Joe Biden visited this crucible of the nation’s debate over race and policing Thursday with a clear mission: to set up a clear contrast between his compassion for victims of racial injustice and the harsh “law and order” message that President Trump brought here two days earlier.
The Democratic presidential nominee, making his first campaign trip to the battleground state of Wisconsin, met privately for an hour with the family of Jacob Blake, the Black Kenosha man who was shot by a police officer in a case that sparked days of angry protests. Biden also spoke by phone with Blake, who is hospitalized.
Trump visited Kenosha on Tuesday but did not meet or talk by phone with the Blakes. He did not even mention Blake's name.
Biden's afternoon visit showcased what is considered his signature political asset — his ability to show empathy — and to reinforce his promise to unify a polarized nation amid a reckoning over systemic racism, police brutality, double-digit unemployment and a pandemic that has killed more than 186,000 Americans.
“I think ultimately what's been unleashed in a lot of people is they understand that fear doesn't solve problems, only hope does,” Biden said during a meeting with about 20 community leaders at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, after he met with the Blakes at the Milwaukee airport.
"What I came away with was the overwhelming sense of resilience and optimism that they have about the kind of response they're getting," he added.
At the event, speakers focused on local concerns after weeks of racial strife, street protests and scattered violence, including the shooting deaths of two protesters and the wounding of a third last week. A 17-year-old counterprotester has been charged with two counts of first-degree homicide and other charges.
Biden mixed promises to fight for racial equality with swipes at Trump, blaming the president for fomenting racial divisions in Kenosha and around the country.
He accused Trump of trying to spotlight the unrest here and in other cities to distract from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There's a reason why this administration wants to only talk about dividing the country and about law and order," he said. "They don't want to talk about all those people who have died from COVID."
Trump later derided Biden's socially distanced event in a tweet: "No crowd, no enthusiasm for Joe today. Law & Order!"
Trump has sought to persuade voters that Biden lacks the backbone to return calm to cities, and claims that his rival’s empathy extends to "anarchists" and others who he says have exploited the protests.
But the president's line of attack — a key focus of last week’s Republican National Convention — apparently is not sticking with most of the voters Trump needs to close a persistent polling gap.
Polling this week shows that the president trails Biden in almost every battleground state, including Wisconsin. He is also struggling in several Sun Belt states that he comfortably won in 2016, including Arizona and Georgia.
After nearly 50 years in public life, first as U.S. senator and then as vice president, Biden doesn’t easily fit Trump’s caricature of anarchist sympathizer.
Biden's campaign has amplified his oft-repeated statements that, while he supports racial justice protests, he does not condone violence.
“Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. It’s lawlessness plain and simple,” Biden said in a recent speech featured in a new national ad that shows scenes of burned-out cars and vandalized buildings.
Still, Trump’s appeal to voters' fear of urban unrest has forced the Biden campaign to play defense as the November election moves into a critical final phase.
That has distracted from Biden’s effort to keep voters focused on what it portrays as White House blundering in the coronavirus response, mismanagement of the economy and exploitation of racial divisions.
But Trump’s attacks also have helped Biden bolster his case that he is the steady hand in this race.
Trump visited Kenosha over the objections of the Democratic mayor and governor. He toured shops destroyed and torched in rioting last month and described the protests, which have been largely peaceful for several days, as “acts of domestic terror."
Trump said he offered to speak with the Blake family by phone, but refused because they wanted lawyers present. Two members of Blake's legal team sat in when Biden and his wife, Jill, met for one hour with Blake’s siblings, and he spoke with Blake's mother and lead attorney, Benjamin Crump, by phone, according to the campaign.
“The family was grateful for the meeting and was very impressed that the Bidens were so engaged and willing to really listen,” Crump said later in a statement. He said they discussed racial inequities in policing, the impact of Biden’s selection of a Black woman, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, as his running mate, and Biden’s “plans for change.”
Biden’s visit came as he began shifting his campaign out of his home in Wilmington, Del., where he was largely locked down since the coronavirus hit, and into battleground states. He spoke Monday in Pittsburgh, and plans visits to Arizona, Minnesota and elsewhere.
His strategy until recently was mostly to stay out of Trump’s way, as the president unsettled voters with erratic statements and actions in the midst of a pandemic. Biden has argued that a robust campaign travel schedule with large gatherings was unsafe.
But Biden's lead in the polls is not big enough that the campaign can stay on lockdown. Of particular concern to Democrats is a Monmouth University poll this week showing Biden with just a 4-point lead — down from 13 points in July — in Pennsylvania, home of Biden’s headquarters and the state where he was born.
The trip to Kenosha was just the second time Biden has traveled outside the Eastern time zone since the pandemic shut down in-person campaigning in March.
It is his first visit of the 2020 campaign to Wisconsin, a state that usually votes Democratic but that went with Trump in 2016 by a tiny margin.
Kenosha is still reeling from the fallout of the Blake shooting on Aug. 23. The 29-year-old Black man was shot by a police officer seven times in the back as he tried to enter an SUV with his three children in the back seat. Blake, who police say had a knife in the car, suffered spinal injuries and is likely to remain partially paralyzed.
In a television interview Thursday morning, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said Biden’s visit to Kenosha was inappropriate.
“The president was there earlier in the week as the president of the United States. Vice President Biden is there today as a candidate, as a political candidate,” Stepian said on “Fox & Friends." “This is not the time to be injecting politics into a really serious situation that the president helped solve."
After meeting with the Blakes, Biden met with about 20 local religious leaders, police officials and a Black Lives Matter activist, among others.
Those who spoke seemed mostly receptive to Biden, but Porsche Bennett, an organizer for Black Lives Activists of Kenosha, expressed the frustration of protesters who saw racial bias in policing long before the Blake shooting.
"We are heavy angry," she said, putting aside her prepared remarks. "For so many decades we've been shown we don't matter. We want someone who's actually going to show up and [take] action."
Biden began the session by sitting quietly at the front of the sanctuary and listening. But when he had a chance, he responded in vintage fashion — long-winded, punctuated by self-deprecating comments about how he was going on too long.
Supporters gathered outside, including Tymon Brown, 35, an unemployed pharmacy technician. He said he was encouraged to see Biden visit and speak with local leaders.
“I just hope good comes from it,” he said, adding that he’s grown cynical about politicians’ empty promises. “They listen to us, but when it comes to making decisions, they don’t.”
Halper and Hennessy-Fiske reported from Kenosha and Hook reported from Washington.