KENOSHA, Wis. (CN) — Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden made a trip to Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Thursday, participating in a town hall-style community meeting focused on hope and optimism at a local church shortly after meeting with the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot in the back by Kenosha police 11 days ago.
Biden, who was joined by his wife Jill, arrived for his first campaign trip to Wisconsin two days after President Donald Trump made his own high-profile visit to the area, during which the president surveyed destroyed businesses and hammered hard on a law and order message that praised law enforcement, Wisconsin Republicans and his own administration for a swift response to quell violent unrest that erupted after Blake was shot seven times by officer Rusten Sheskey on Aug. 23.
Immediately after arriving at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport, Biden met privately with members of Blake’s family at the airport, some of whom participated in the meeting virtually.
Biden mentioned during Thursday’s church gathering that he spoke to Blake on the phone during that meeting and that he is out of the intensive care unit at a Milwaukee hospital, where he has been since Flight for Life transported him there after the shooting.
By contrast, Trump did not meet with Blake’s family during his visit on Tuesday and said then that he ended a call with them after becoming displeased with how many lawyers were involved.
According to a Biden press pool, several dozen people awaited the former vice president’s arrival at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha on Thursday. The crowd was reportedly Biden-friendly for the most part, but a smaller group of Trump supporters were gathered up the street from the church waving flags and signs.
The church event was a relatively low-key gathering of about two dozen people, all wearing masks and carefully adhering to social distancing guidelines against a backdrop of stained glass and Christian iconography.
When moderator Tim Mahone, a board member of a Kenosha-based scholarship fund, went to shake Biden’s hand early in the meeting, Biden chuckled and said “we can’t do that,” instead offering Mahone an elbow bump.
The Democratic candidate presented a stark, hopeful alternative to the tone of Trump’s visit two days earlier, which focused almost exclusively on the damages the community incurred during the protests over Blake’s shooting and painted the law enforcement response to the unrest as a roaring success, thanks in no small part to his administration’s actions.
Biden spent much of the roughly 90-minute town hall meeting seated in front the church’s pews taking notes and listening to testimony from locals, which included the former president of a Kenosha firefighter’s union, the owner of a business looted during the unrest, an area criminal defense attorney and the president of the Kenosha Common Council.
Systemic racism and institutional barriers facing Black Americans came up early and often, which Biden readily acknowledged is a legitimate structural inequity that exists in the nation.
Tim Thompkins, a Kenosha resident and former Marine, pointed to disparities in employment, education, criminal justice and housing that disproportionately stack the deck against the Black community.
Angela Cunningham, a defense attorney at ADC Law in Kenosha and a former Milwaukee prosecutor, said she hoped a Biden presidency would address laws that protect police who kill people and over-policing in Black and brown communities that serves as a gateway to members of those communities getting trapped in the criminal justice machinery.
Cunningham asked specifically for a system compiling transparent data on charges against minority defendants, as “anybody who’s not in court every day won’t see that, and that data is not readily available.”
In the first of his two turns with the microphone, Biden took a dig at Trump without naming him, saying “the words of a president matter, no matter whether they’re good, bad or indifferent, they matter,” as presidential remarks can affect global markets and start wars.
Biden indirectly blamed the president for giving hate oxygen and recounted the now familiar anecdote of his deciding to run for president after being horrified by the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, three years ago and Trump’s equivocating response that there were good people on both sides, which Biden charged “legitimizes the dark side of human nature.”
But Biden nevertheless stressed optimism: “I honest to God believe we have an enormous opportunity now that the curtain has been pulled back…to do a lot of really positive things.”
“People are beginning to figure out who we are as a country,” he added.
The longtime Delaware senator went on to shout out Black Lives Matter by name and call for nationalizing a $15 per hour minimum wage, shifting from a culture of prison punishment to prison reform and investing $400 billion in affordable housing.
The former vice president also said he wants to pay federal public defenders more so they can fairly compete with prosecutors and spend billions on universal pre-K education, complete with robust investment in school psychologists to address heightened anxiety and mental health issues younger generations face.
And while Biden expressed understanding of the anger that led to protests, he repeated his assertion that those who loot and burn down buildings should be charged and that such actions are not the same as legitimate, peaceful protesting.
Kenosha Common Council President Anthony Kennedy laid out that “there’s a hurt in my section of town” over Blake’s shooting and the resulting unrest, but he sees hope in a Biden presidency to end prevailing cynicism and restore faith in the system.
“When we know the man at the top is speaking the honest truth,” that goes a long way toward those goals, Kennedy said.
“Fear doesn’t solve problems, only hope does,” Biden said. “If you give up hope, you might as well surrender, there’s no real option.”
The candidate blasted the Trump administration for refusing to address the pain facing the country from the combination of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the economic turmoil the pandemic has caused and a generational reckoning over racial injustice.
“There’s a reason this administration only wants to talk about division and law and order,” Biden said, explaining that Trump does not want to face up to the more than 186,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, the tens of millions of people it has left unemployed and the businesses that have shuttered because of the economic downturn, some permanently.
Win or lose, Biden portrayed himself as a fighter in the name of optimistic change.
“This is something worth losing over…but we’re not going to lose,” he said.
Biden’s visit drew predictably partisan reactions from the Badger State political class.
Republican Party of Wisconsin Chairman Andrew Hitt put out a statement Thursday calling Biden’s visit a “desperation trip” and pointing out that just two weeks ago, Biden declined to visit Milwaukee during the downsized virtual Democratic National Convention. Biden accepted the party’s nomination and gave remarks from his campaign headquarters in Delaware.
“It shouldn’t take rioters burning down the city of Kenosha to get Joe Biden to visit our state,” Hitt said, noting that it has been nearly two years since he has been in Wisconsin.
Conversely, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler tweeted on Thursday that whereas “Trump was in Wisconsin on Tuesday fanning the flames of division & violence,” Biden came “to meet the Kenosha community, listen & offer words of healing.”
“The contrast between them couldn’t be clearer,” Wikler said.