Milton Patch was knocking on doors in southern Illinois four years ago when a police officer stopped him and demanded to see a permit.
As the young Black political operative gestured a few doors down to the elected official he was accompanying, the officer reached for a Taser.
“I have never felt so scared before in my life,” Patch, now a deputy organizing director for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, recalled in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “Especially while doing my job.”
The painful memory came rushing back last month after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man whose neck was crushed under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis. After days of protests that spread across the country and triggered President Donald Trump to threaten the use of deadly force against demonstrators, Biden convened his full staff for a video conference call. The former vice president, according to those who dialed in, spoke to the recent tragedy and offered comfort to his Black employees. A call most thought would last about 45 minutes went on for nearly two hours.
When Biden asked for questions, Patch worked through his nerves to pose a deeply personal one: What will Biden do if one of his canvassers is racially profiled while knocking doors this summer and fall?
“He said that if that ever happens to anyone, report it, and he will call the police department himself,” Patch said. “He will not tolerate anyone treating his staff in that manner. I truly appreciated that.”
Like in so many other jobs, Black people who work on presidential campaigns and for the two major political parties continue that work amid the pain and trauma of another instance of a Black man dying in an encounter with white police. The politics of this moment — and Trump’s incessant, inflammatory role in it — make that pain even more acute.
“This campaign has been exciting, but also difficult,” said Jamal Brown, a Black national press secretary for the Biden campaign. “We see the president fan the flames of white supremacy and hatred. We also see the unconscious bias on the political scene.”
Biden’s team, according to aides, moved quickly to offer support to Black staffers and others struggling to cope over the last two weeks. The day after Floyd’s death, campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon emailed the entire staff to “recognize the events of the last few days.”
O’Malley Dillon’s email, obtained by BuzzFeed News, also called out “the callous and racist behavior” from the white woman who called police on a black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park on the same day Floyd was killed. And she lamented “the continued divisive language” from Trump.
“These injustices,” O’Malley Dillon wrote, “have real impacts on all of us, especially our staff of color. Everyone processes these sorts of events in different ways and I want to encourage you all to take care of yourselves and take the time you need in whatever way makes the most sense to you.”
Several Black staffers have taken her up on her encouragement to take time off.
Black leaders inside the Democratic National Committee, the party’s central political arm in Washington, described the two weeks since Floyd’s death as a nonstop effort to respond with action while also consoling colleagues who are processing trauma, some of them alone, separated from friends and loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As Black people, we are dealing with a pandemic within a pandemic,” said Waikinya Clanton, a senior adviser to Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez who quickly after Floyd’s death started hearing Black colleagues who were struggling.
By that Friday — when Minneapolis was engulfed in protests and police tear gas — she convened a Zoom call with Perez, who is Latino, and about two dozen Black DNC staffers. “We found that a lot of our team really was dealing with things we weren’t aware of,” Clanton said. “We have staff who have been pulled over by police for no reason. We have staff who had witnessed police officers kill their loved ones. We had a lot of stories that came out.”
Clanton also asked a doctor with counseling and healing experience to join the call.
Brandon Gassaway, the DNC’s national press secretary, said the anxieties brought up by watching the news of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man who was fatally shot while jogging in Georgia earlier this year, followed by Floyd’s death, were only compounded by the personal and emotional isolation of a public health crisis.
“How much can my life be worth if it doesn't matter how well educated I am, how much money I have, what family I came from, if you can walk outside and get choked out by a police officer just for being Black,” Gassaway said. “Being in a pandemic while all this is happening, that feeling — that loss of value, that feeling of being alone — is amplified in that situation."
And many of the Black staffers who work in Democratic politics — a liberal activist space where non-Black people have spent the last two weeks trying, often imperfectly, to be good allies — have taken on the added responsibility of helping their white colleagues navigate this moment.
Clanton said that after the Friday call, she started hearing from non-Black DNC staffers, including white people who lead various departments staffed by younger people of color, asking for help and advice. Clanton put together a resource guide of sorts for people who felt “like they don’t have the right words,” she said, and encouraged her colleagues to listen and ask questions. The following Monday, they held another Zoom call, this time with the entire DNC staff.
The result, said Clanton, has been a period of “nonstop” activity. “It's been constant response and consoling and really trying to offer the support that our staff needs.”
Minyon Moore, a veteran Democrat who helped pave the way for many Black women inside the party as an operative in the 1980s, has been a sounding board over the last two weeks for the younger generation of Black Democratic staffers trying to balance their own pain with the demands of their colleagues and the institutions where they work.
“We always have had an awesome burden,” Moore said in an interview. “I know it's tough. It's tough on me. I cannot tell you how many calls I've had to take like this. But every call I take, I am happy to take it, because I want to be seen as a vessel. And that's what I tell them: ‘You’re a vessel. Use this moment to educate. Don't be tired right now.’”
The senior staffs of the Democratic and Republican national committees and the presidential campaigns, Biden’s included, remain largely white. That’s a reality that can affect how sensitively, if at all, the leaders of these organizations respond to personally traumatic developments.
Paris Dennard, a Black senior communications adviser at the RNC, said in an emailed statement that the national party’s chief of staff “communicated with the entire team in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, peaceful protests and violent riots in many of America’s urban cities, including an incident involving Trump supporters in my home state of Arizona.”
“As one of many Black American staffers here at the RNC I have felt a sense of community, understanding, and willingness to listen because the leadership understands that this is not just a Black issue, it is an American issue all of us are impacted by,” said Dennard. He added that his recent op-ed for RealClearPolitics — titled “Black Lives Matter To President Trump” — “went out without hesitation.” (Asked in a follow-up email how many Black staffers work for the RNC, Dennard responded "dozens.")
At the DNC, where Perez, the party chair, has faced criticism from Black political leaders inside and outside Congress since he took the helm in early 2017, about 50% of senior staff are people of color and about 25% are black women, according to a DNC official.
This spring, after Biden became the head of the party as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, DNC staffers of color were dismayed by his campaign’s choice to replace a woman of color who served as the DNC’s chief executive officer, Seema Nanda, as first reported by the New York Times.
Concerns over the decision came out in a tearful senior staff leadership call shortly after the news broke, with some staffers in disbelief that the Biden campaign had made it one of their first moves to remove one of the few women of color leading a major political institution, according to a person familiar with the call. The DNC, under Perez, is now led by two white staffers: CEO Mary Beth Cahill and deputy CEO Sam Cornale.
Both the Biden and Trump campaigns are run at the upper levels mostly by white advisers. Biden has boasted of having a very diverse staff — a claim that hasn’t been disputed, but also one that the campaign hasn’t quantified with data. Even so, Black aides who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they are confident Biden’s decisions are informed by a diverse group, including Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Black campaign cochair who speaks with Biden often.
“You can nitpick it how you want, but actually voices are being heard,” said Kamau Marshall, the campaign’s director of strategic communications. “I don’t think we’d have gotten this far without that.”
“I talk to Anita Dunn,” Marshall added, referring to a white senior strategist. “She will ask for our input.”
A spokesperson for Trump’s reelection campaign did not respond to questions about whether senior officials there had communicated with staffers about Floyd’s death and the president’s rhetoric on it or how they were supporting those upset by the case.
In her May 26 email to staff, O’Malley Dillon reminded staffers of the free, campaign-funded employee assistance programs available for mental health counseling.
“I often say that we can do hard things,” O’Malley Dillon wrote. “And we can. But sometimes we just shouldn't have to — and that is true far too often for far too many people of color in this country. Don't ever forget that the work each and every one of you are doing every day is part of the ever-enduring work to make this country a better place.”
Two nights after the email, with protests continuing and occasionally turning violent in the Minneapolis area and spreading to other cities, Trump called demonstrators “thugs” in a series of late-night tweets. He also threatened that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — a taunt dating to the civil unrest of the 1960s. Twitter slapped a disclaimer on the tweets, asserting they violated the social media site’s rules and glorified violence.
“I remember staying up all night,” said Brown, the campaign’s press secretary. On a call with the communications team the next morning, Brown told his colleagues he would be taking a mental health day.
“Every single person on that call gave me my space,” Brown said. “They all said take the time that you need to grieve and to heal and to just live.”
Biden, whose campaign is rooted in ending the racist behavior of the Trump era, addressed his staff later that day, via Zoom.
“The VP is what I like to call an organic gentleman,” Marshall said. “As a Black man, hearing from him — honest, thoughtful, and keeping it real — that meant a lot on so many levels.”
The pandemic has temporarily closed the Biden campaign’s Philadelphia headquarters and left most employees working from home. Like with the DNC staff, the lack of personal contact in a time of such distress has been a challenge, but Black staffers have banded together with virtual hangouts and happy hours — “a platform just to talk, and ensure that we are OK and to just listen to one another,” Brown said.
Campaign officials also have accommodated staffers who request time off to join protests, said Carahna Magwood, a deputy design director who took her 4-year-old son to one in Philadelphia.
“He sees Omar Jimenez get arrested on CNN, and even he has questions about why he’s being arrested,” Magwood said, referring to the CNN reporter who along with his crew was handcuffed and led away while covering protests in Minneapolis.
“It’s hard,” Magwood added, “and I think what the campaign has done was sort of critical for us in that moment because they saw it, they acknowledged it, and then they acted.”
Other staffers based in Philadelphia have struggled with proximity to the unrest. Brown would go on morning runs past the police officers guarding the statue of former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo, who was known for his hostility toward Black and LGBTQ citizens. The city removed the statue, a target for protesters, last week. Brown dashed by that morning, after it was gone. He took it as a sign that change does happen. “It just gave me the reminder to keep going.”
At night, though, Brown would hear helicopters whirring around his Center City apartment. He’d turn on the TV and see police officers “right outside of my apartment tackling people who were outside past the curfew time.” He’d smell the smoke of a fire nearby.
Late last week, Brown decided he’d had enough.
“I had to leave Philadelphia because of the trauma of hearing a helicopter above you, and having to monitor the news every day to make sure your life wasn’t in imminent danger right outside your apartment, and having to be reminded of that while you’re trying to work,” he said. “I had to leave the city and quarantine elsewhere so I could work healthily and turn my grief into purpose.” ●