Trump backs LE on Kenosha visit, says safety is key
President Trump vowed to pump millions of dollars to help rebuild Kenosha and fund law enforcement efforts statewide
By Bill Ruthhart and Rick Pearson
KENOSHA, Wis. — President Donald Trump took his reelection message of law and order to riot-torn Kenosha and the key electoral state of Wisconsin on Tuesday, saying he doesn’t believe law enforcement is systemically racist and contending that those protesting for structural change in American society are ignoring those who want safety.
Making the trip over the objections of the Democratic governor and mayor, the Republican president lavished praise on a state essential to his 2016 election and a crucial one for his reelection prospects against Democrat Joe Biden. Trump vowed to pump millions of dollars to help rebuild Kenosha and fund law enforcement efforts statewide.
“Kenosha’s been ravaged by anti-police and anti-American riots,” said Trump, who criticized “violent mobs” for destroying businesses and throwing bricks at police in an act he likened to “domestic terrorism.”
But Trump did not visit Jacob Blake, the 29-year-old Black man left paralyzed after being shot in the back by a Kenosha police officer on Aug. 23, leading to days of protest, unrest and buildings destroyed by fire. The president also did not mention Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from Antioch charged with subsequently killing two protesters and wounding a third, a day after he refused to denounce the accused vigilante.
The Blake family did not welcome Trump’s visit and held their own event nearby. Justin Blake, an uncle, said the family refuses to let Trump use Jacob Blake’s shooting as a “political prop.”
In many ways, Trump’s message in Kenosha after touring some damaged businesses was a continuation of last week’s Republican National Convention, where he was nominated to seek a second term. Republicans view the issues of violence and social unrest as key to win back voters in the suburbs while accusing Democrats of pushing actions that make society less safe.
Trump described his rhetoric to reporters as “helping” to heal divisions because it was about “law and order.”
For their part, Democrats have contended Trump’s sharp rhetoric has been divisive and has encouraged acts of violence.
“This president long ago forfeited any moral leadership in this country. He can’t stop the violence — because for years he has fomented it,” Biden said during a Monday speech in Pittsburgh. “He may believe mouthing the words ‘law and order’ makes him strong, but his failure to call on his own supporters to stop acting as an armed militia in this country shows you how weak he is. Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is reelected?”
On Tuesday, after speaking at a roundtable with local political, business and law enforcement leaders at Mary D. Bradford High School, the site of the city’s emergency operations center, Trump was asked by a reporter whether he believed systemic racism existed in the nation’s law enforcement system.
“I don’t believe that at all. I’ve met so many police. I have the endorsement of like so many, maybe everybody. And frankly I think they’re incredible people. They want to do the right thing,” Trump said.
As for protesters’ calls for structural change regarding racism in society, Trump said he believed the issue should be considered from the viewpoints of those who aren’t in the streets.
“I think people are calling for structural change, and then you can take the people of Kenosha that aren’t here and that you won’t see and that aren’t protesting. But they want change also. They want law and order. That’s the change they want,” he said.
Before Trump’s speech, Felesia Martin, the vice chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said Trump needs to start showing strong, empathetic leadership and denounce the systemic racism that has led to police brutality and subsequent unrest and clashes between protesters on the streets of Kenosha and Portland.
“There is a void right now in America. What has happened here in Kenosha leads directly to Donald Trump’s door, and he will own this,” Martin said. “He must take responsibility for these actions that we are seeing across our television screens, across our devices every single day. The racism is ramping up, therefore the violence is ramping up across America. We must stand together and say, ‘No more.’”
Trump again sought to claim credit for calling in the Wisconsin National Guard to deal with Kenosha protests that turned violent, though Democratic Gov. Tony Evers made that decision. The president said he came to Kenosha to deliver a thank-you to law enforcement.
“What you’ve done has been incredible. It’s been really inspiring because you see it happening all over and it just never seems to end and it never seems to end because it’s almost as though they don’t want it to end,” he said.
Despite the significant political overtones of Trump’s visit, he did not mention Biden. But he did attack Democratic governors and mayors who do not heed his call for use of the National Guard or intervention by federal law enforcement to quell violence in their cities.
Trump said federal intervention of agents in Chicago, one of his frequent targets, has shown results, though his comments appeared to inflate the actual numbers.
Trump claimed 1,000 arrests by federal agents in the first month of the surge of federal law enforcement under Operation Legend, though it was unclear whether he was speaking about only Chicago. On Aug. 18, the U.S. attorney’s office noted that more than 60 people were hit with federal charges under Operation Legend since it began in Chicago on July 22.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Kenosha native who represents the neighboring congressional district that includes Madison, said Trump only “promotes racial division” and criticized the president for not “taking a stand against the attitude of militia of vigilantes” coming into Kenosha.
“You should not be able to be a vigilante walking down the street with a long arm (rifle) and not be stopped. He shot someone and did not get stopped,” Pocan said of 17-year-old Trump supporter Kyle Rittenhouse, who has been charged with killing two protesters and wounding a third during unrest in Kenosha last week.
Attorney General William Barr, who made the visit with Trump, also contended that “instigators coming from Chicago” helped fuel the violence in Kenosha.
On Monday, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said of 205 people arrested, 114 had addresses outside of Kenosha, including 44 other cities. Authorities did not release specifics on where outside protesters were from, however.
Barr said the violence that erupted in Kenosha was “not a legitimate response to a police shooting” but instead “violence for violence sake.”
As for the investigation of the shooting of Blake by Kenosha officer Rusten Sheskey, in which the U.S. Department of Justice is involved, Barr said it will involve “due process” in an effort to reach a “dispassionate, reasoned decision.”
“We do not allow judgments to be reached by mob violence,” Barr said.
While Trump extolled the law enforcement community, he acknowledged that there were some “bad apples” but also said people should consider the pressure and stress police face and that sometimes they “choke” and make a bad decision.
“They’re under tremendous pressure, and they may be there for 15 years and have a spotless record and all of a sudden they’re faced with a decision. They have a quarter of a second, quarter of a second to make a decision. And if they make a wrong decision, one way or the other, they’re either dead or in big trouble,” he said.
The president said police aren’t given enough credit for the jobs they do when the focus is on incidents of shooting or other questionable tactics used by law enforcement.
Trump motorcaded to Kenosha after Air Force One landed at Waukegan National Airport. As the motorcade passed where Rittenhouse is accused of shooting three protesters, he was greeted by hundreds of demonstrators representing Black Lives Matter as well as supporters of the president.
Protesters on each side chanted at each other and waved signs. Some said Black Lives Matter and BLM. Other signs said “Thank you Trump,” held by people wearing red Make America Great hats.
Trump characterized the ride this way: “There was love in the streets and so many African Americans, Hispanics I can see waving. It was so beautiful to see. They want to have safety.”
Black Lives Matter protesters squared off with Trump supporters for most of the morning and afternoon, much of it centered at Civic Center Park, the site of violent clashes last week between law enforcement and demonstrators.
“No justice, no peace! No racist police!,” the protesters shouted, while holding “Black Lives Matter” banners and anti-Trump signs. Trump supporters responded by waving American flags and Trump reelection flags while chanting “All Lives Matter!” and “Four more years!”
As Trump spoke at the local high school, a little more than a mile away Blake’s family threw a block party to help the community come together.
“The president just seems to have an agenda, but we have one, too — justice for Jacob Blake … and helping Kenosha with the injustice and racism they deal with on a regular basis,” said uncle Justin Bluke as 2Pac’s “Changes” blared from a set of speakers hooked up to a turntable. “Do you see Trump here? This is where you heal the community. He’s not present, is he?”
The party took place on a block dotted with small two-story apartment buildings and modest ranch homes. Barbecue smoke hung in the air, as volunteers served food, set up a bouncy house for children, offered free haircuts and registered voters. At a crafts station, children colored signs to be put up in Jacob Blake’s hospital room, because as his uncle told the crowd, “that’s better than any medicine they’ve got in that hospital for little Jake.”
Blake said the family held the event because “building and making our community better has always been in our DNA.” Jacob Blake’s grandfather, also named Jacob Blake, served as pastor of Ebenezer AME Church in Evanston and was a local leader in the civil rights movement, according to Chicago Tribune archives.
A number of activists with the newly-formed Black Lives Activists of Kenosha, or BLAK, attended the block party, and said they would spend no time addressing Trump’s trip to the city.
Parl Green, 32, said he was more focused on having a good time with his community and helping people unwind from the stress of the last 10 days.
“It’s a great way to bring the community together, which has been stressed this last week from everything Jake has been through, the rioting, the burning of Uptown,” said Green, who is originally from Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood but moved to Kenosha. “It’s just great to have everyone come out and enjoy themselves just a little bit.”
©2020 Chicago Tribune