Donald Trump wades into racial tensions with visit to Kenosha

September 1, 2020
Donald Trump wades into racial tensions with visit to Kenosha

U.S. President Donald Trump stood at the epicentre of the latest eruption over racial injustice Tuesday and came down squarely on the side of law enforcement, blaming “domestic terror” for the violence in Kenosha, Wis., and making no nod to the underlying cause of anger and protests — the shooting of a yet another Black man by police.

Trump declared the violence “anti-American.” He did not mention Jacob Blake, who was badly wounded last week in Kenosha.

Soon after arriving in the city, a visit made over the objections of state and local leaders, Trump toured the charred remains of a block besieged by violence and fire. With the scent of smoke still in the air, he spoke to the owners of a century-old store that had been destroyed and continued to link the violence to the Democrats, blaming those in charge of Kenosha and Wisconsin while raising apocalyptic warnings if their party should capture the White House.

“These are not acts of peaceful protest but, really, domestic terror,” said Trump. And he condemned Democrats for not immediately accepting his offer of federal assistance, claiming, “They just don’t want us to come… These governors don’t want to call and the mayors don’t want to call. They have to ask.”

The city has been riven by protests since the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man hit by bullets seven times in the back by police as he was getting into a car while they were trying to arrest him. On the eve of his visit, Trump defended a teenage supporter accused of fatally shooting two men at a demonstration in Kenosha last week and accused Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden of siding with “anarchists” and “rioters” in the unrest.

Trump speaks while viewing property damage in Kenosha. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Speaking later during a roundtable with police and legislators, Trump said he doesn’t believe that there’s a problem with systemic racism in policing. He repeated his assertion that police are sometimes under tremendous pressure and don’t handle it well. 

Trump’s motorcade passed a mix of supporters, many holding American flags, and protesters, some carrying signs that read “Black Lives Matter.” As a massive police presence, complete with several armoured vehicles, secured the area, barricades were set up along several of the city’s major thoroughfares to keep onlookers some distance from the passing presidential vehicles.

Trump supporters gather at the sight of unrest in Kenosha, Wis., following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Offering federal resources to help rebuild the city, Trump toured a high school that had been transformed into a law enforcement command post. He had praise for the response but no words for the underlying cause of the anger — accusations of police violence — and did not initially mention Blake’s name. He said he tried to call the man’s mother but opted against it after the family asked that a lawyer listen in.

He later added he felt “terribly” for anyone who suffered a loss, but otherwise only noted that the situation was “complicated” and “under investigation.” The only words acknowledging the suffering of African Americans came from a pastor who attended the law enforcement roundtable.

Pressed by reporters, Trump repeatedly pivoted away from assessing any sort of structural racism in the nation or its police departments, instead blasting what he saw as anti-police rhetoric.

Repeating his apocalyptic attack lines, Trump again linked the radical forces he blamed for the violence to the Democrats and Biden, declaring that chaos could soon descend on other cities across the U.S.

Protesters are seen Tuesday morning in Kenosha ahead of the president’s visit. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who deployed the National Guard to quell demonstrations in response to the Blake shooting, had pleaded with Trump to stay away for fear of straining tensions further. 

“I am concerned your presence will only hinder our healing. I am concerned your presence will only delay our work to overcome division and move forward together,” Evers wrote in a letter to Trump.

Volunteers paint murals on boarded-up businesses in Kenosha on Sunday at an event that was meant to gather donations for residents and help businesses hurt by violent protests. (Russell Contreras/The Associated Press)

Several members of the Kenosha County Board sent their own letter, however, saying Trump’s “leadership in this time of crisis is greatly appreciated by those devastated by the violence in Kenosha.”

Trump insisted his appearance could “increase enthusiasm” in Wisconsin, perhaps the most hotly contested battleground state in the presidential race, as the White House said he “wants to visit hurting Americans.”

‘We need justice and relief’

Blake’s family held a “community celebration” to correspond with Trump’s visit.

“We don’t need more pain and division from a president set on advancing his campaign at the expense of our city,” Justin Blake, an uncle, said in a statement. “We need justice and relief for our vibrant community.”

He said Trump’s comments over the last four years have given police officers an incentive to brutalize Black men like his nephew and that he doesn’t care about Trump’s motivation for visiting Kenosha. Instead, he’s focused on getting justice and healing the city.

WATCH | Jacob Blake’s uncle says his family wants justice: 

Justin Blake held a community gathering in Kenosha, Wis., where he urged authorities to convict the police officer who shot his nephew seven times. 0:48

The Wisconsin Department of Justice says it has reviewed 28 videos related to the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Only two cellphone videos that captured the Aug. 23 shooting have been widely distributed over social media. The state justice department did not describe what was seen on any of the videos.

Rev. Jesse Jackson said recent remarks by the president have emboldened and inspired militia members and justified the fatal shootings of the two protesters in Kenosha on Aug. 25. He called the president’s comments “polarizing.”

The NAACP said Tuesday that neither presidential candidate should visit the Wisconsin city as tension simmers. Biden’s team has considered a visit to Kenosha and has indicated that a trip to Wisconsin was imminent but has not offered details.

“I am a tremendous fan of law enforcement and I want to thank law enforcement,” Trump told Fox News in an interview Monday night. “They’ve done a good job.”

Trump suggested that some police officers “choke” when faced with challenging situations — a term he used again Tuesday at the roundtable — “just like in a golf tournament — they miss a three-foot putt.”

Trump ‘stoking violence’: Biden

Biden, in his most direct attacks yet, accused Trump earlier Monday of causing the divisions that have ignited the violence. He delivered an uncharacteristically blistering speech in Pittsburgh and distanced himself from radical forces involved in altercations.

The former Democratic vice-president said of Trump: “He doesn’t want to shed light, he wants to generate heat, and he’s stoking violence in our cities. He can’t stop the violence because for years he’s fomented it.”

Trump, for his part, reiterated that he blames radical troublemakers stirred up and backed by Biden. But when he was asked about one of his own supporters who was charged with killing two men during the mayhem in Kenosha, Trump declined to denounce the killings and suggested that the 17-year-old suspect, Kyle Rittenhouse, was acting in self-defence.

WATCH | Biden condemns looting, property destruction:

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden takes aim at U.S. President Donald Trump, as he campaigns in person in Pennsylvania, saying re-electing Trump will lead to more violence in the streets. Biden’s comments come ahead of Trump’s contentious visit to Kenosha, Wis., following the police shooting of Jacob Blake and days of protests.  4:08

After a confrontation in which he fatally shot one man, police say, Rittenhouse fell while being chased by people trying to disarm him. A second person was shot and killed.

“That was an interesting situation,” Trump told reporters Monday during a news conference. “He was trying to get away from them I guess, it looks like, and he fell. And then they very violently attacked him. And it is something that we’re looking at right now and it’s under investigation. I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed. But it’s under investigation.”

Biden saw Trump’s impact far differently, accusing the president of “poisoning” the nation’s values.

Trump and his campaign team have seized upon the unrest in Kenosha, as well as in Portland, Ore., where a Trump supporter was shot and killed, leaning hard into a defence of law and order while suggesting that Biden is beholden to extremists.

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