with a protest.

Bierman reported from Washington and Pinho from Los Angeles.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.