Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Thursday he spoke with Jacob Blake, who told the former vice president "he wasn't going to give up" after he was shot by a police officer in August, an incident that sent waves of violence through Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“He talked about how nothing was going to defeat him, how whether he walked again or not, he wasn’t going to give up,” Biden told a gathering of community members in a Kenosha church Thursday.
Shortly after Biden and his wife, Jill, arrived in Wisconsin, they had a 90-minute meeting with Blake's family. At Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, they met with Blake's father Jacob Blake Sr., sister Letetra Widman, brother Myron Jackson, sister Zietha Blake and mother Julia Jackson, who attended by phone. Also attending the meeting were members of Blake's legal team, Ben Crump, Patrick Salvi and B’Ivory LaMarr.
Biden said Blake’s mother prayed for her son and for the police officer who shot him.
“What I came away with was the overwhelming sense of resilience,” Biden said.
Crump said the Bidens had a “very engaging” meeting with the family. Blake, 29, who was paralyzed in the shooting, joined by phone from his hospital bed.
“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,” Crump said. “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."
The Bidens then headed to Kenosha to meet with about a dozen members of the community at Grace Lutheran Church in an effort to calm violent protests.
Barb DeBerge, owner of DeBerge Framing & Gallery, told Biden people broke into her building and looted it but were unable to burn it to the ground because of the work of a good Samaritan.
“We’re lucky we’re still standing,” DeBerge said. “Otherwise our store would have been up in flames.”
Porsche Bennett, an organizer for Black Lives Activists Kenosha, said people need to see action from political leaders such as holding police officers accountable.
“We are heavily angry,” said Bennett, 31, who said she wants a better future for her three children. “There’s a difference between a protester and a rioter. We protest to get our voices heard.”
Biden visited the political battleground state two days after President Donald Trump traveled to Kenosha to tour burned-out buildings damaged in protests that turned into deadly clashes. Two protesters were shot and killed, and police charged Kyle Rittenhouse, 17.
The dueling visits highlight the importance of racial justice protests in the final stretch to the election Nov. 3. Demonstrations swept the country after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody May 25. Biden has called for justice and healing; Trump decried lawlessness and described himself as the law-and-order president. As Trump sought to restore order in Kenosha, Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere, Biden accused the president of stoking division.
“This is the first chance we’ve had in a generation, in my view, to deal and to cut another slice off of institutional racism,” Biden said.
Biden said he decided to run for president after seeing white nationalists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. He said the same racism was revealed in the Kenosha protests.
“It also exposed what had not been paid enough attention to – the underlying racism that is institutionalized in the United States,” Biden said. “It still exists. It has existed for 400 years.”
Biden kept his mask on throughout his speech at the church but walked among the pews to get closer to Kenosha residents, who shared their experiences with Biden.
Jeff Weidner, a 30-year firefighter and former president of Kenosha Local IAFF 414, said first responders often face patients with health problems that get worse because of a lack of insurance or the funds for medication.
“Those are some of the things we see in terms of problems in the community that need attention,” Weidner said.
Angela Cunningham, a Kenosha lawyer and former prosecutor in Milwaukee, suggested police should be held criminally accountable for killing Black men and women.
“What I have seen in the courts is unfair treatment between white defendants versus Black and brown defendants,” Cunningham said. "There is over-policing in our communities."
Biden recalled his time as a public defender after graduating from law school in 1968 – on the day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. He said Wilmington, Delaware, had 10 months of National Guard occupation and he thought Black and white Americans would never cooperate again. But he remains optimistic.
“Don’t tell me things can’t change,” Biden said, referring to his time as vice president under President Barack Obama, the nation's first Black president.
Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, called Biden’s visit inappropriate because he came as a political candidate, in contrast to the president's official visit Tuesday.
“This is not the time to be injecting politics into a really serious situation that the president helped solve," Stepien told “Fox & Friends” on Thursday. "You don't see many supporters of the president throwing bricks through windows or setting buildings on fire."
Trump will campaign in Pennsylvania on Thursday at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, not far from where Biden delivered a speech Monday in Pittsburgh. Like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania is a battleground state that both campaigns view as key to victory Nov. 3.
Teddy Goff, a Democratic strategist who ran Obama’s digital operation in 2012, dismissed Stepien's argument that Biden used the Kenosha trip for political gain.
"If there's one thing that he's associated with in the public mind, it's empathy and the resolve in the face of crisis and tragedy," Goff said, referring to Biden's history of personal tragedy as well as his time as vice president during national crises.
Goff said that although Trump has shifted the political debate from the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout to public safety and civil unrest, the law-and-order message used by President Richard Nixon in 1968 might not be as effective in 2020.
“The country has changed a lot since 1968," Goff said. "There are more people of color in this country, and even the white folks, who still hold a slim majority in this country, are way more progressive and way more attuned to structural racism and police violence.”
Biden leads Trump by 7 percentage points – 50% to 43% – in a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll, down from a 12-point edge in June. A Fox News poll released Wednesday shows Biden leads Trump by 8 points – 50% to 42% – among likely Wisconsin voters, suggesting the race has not narrowed since the conventions or the unrest in Kenosha.
Biden's first visit to Wisconsin as the Democratic nominee came as the campaign spends $45 million this week on broadcast and digital ads across 10 battleground states, including Wisconsin. The ads include video from Biden’s speech Monday in Pittsburgh contrasting himself with Trump about how to deal with racial unrest, the economy and COVID-19.
“We can’t turn away. Now is the time for racial justice,” Biden said during the ad titled "We're Listening" slated this weekend for Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. “I believe with every fiber in my being we have such an opportunity now to change people’s lives for the better.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden in Kenosha: Ex-VP meets Jacob Blake's family in Milwaukee