Joe Biden, who has made a pitch to be a more calming, unifying leader for a divided nation, travels today to Kenosha, Wis., a city now at the centre of America’s election-year reckoning with systemic racism.
The 77-year-old former vice-president, travelling two days after President Donald Trump visited the same city, plans to meet with the family of Jacob Blake, who remains hospitalized after being shot seven times in the back by a white police officer as authorities tried to arrest him. Biden also plans a community discussion with business figures, civic leaders and law enforcement officials.
“This is about making sure that we move forward,” Biden told reporters Wednesday. He noted that he’s “not going to tell Kenosha what they have to do,” but instead encourage a community to “talk about what has to be done.”
Since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, Biden has called for an overhaul of U.S. policing and embraced a national conversation on racism.
Trump, meanwhile, has countered with sweeping condemnations of protesters, an absolute defence of law enforcement and denials that Americans with black and brown skin face barriers that whites do not — moves aimed at his overwhelmingly white political base.
The president toured damaged buildings in Kenosha on Tuesday and discussed ways to quell unrest with law enforcement officials. Trump was greeted by supporters who occasionally mixed with — and yelled at — Black Lives Matter organizers.
“These are not acts of peaceful protest but, really, domestic terror,” Trump said.
Despite repeated questions from reporters, the president refused to address racism in the country or its police departments.
Biden has repeatedly denounced violence that has resulted from some protests, from a June 2 speech after Floyd’s death up to a Monday address that his campaign quickly turned into a one-minute digital and television ad.
Biden on Wednesday repeated that “to engage in violence — burning, looting, the rest — in the name of protesting is wrong. And that person should be held accountable for their actions.”
But he stood by First Amendment guarantees that “protest is a right.”
He also praised law enforcement, saying: “The vast majority of police officers are good, decent honourable women and men. They put on that shield every morning. They have a right to go home that night safely — the vast majority.”
But then he uttered words Trump doesn’t say: “Bad cops.”
Good officers, Biden said, “want to get rid of the bad cops more than anybody else does, because it reflects on them.”
Police reform, not defunding: Biden
Biden stands by his proposals to overhaul policing — not to “defund the police,” as some progressive activists espouse, but to require local forces to agree to certain best practices to get federal funding and to invest more in services, such as mental health counselling, intended to ease social problems that fall to police to handle, sometimes with violent consequences.
Biden previewed Wednesday how he believes he can make that work in Kenosha and, if he defeats Trump, in the White House.
“I spent my whole life … bringing people together, bringing the community and police officers together, bringing business leaders and civic leaders together,” he said, casting the national moment in terms of its possibilities.
“There’s been so many fissures exposed as a consequence of what’s happened that people are now realizing, ‘My Lord, I didn’t know people in that circumstance didn’t have that kind of help. I didn’t know,”‘ he said. “What an enormous opportunity to bring the country together.”
WATCH | Biden rejects Trump criticisms of him, assails lack of leadership:
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian said ahead of Trump’s visit that they hoped he would stay away, fearing he’d exacerbate community tensions. Republicans have accused them of hypocrisy, as word of the Biden visit has not led to similar pleas.
The visits by Trump and Biden in an election year are not without precedent in modern U.S. politics.
President Jimmy Carter paid a visit to Miami in June 1980 after the acquittal of four white police officers in the killing of a Black businessman led to unrest that was eventually tied to the deaths of 18 people. Many civic officials told Carter to stay away, and some onlookers in the Liberty City neighbourhood he toured threw objects at his motorcade.
There were 64 deaths attributed to the Los Angeles riots in 1992, and estimated property damage that was the equivalent of $1.6 billion US in today’s terms. Both George H.W. Bush, the president, and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton each met with leaders and witnessed the damage, which was sparked by the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of a Black man, Rodney King, which in part had been recorded by an onlooker.