WILMINGTON, Del — Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden told residents in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that the turmoil their city has experienced in recent weeks over a police shooting and protests that turned violent can be part of an awakening that helps the United States confront centuries of systemic racism and social discord.
“We’re finally now getting to the point where we’re going to be addressing the original sin of this country, 400 years old … slavery and all the vestiges of it,” Biden said at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, where he met with community leaders after a private, hour-long session with police shooting victim Jacob Blake and his family.
Blake, a Black man, remains hospitalized after being shot in the back seven times by a Kenosha police officer while authorities were trying to arrest him. The shooting is the latest high-profile police encounter with a Black man to spark protests that swelled nationwide in May after George Floyd was killed by white Minneapolis officer in May.
Biden is spending Thursday in Wisconsin, two days after President Donald Trump traveled to Kenosha. Biden says he is seeking common ground that Trump is incapable of reaching with “law and order” rhetoric and repeated refusals to acknowledge racism confronting Americans with black and brown skin.
“I can’t say if tomorrow God made me president, I can’t guarantee you everything gets solved in four years,” Biden said. But “it would be a whole better, we’d get a whole lot further down the road” if Trump isn’t re-elected.
“There’s certain things worth losing over,” he concluded, “and this is something worth losing over if you have to — but we’re not going to lose.”
Before traveling to Kenosha, Biden spent more than an hour in Milwaukee in a private meeting with Blake's father, Jacob Blake Sr., his siblings, and one of his attorneys, B’Ivory LaMarr. Blake’s mother Julia Jackson and another attorney, Ben Crump, joined by phone.
The younger Blake participated in the meeting by telephone “from his hospital bed,” Crump said. Blake, 29, shared the pain he is enduring and Biden commiserated. The family has said that Blake is paralyzed from the waist down after being shot seven times in the back by police as they tried to arrest him on Aug. 23.
Crump said Blake’s mother led everyone in prayer for his recovery. Biden treated Blake “as a person worthy of consideration and prayer,” the lawyer added.
At the church meeting, Biden heard searing commentary from community members.
Porsche Bennett, an organizer for Black Lives Activists Kenosha, told Biden she's “tired” at just 31 years old. “For so many decades we’ve been shown we don’t matter,” she said.
The Rev. Jonathan Barker, pastor of the church, opened the meeting with a prayer asking for “justice for Jacob Blake” and for God to “anoint” a national leader in November who will “seek justice, love mercy ... and love their neighbor.”
A practicing Catholic, Biden ended the prayer making the sign of the cross. He then heard from Kenosha residents discussing the need to address systemic racism so that society — including commerce — will function peacefully.
“I look at the buildings in our community that are gone,” said Barb DeBerge, owner of DeBerge Framing & Gallery, which still stands. “I just I don’t think I really grieved as much as I should because being a business owner, I have to keep going, I have to keep working.”
The trip, Biden's first to Wisconsin of the general election campaign, is intended to draw sharp contrasts with Trump. Biden is emphasizing an argument that he’s a unifying figure, able to lead the nation through a reckoning with systemic racism along with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.
Trump didn't meet with the Blake family when he visited Kenosha earlier this week.
Biden's emphasis on unity is a staple of his campaign, drawing an intentional contrast with Trump, who thrives on conflict. The distinction has sharpened over a summer of nationwide protests. Most have been peaceful, but some of them, as in Kenosha, turned violent and destructive.
Kenosha was calm ahead of Biden's visit. By midday, a small group of Biden supporters, some Black Lives Matter activists and a Trump supporter had gathered at a city center park that had been a focal point of demonstrations for days. When the president visited Kenosha on Tuesday, a few hundred pro- and anti-Trump protesters convened at the spot.
“No one’s perfect,” said Michelle Stauder, a 60-year-old retired Kenosha school teacher sitting on a barricade erected earlier and clutching a Biden-Harris campaign sign. “But I’m excited about Biden. And I like that he’s here spreading the word of peace and rebuilding.”
Kenneth Turner stood nearby with a Trump-Pence yard sign under his arm. “Everyone is blaming Trump for everything,” the 50-year-old Kenosha man said. “But problems here have been around a long time before Trump.”
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said Thursday that he'd asked both Biden and Trump not to visit. “I would prefer that no one be here, be it candidate Trump or candidate Biden,” Evers said in a news conference. Biden again criticized Trump for his sweeping condemnations of protesters, his absolute defense 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.
Biden has defended officers for bravery and public service, but said policing must be overhauled. On Thursday, he repeated his promise of a national commission on policing if he's elected.
Biden does not want to “defund the police,” contrary to Trump's claims about him, but to require local forces to agree to certain best practices to get federal funding. He wants to spend more on services, such as mental health counseling, to ease social problems that fall to police to handle, sometimes with violent consequences.
During his own Kenosha trip Tuesday, Trump toured damaged buildings 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.
Trump is scheduled to hold a campaign rally Thursday evening in Pennsylvania, another key Rust Belt battleground. His campaign manager, Bill Stepien, said Biden's visit to Kenosha was inappropriate, arguing Trump went because he is president and that Biden is only “injecting politics into a really serious situation that president helped solve.”
Biden has, in fact, repeatedly denounced violence, 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. The spot is part of a $45 million ad buy across national cable networks and in local markets of nine states, including Wisconsin.
Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington and Michael Tarm in Kenosha, Wisconsin, contributed.