Joe Biden spoke by phone Thursday with Jacob Blake, the Black man who was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week, turning the city into a focus of both anti-racism protests and the intensifying presidential campaign.
The 15-minute call came as the Democratic presidential nominee gathered with several of Blake’s family members at the Milwaukee airport ahead of an event at a Kenosha church.
“I've spoken to them a lot before, but we spent some time together, with my wife, and he talked about how nothing was going to defeat him — how whether he walked again or not, he was not going to give up,” Biden said of Blake as he addressed about two dozen people at the church.
Biden's trip to Wisconsin — his first to the state as a presidential candidate and a rare pandemic-era trip far from his home in Delaware — was intended as an obvious contrast to President Donald Trump's visit to the city earlier in the week, when he barely spoke about Blake or the police shooting and instead focused on the violence and property damage that took place in the aftermath. He spent a significant amount of his visit touring buildings damaged in violence after the protests.
Trump was often the focal point of his Tuesday trip — which included a roundtable event where administration and state officials flanked him, largely to thank him for his response when protests in the city turned violent. Biden used much of his time in Kenosha to give a platform to people in the community and their feelings.
Biden spoke for long stretches but mostly listened. Those invited to participate represented different points of view. Biden heard from a woman upset about the looting and damage at her framing and art gallery during the protests. He heard from a Black lawyer horrified by the video footage of Blake’s shooting. And he heard a passionate plea from Porsche Bennett, an organizer for the group Black Lives Activists Kenosha.
“I was told to go off this paper, but I can't,” Bennett said as she discarded her prepared remarks. (The Biden campaign told reporters any prepared remarks would likely have come from her organization and had nothing to do with the campaign.) “You need the truth. And I'm part of the truth. And the truth of the matter is, we are heavily angry. Not angry as to where people say, ‘Oh, they're protesting.’ There is a difference between a protester and a rioter. A very big difference. We protest to get our voices heard.”
Bennett added, “I've seen enough within these last two years to say I'm tired. I'm a mother. My oldest is 13, my twins are 9. I do this because I want their future to be better than what I have right now, because my present is not good. But I speak because I want the truth heard. And I speak for the people in this city because I live in this city. And I'm out here with these people. A lot of people won't tell the truth. But I'm telling the truth, and it's not what a lot of people think it is for us. We want the same exact rights as others. We want to be treated just like everyone else.”
Bennett talked of Black job applicants being denied positions they’re overqualified for and Black neighborhoods being torn apart by gentrification. Her comments appeared to move Biden, who for the first half of the meeting gave a recycled version of his typical campaign speech, with an emphasis on his brief time as a public defender. After Bennett’s remarks, Biden, seated and wearing a mask to comply with coronavirus protocols, offered a more personal response.
“Even though I've been involved with African American community and the civil rights movement since I've been a junior in high school … I can't understand what it's like to walk out the door, or send my son out the door or my daughter, and worry about just because they're Black they may not come back,” Biden said. “I can intellectually understand it. But I can't— I can't feel it.”
Biden then segued into his conversation with the Blakes. Video of the Aug. 23 shooting shows Blake was opening the driver’s side door of an SUV and had his back turned to officers — who were responding to a reported domestic incident — when he was shot at close range. Blake’s family and lawyers say he is now paralyzed. Tensions have been high since the shooting. During a Black Lives Matter protest in the city last week, a teenage Trump supporter allegedly shot and killed two people.
“Well, I think all of what's been unleashed with a lot of people is they understand that fear doesn't solve problems,” Biden said. “Only hope does. And you keep thinking about hope, or you might as well surrender. There's no real option. And as we talked, I listened to [Blake’s] mom, she was on the phone. … And what I came away with was the overwhelming sense of resilience and optimism that they have about the kind of response they're getting. His mom talked about — my wife asked to say a prayer, and his mom said a prayer. She said, ‘I'm praying for Jacob, and I'm praying for the policeman as well. I'm praying things change.’”
Biden moved into a brief critique of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and a “confluence” of other crises, tying it to his conversation with the Blakes and his response to Bennett.
“I think the country is much more primed to take responsibility because they now have seen what you see,” he said.
“It's really not about me,” he added, “but if we have four more years [of Trump], we're gonna have four years of the exact same thing, only it's going to impact us for a couple of generations, and the public kind of understands that now.”
For Biden, the trip was intended to show he, unlike Trump, can be a unifier. At a news conference Wednesday, Biden said he believes police officers involved in Blake’s shooting should be charged. And on Monday he described Trump’s rhetoric about the police shootings of Black people and the responsive protests as “toxic,” while also speaking forcefully against looting and rioting.
There is evidence that Trump’s efforts to make the race a referendum on law and order — and to blame Democrats for the protests, violent demonstrations, and overall crime trends in American cities — are not working in the president’s favor. A Fox News poll this week found Biden leading Trump among likely Wisconsin voters, 50% to 42%. When asked whom they would trust to do a better job on policing and criminal justice issues, 47% chose Biden, 42% Trump.