EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth installment in a monthly series examining the issues facing the country in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the hot-button topics at hand and where local voters stand.
This week, as bands of Americans descended in protest upon the White House and tens of thousands flooded metropolitan streets in Washington, D.C., New York, Minnesota, California and beyond, the trending searches on Apple Music were "NWA," "N.W.A.," and "This is America."
The first two are the same – just punctuated differently, or properly. Either search on Apple's music-streaming service, though, returns iconoclastic, attention-commanding hip-hop anthems that jolted and polarized the music scene decades ago and stoked the fires of paradigm shift.
The latter search populates a song by Childish Gambino (the comedian, writer and producer, Donald Glover), one that climbed the charts amid political, cultural and racial queasiness and one that juxtaposes the black experience with sometimes-lighthearted lyrics, violence, mercurial visuals and dark humor.
Together, the trending searches – a resurgence of older, but prominent, songs – summate nationwide sentiment relayed by a tide of news crews and reporters: outrage, unrest and a desire for unifying, dynamic leadership. Change is needed America over, demonstrators, protesters and politicians have declared.
Effecting that change, Aiken County residents and community leaders have said, can begin with a vote.
'Give me somebody else'
Donald Wesby, 57, on Tuesday evening attended the first formal meeting of a new Black Lives Matter chapter in Aiken.
At one point – following a cordial back-and-forth between BLM Aiken Movement supporters and Aiken Department of Public Safety officers – Wesby stood up and addressed the crowd. Included in his remarks: "What we saw in Minnesota, that was just too blatant."
Wesby was referring to the death of George Floyd, a black man killed in police custody in late May. Floyd was pinned to the ground by multiple now-former Minneapolis police officers, including one, Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes.
Floyd said he could not breathe. His body, videos show, at one point went limp.
The four officers involved in the arrest have been charged. Chauvin, specifically, is accused of second-degree murder, an escalation former Democratic presidential candidate and current U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota described as "another important step for justice."
Wesby, a black man, on Tuesday said politicians have often "taken our votes for granted." In that same vein, "If you want to see change, that's where you make change. But you don't need to be duped."
The Georgia native and 22-year Aiken resident plans to vote June 9, in South Carolina's statewide primaries, as well as in November, when the nation will likely weigh President Donald Trump, a Republican, against former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
"Always vote," Wesby said.
Amber Winfield Stewart, who also attended the Black Lives Matter meeting outside the H. Odell Weeks Activities Center this week, expressed similar feelings.
"Definitely get out and vote," the Aiken County resident said. "You have to vote. If you want change, you have to vote. It's just very important."
To that end, Wesby will not be voting for Trump. He made it clear: "I mean, you look at this man for what he stands for and the things he's done. There's just no way."
That doesn't mean, though, Biden is immune to criticism or without reproach, he emphasized.
"We got this – basically – Democratic and Republican system, and it's like, I got to go either this way or that way. I think we, as citizens, should look at the best candidate. Be independent. If you're not getting done what I want to be done, then, next. Give me somebody else," Wesby said.
"If Biden gets in, I'm going to hold him accountable in the same way," he continued. "You got to walk the walk. I think the whole country is tired of that talkity talk. What are you going to do?"
At this point, according to Dr. Matthew Thornburg, a political science and elections expert at USC Aiken, it would be wise "for both Donald Trump and presumptive nominee Joe Biden to address the question of race and do it in a way that is sensitive to the fact that" the 2020 electorate is markedly diverse. There are more than 117,000 registered voters in Aiken County, including approximately 31,500 non-white people, state data shows.
U.S. politics hasn't seen this "level of energy" or this "level of concern about issues of race," Thornburg suggested, in approximately 50 years.
"With the events of the last months, including the horrendous injustice and murder of George Floyd, the senseless shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia," Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon said this week, "many Americans are finding ourselves questioning the treatment of our fellow man."
As protests rage across the country and serious concerns of racial equity once again unfurl before the public eye, Trump (the lightning-rod incumbent) and Biden (the Democrat some argue is too much of an establishment throwback) have taken diverging paths.
In the Rose Garden, Trump described himself as "your president of law and order." On Twitter, Trump on Wednesday wrote "LAW & ORDER!"; he sent the same message May 31. Prior, the president warned that raucous protestors who encroached on the White House would be greeted "with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen."
Biden has described nationwide protests as a "wake-up call." The former vice president's Twitter page carries comparably less aggressive messaging, though some have critiqued him for dealing in platitudes.
"The nation is crying out for leadership – but this president has nothing to offer," Biden has tweeted. In a recent speech, the Democrat said he would seek to "heal the racial wounds" that have long festered in and divided the U.S.
It appears, even if unintentional, Thornburg said, that the race for the White House has become a face-off between the law-and-order and the healer-in-chief candidates, the latter of which may be a default position.
At a time of such dramatic, visible tumult and disconnect, Thornburg said, it's not enough for the presidential candidates to simply say, "Something needs to change or this needs to alter." Biden, he analyzed, needs to offer solutions, policy and not lean solely on his "alternative to Donald Trump" reputation.
"You can't just define yourself by your opponent, by the other candidate," Thornburg said, later referencing 2004 and longtime Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's unsuccessful bid for the presidency.
At the same time, Trump's actions to mollify or arrest unrest – threatening a military crackdown and posing for photos in front of a partially burned church, stiffly holding a Bible, as examples – "have been widely panned," the USC Aiken expert said.
Staff writer Lindsey Hodges contributed to this report.