KENOSHA, Wis. (Reuters) – Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden put himself squarely in the middle of U.S. tumult over racial injustice and police brutality on Thursday, visiting strife-torn Kenosha, Wisconsin, and speaking by phone with the Black man shot there by police.
Biden’s made the trip to the city, the site of sometimes violent protests since Jacob Blake was shot in the back several times by a white police officer on Aug. 23, two days after President Donald Trump traveled there.
The visits had starkly different tones. Biden met privately with Blake’s family on the grounds of the Milwaukee airport, and the former vice president also spoke with Blake, who is hospitalized, on the phone for about 15 minutes.
The Republican president’s visit on Tuesday, in contrast, was intended to convey support for police, and Trump did not meet Blake or his relatives.
At the Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, a somber Biden listened as local officials, business owners and current and former law enforcement members described a resilient community beaten down by racial divides and civil unrest.
Porsche Bennett, a Black Lives Matter organizer, said local Black residents were weary of false promises of police reform.
“We have yet to see action. And I was always raised to go off action, not words,” Bennett told Biden, who did not respond.
A small business owner, Barb DeBerge, said her business was at risk amid the violent protests but was spared heavy damage.
Biden, wearing a mask because of the coronavirus pandemic, condemned the destruction. “Regardless of how angry you are, if you loot or you burn you ought to be held accountable,” he said. “Period. It just cannot be tolerated, across the board.”
But he also praised the Black Lives Matter movement, saying Trump had not succeeded in swaying public opinion against the protests.
Trump on Tuesday toured a Kenosha furniture store destroyed in the upheaval and has maintained that Democrats like Biden condoned the violence and were in thrall to left-wing activists.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday showed most Americans do not see crime as a major national problem and a majority are sympathetic to anti-racism protests.
By contrast, a large majority of Americans said they remain “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic.
During an evening visit to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a swing state vital to his re-election hopes, Trump sent mixed messages on the pandemic, urging people to wear masks over the Labor Day holiday weekend while chiding Biden for wearing them.
“Look, I’m all for, we have a big weekend – distance on the weekend and all of that stuff and wear your mask when you are close together, in particular, and wash your hands,” Trump said at an airport rally with Air Force One behind him.
“Did you ever see a man that likes a mask as much as him?” Trump said, twitting Biden who has been photographed with a mask hanging from one ear.
“A lot of times, he has it hanging down,” he added. “You know what? It gives him a feeling of security. If I were a psychiatrist … I’d say this guy’s got some big issues.”
SHIFT FOR BIDEN
Biden’s visit to Kenosha marks a distinct change in campaign tactics for the Democrat, who has mostly avoided traveling far from his Delaware home, arguing the coronavirus pandemic required caution. The community meeting in the church was the largest group Biden had addressed in person in months.
The protests that have flared nationwide since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May have placed the Democrat in a difficult political position at times. Along with his running mate, Kamala Harris, Biden has praised the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement, but has not embraced its goals of de-funding or even eliminating local police departments.
Wisconsin is a critical battleground in the fight for the White House. Trump edged out Democrat Hillary Clinton there four years ago, and while opinion polls show Biden with a lead in the state, Trump’s campaign has made retaining it a top priority.
Trump won Pennsylvania by just 45,000 votes in 2016. Recent polls show him trailing Biden in that state as well, although there are indications the race there is tightening.
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw in Wisconsin and James Oliphant in Washington; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper and Michael Martina; Colleen Jenkins; editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Aurora Ellis and Grant McCool)