KENOSHA, Wisconsin—The first time Joe Biden was scheduled to arrive in Wisconsin was two weeks ago to celebrate his ascent to the top of the Democratic presidential ticket. Instead, when he stepped off a plane on Thursday, he and his wife, Jill, encountered a family in mourning and a city hurting from the physical and emotional toll of systematic racism.
The bleak circumstances gave Biden a forum to show how he would attempt to mend the nation struggling with cycles of crisis and to demonstrate just how different he is from President Donald Trump, who was in the same location just two days before.
“There is a reason why this administration only wants to talk about dividing the country and about ‘law and order,’” Biden said during an event with area leaders at Grace Lutheran Church. “They don’t want to talk about all those people who have died from COVID. They don’t want to talk about the fact that almost a million people filed for unemployment and don’t have jobs. They don’t want to talk about the fact that you have tens of thousands of businesses closing, maybe for good.”
While Trump has embraced a steely “law and order” framework for his campaign and personal branding, Biden has approached the protests over racial inequity with more nuance. In what’s become an added component of his stump speech, the former vice president has condemned “senseless violence” throughout his week of in-person talks, while also affirming individuals’ constitutional rights to peacefully protest, and preaching a need to bring together those with diverging backgrounds.
On Thursday, that included Black Lives Matter supporters.
“I think we’ve reached an inflection point in American history,” Biden said. “I honest to God believe we have an enormous opportunity now that the screen, the curtain has been pulled back. Just what’s going on in the country, to do a lot of really positive things.”
“As much as they say that Black Lives Matter, since the president has gone on this rant about ‘law and order,’ et cetera, still you have over 50 percent of the American people supporting it,” he said about the movement’s positive calls to address deeply rooted injustices.
Leading up to Biden’s visit, his team had taken a cautious approach to appearing in Kenosha, which became a place of somber national significance on Aug. 23 after a white police officer intentionally shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, seven times in his back.
Allowing just days of distance between when Trump visited after state-based officials asked him not to, Biden told reporters gathered on Wednesday in Wilmington, Delaware that he had consulted with the appropriate local leaders before deciding to make an official campaign appearance. He also said he’d received an outpouring of invitations to come.
Biden met with members of Blake’s immediate family, whereas Trump did not. According to a pool report, the former vice president gathered privately with Blake’s father, brother, and two sisters in person at an airport in Milwaukee, and spoke with Blake's mother, attorney, and others on his legal team by phone. The gathering happened before Biden, who was captured wearing a mask, headed to Kenosha.
Blake’s attorney Ben Crump shared details about the meeting, which he said lasted an hour and a half. “They talked about changing the disparate treatment of minorities in police interactions, the impact of selecting Kamala Harris as a Black woman as his running mate, and Vice President Biden’s plans for change,” Crump said in a statement. “Mr. Blake Sr. talked about the need for systemic reform because the excessive use of force by police against minorities has been going on for far too long. Jacob Jr. shared about the pain he is enduring, and the vice president commiserated.”
Crump, who is also representing George Floyd’s family, added that “the vice president told the family that he believes the best of America is in all of us and that we need to value all our differences as we come together in America’s great melting pot. It was very obvious that Vice President Biden cared, as he extended to Jacob Jr. a sense of humanity, treating him as a person worthy of consideration and prayer.”
On the ground, residents waited outside their homes for Biden’s arrival. Before the event started, a group of Black Lives Matter protesters blocked the streets. The city’s police presence at one point became heavier, asking them to step aside as they chanted Jacob Blake’s name and “shut it down.” As soon as Biden showed up, people frantically tried to get a glimpse of him while yelling “Fuck Donald Trump” and “Dump Trump.” Cars passed by blasting music that also said “Fuck Donald Trump.” The crowd cheered for Biden when he appeared.
“Look, this is not about me,” Biden said inside. “It is really not about me. If we have four more years of the exact same thing, only it will impact us for a couple of generations. The public understands that now. I think they are so ready to do so many things.”
At another point, Biden evoked the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), with whom he was close for many years. “I talked to him before he died, John Lewis,” Biden started. “As John said, the only answer is to vote. It is the only answer. Otherwise, nothing else works in democracy. The not so good guys win. I understand, I really do have a sense of the frustration. Where I am, I absolutely believe—when the United States, when America sets its mind to something, it has never, never, never failed.”
Biden’s trip to Wisconsin, which comes just two months before Election Day, served dual purposes. It gave him a chance to clearly accentuate to residents his campaign pledge to restore “the soul of the nation” in a crucial general election battleground. It was also an opportunity to return to what is meant to be a rhetorical question he tried out earlier in the week, asking if people truly think the country will suffer “less violence in America if Donald Trump is re-elected?”
During the church event, Biden also talked about several of his more progressive policy positions, including changing “prison punishment to reform.”
David Swartz, a 56-year old Biden supporter from Kenosha, told The Daily Beast he believes that Biden will actually address police reform and did not regard his visit as a “campaign stop,” but rather that he thought the nominee actually seems to care about the issue.
“There needs to be reform, as if this is a problem that we're having in this country all around the country,” Swartz said. He held up a sign that said “Dump Trump” and explained that, in his view, the president is not coming up with solutions to racial inequalities and that all of the tensions occurring within his community are happening because of his administration.
Chanel Pugh, a 23-year-old Kenosha resident, who is Black, said Trump’s visit struck an entirely different tone than that of Biden’s. “I feel like Trump just came for a publicity stunt,” Pugh said. “Biden is actually trying. He’s actually coming to the church and willing to meet with the family.”
In the morning, Biden, along with his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) unveiled a one-minute television advertisement to run in swing states, including Wisconsin, to “reassure voters that their frustrations regarding police violence and racial injustices are not being taken lightly,” the campaign said in a statement tied to the release.
In the ad, Harris, a former prosecutor in California, says, “We hold police officers accountable” while listing their joint proposed reforms.
That message couldn’t be further from the president’s.
During his visit to the state on Tuesday, Trump, still enthusiastic about his crime-crackdown theme highlighted during his party’s convention last week, held a roundtable with local community leaders and members of law enforcement, where he largely reduced excessive police force to officers who “choke sometimes.” Before Trump’s visit, both the governor and mayor asked him not to come, a move he deemed to be politically driven. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian are both Democrats.
Biden, meanwhile, used his meeting to strike a more optimistic, serious tone, before turning back to criticizing Trump’s division.
“I think there is a chance for a real awakening here,” he said in church. “I don’t think we have any alternative but to fight. We do not have any alternative but to fight back. We do not have any other alternative but to tell the truth.”