As the presidential campaigns heat up, Americans are provided with a stark choice of leaders. The visits to Kenosha of Donald Trump and Joe Biden provide clear contrasts for all to see.
Kenosha erupted after a white policeman shot an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, seven times in the back, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Demonstrators have marched night after night demanding justice. The protests were marred by vandalism, with some stores looted and burned. Informally organized, armed, right-wing militia groups came in looking for a fight.
President Trump came to Kenosha despite the objections of local officials that his presence would be provocative. That didn’t deter him because he came to provoke. He met with local police, toured some of the businesses that were burned down, and condemned the demonstrators. He refused to meet with the mother of Jacob Blake or to talk with Blake himself.
Asked about the scourge of racism in our criminal justice system that has sparked unprecedented demonstrations across the country, he dismissed that as “the opposite subject.”
That wasn’t his message. He wanted to focus on “the kind of violence we’ve seen in Portland and here and other places. The fact is that we’ve seen tremendous violence and we will put it out very, very quickly if given the chance.” He attributed the repeated police killings to the notion that the police “choke” under pressure, like a golfer choking and missing a short putt.
For George Floyd or Eric Garner, the only choking came from the choke holds police used to take their lives.
Trump bizarrely points to the chaos engulfing the country on his watch and warns that this is what will happen if his opponent is elected. While scorning the governor and local officials as weak, Trump took credit for ordering in the National Guard, though he had nothing to do with it. They were ordered in by the governor at the request of local officials. Trump offers no hope for reform. He acts only to fan fears and division in the hope it will help him in the election.
"One fans polarization, the other seeks reconciliation. One peddles fears; the other offers hope."
Joe Biden came to Kenosha two days later. He met in a church with representatives of the community, with firefighters and with local officials. He heard the pain of those living with fears of police violence in the Black community, and expressed his concern at the systemic racism in our criminal justice system. He spent an hour with Blake’s family and talked with Jacob Blake on the phone. He promised that he would work to bring reform, to address the scourge of racism that still scars our nation. He has condemned the violence, the vandals and the vigilantes, even as he praised those peacefully demonstrating for justice. He called for reform of the police, even as he distinguished the large number of dedicated police from the lawless few who should be held accountable. He quoted Jacob Blake’s mother who told him:
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“I’m praying for Jacob, but I’m praying for the policemen as well. I’m praying that things change.”
The contrast was clear. Trump leads by subtraction and division; Biden by addition and multiplication. One fans polarization, the other seeks reconciliation. One peddles fears; the other offers hope.
Trump refuses to condemn the right-wing vigilantes, even offering a defense of the 17-year-old Trump supporter who traveled to Kenosha with an assault weapon, and shot and killed two people, wounding another. Trump refuses to acknowledge the provocations that lead unprecedented numbers of people to protest peacefully for justice, dismissing them as “anarchists.” Campaigning in 2016, he encouraged police to mistreat suspects, suggesting a little brutality would be a good thing.
In the face of demonstrations marred by violence and vandalism, Biden chose not to abandon those demanding justice. He condemned lawless actions on both right and left and called on Trump to do the same. At the same time, he reached out to the victim, and acknowledged the provocations that lead citizens to march for justice.
Trump sees the demonstrations as a political opportunity that he can use to scare those in the suburbs, to stand as the law-and-order candidate. He pretends that if re-elected he can bring order, ignoring that fact that he is president as the disorder spreads.
Biden, in contrast, has felt the pain of losing a child. He hears the agony of African Americans who want safe neighborhoods and at the same time, live with real fears for the safety of their sons or daughters from the very forces tasked with protecting them.
In 1960 in the midst of a presidential campaign, Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham for leading peaceful protests for equal rights. He was denounced as an outside agitator, a radical, a communist. John F. Kennedy made a dramatic call to King in his jail cell, making it clear that he understood the justice of his cause. That call had a dramatic effect on his razor-thin margin over Richard Nixon. It also set the stage for the civil rights reforms that came after Kennedy’s assassination.
Biden’s trip to Kenosha—at a time when Trump is desperately peddling fear and division to bolster his election changes—reminds me of Kennedy’s courage. Americans must choose whether they want a leader who promises only to drive us apart or one who offers the possibility of bringing us together.