Donald Trump brought his politics of division to Kenosha, Wisconsin, planting himself firmly on the side of law enforcement rather than civil rights protesters during a contentious visit to the city.
The US president insisted that racial injustice in policing is due to “bad apples” rather than being “systemic” and that a silent majority of Kenosha residents are most concerned about “law and order” rather than racism.
Kenosha became the latest flashpoint in a long summer of unrest in America after Jacob Blake, an African American man, was shot seven times in the back by police as he tried to enter his vehicle. Three nights of protests set off more than 30 fires and culminated in a 17-year-old militia supporter allegedly shooting and killing two demonstrators – an act that Trump has pointedly failed to condemn.
Since then, marches organized both by police sympathizers and Blake’s family have been peaceful with no vandalism. But, critics say, Trump has seized on vivid TV pictures for political gain with no intention of healing or unifying.
On Tuesday, the Blake family held a community gathering at the shooting site with a DJ playing music and tables set up so people could register to vote, get a haircut, take a coronavirus test or write a messages to put in Blake’s hospital room. The president was not invited.
Trump’s motorcade passed crowds of demonstrators, some holding pro-Trump signs, others jeering while carrying placards that read Black Lives Matter. Under heavy police guard, including several armored vehicles, Trump toured the charred remains of a block including a furniture shop that was burned down.
Then, flanked by the attorney general, William Barr, and the acting homeland security secretary, Chad Wolf, Trump hosted a meeting at a high school of community and business leaders, law enforcement officials and pastors against a backdrop of photos showing vandalism.
“We have to condemn the dangerous anti-police rhetoric,” Trump said. “It’s getting more and more, it’s very unfair. You have some bad apples, we all know that, and those will be taken care of through the system, and nobody’s going to be easy on them either.”
Other officers “choke” under “tremendous pressure”, he added. “They may be there for 15 years and have a spotless record, and all of sudden they’re faced with a decision, you 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 they’re in big trouble.”
He avoided repeating a slip made in a TV interview on Monday night when he compared such “choking” incidents to a golfer crumbling under pressure on an important putt.
Trump told the meeting that “violent mobs” in Kenosha damaged or demolished at least 25 businesses, burned down public buildings and threw bricks at police officers. “These are not acts of peaceful protest but, really, domestic terror,” he said.
He pledged the federal government will provide $1m to police, nearly $4m to small businesses for their recovery efforts and a further $42m statewide for public safety.
One reporter noted there have been countless peaceful protests and asked Trump bluntly if he believes systemic racism is a problem in America. The president declined to say so, replying: “You just keep getting back to the opposite subject. We should talk about the kind of violence that we’ve seen in Portland and here and other places.”
“It’s tremendous violence. You always give it to the other side, ‘Well, what do you think about this or that?’ The fact is we’ve seen tremendous violence and we will put it out very, very quickly if given the chance, and that’s what this is all about.”
Trump added: “I keep hearing about peaceful protests. I hear it about it everything and then I come into an area like this and I see the town is burned down.”
Trump said he declined to meet with Blake family during the visit because they wanted to have a lawyer present.
Asked what he would say to them, he replied: “I feel terribly for anybody that goes through that. As you know, it’s under investigation. It’s a big thing happening right now... and I hope they come up with the right answer.”
Assailed by the Covid-19 pandemic and economic disarray, “law and order” is seen a valuable distraction for Trump’s re-election campaign. He again blamed Democratic politicians for encouraging agitators and anarchists in Kenosha and several other cities.
On Monday his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, issued a forceful rebuttal, saying of the president: “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.”