Joe Biden Kenosha
A man waves a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris campaign flag outside Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha during a Sept. 3 visit from former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill. (Photo by Samer Ghani)

Biden says he spoke with Jacob Blake by phone and learned he is no longer in the intensive care unit. 

In a solemn voice and wearing a face mask bearing the name of a social advocacy group she helped create last month in the wake of the shooting of a Black man by a Kenosha police officer, Porche Bennett put the notes she had prepared aside. Instead she spoke truth to Joe Biden. 

“I’m going to be honest Mr. Biden. I was told to go off this paper but I can’t. You need the truth, and I’m part of the truth,” said Bennett, one of four founders of Black Lives Activists of Kenosha (BLAK).  “I was born here, raised here. I have to give you the truth of the people. And the truth of the matter is, we are heavily angry.”

What she described inside the intimate gathering that included local law enforcement, elected officials, nonprofit and business owners inside Grace Lutheran Church Thursday were her life experiences growing up Black in a predominately white city of roughly 100,000 between Milwaukee and Chicago. 

“We want the same treatment. We’re not saying put us above everybody or we matter more than anybody. But for so many decades we’ve been shown we don’t matter,” she said. “There is way more that we want done, and it didn’t just start with Jacob. We want change.”

The examples of systemic racism she described to Biden included being denied jobs she was overqualified for due to the color of her skin and the tearing down of old buildings and homes in her community, rather than investments being made to restore and fix them up. 

“Now we’re all pushed to one side of town. Gentrification has to stop as well,” Bennett told Biden.

Unlike when President Donald Trump paid a visit to Kenosha Tuesday, Biden was ready to address race issues and systemic racism. In contrast, when asked by a reporter Tuesday if he believed systemic racism is a problem in the United States, Trump dodged the question, then blamed the media for not talking more about the violent acts of “very bad people” in  Portland, Oregon, Kenosha, and other places.

Porche Bennett, executive director of Black Lives Activists of Kenosha, or BLAK, speaks Tuesday during a community event in support of Jacob Blake’s family. On Thursday, she addressed Joe Biden. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

The differing views on addressing systemic racism and police reform in America draw a stark contrast between the candidates. Biden believes systemic racism exists and needs to be addressed. Trump doesn’t. Biden believes there is a need for police reform, but stops short of the call by the Black Lives Matter movement for defunding police. 

In contrast, Trump told America, “I am your president of law and order,” in June, routinely portrays the country as a dangerous place, and says he will protect the suburbs from low-income housing, a racist appeal to the white suburban voters who associate low-income housing with increased crime and minority neighbors.  

“We’re finally to the point where we’re going to address the original sin of this country, 400 years old,” said Biden to the group of roughly 20 people. “It’s the original sin, slavery.” 

Biden said the inability of the country to ever honestly address its past has led to racial disparities in Black mortality rates in pregnancy, educational opportunities and much more.

“There are certain things worth losing over,” Biden said in reference to campaigning on racial equality and tackling systemic racism. “And this is something worth losing over if we have to—but we’re not going to lose.”

The visit to Kenosha by both candidates within two days of one another follows the shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23 by Kenosha officer Rusten Shesky. The shooting set off over a week of protests. At times, demonstrations turned violent and chaotic as an armed militia member, Kyle Rittenhouse, shot and killed two protesters, and rioters burned down several buildings and trashed others in the city’s predominantly Black Uptown neighborhood.

Shesky has been placed on administrative leave. The state Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are investigating the shooting.  

“The action we want is to hold these officers to the same crimes that we get held accountable to,” Bennett told Biden. “If I was that officer, I would be at the Kenosha County jail right now.”

On Wednesday, Biden said the officer who shot Blake needs to be criminally charged. 

In contrast, Trump is voicing support for Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old from Illinois. Rittenhouse has been charged with two counts of first-degree intentional homicide and felony charges of attempted first-degree intentional homicide and two charges of first-degree recklessly endangering safety. He is also being charged with a misdemeanor charge of possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18.

“I made a mistake about something. I thought you could defeat hate. But it only hides,” Biden told the small group inside the church. “When someone in authority breathes oxygen under that rock, it legitimizes those folks to come on out, come out from under the rocks.”

A Joe Biden supporter holds a sign that reads “Joe Biden supports BLM” Thursday afternoon outside Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha. (Photo by Samer Ghani)

Biden said he wasn’t planning to run again for office after his son died. Then came the president’s comments following a deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists and KuKluxKlan members carried torches and chanted hate-filled speeches. 

“He said there were very fine people on both sides,” Biden recalled Trump saying. “The generic point I’m making is it is not all his fault but it legitimizes the dark side of human nature . It also exposed what has not been paid enough attention to, the underlying racism that is institutionalized in the United States, still exists, has existed for 400 years.”

Biden said that because of this the country ends up in circumstances like what occurred in Kenosha.  

“I think we have reached an inflection point in American history,” Biden said. “I honest to god believe we have an enormous opportunity now that the curtain, the screen, has been pulled back on what is really going on in the country. We have the opportunity to do a lot of really positive things.”

Justin Blake, the uncle of Jacob Blake, addresses a crowd of Black Lives Matter activists and Joe Biden supporters Thursday afternoon outside Grace Lutheran Church. (Photo by Samer Ghani)

Justin Blake, Jacob Blake’s uncle, spoke with the crowd outside Grace Lutheran while Biden spoke inside. Justin Blake, along with Jacob Blake’s father, mother, and three siblings had a private meeting with Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden at the Milwaukee airport. 

“The first thing out of his mouth was about reform,” Justin Blake said.

Biden said during the meeting he spoke on the phone to Jacob for roughly 15 minutes and learned he is no longer in the intensive care unit. 

“He talked about how nothing was going to defeat him, whether he walked again or not,” Biden said. 

Biden said Jacob’s mom, Julia Jackson, led the group in a prayer in which they all prayed for Jacob, the policeman who shot him, as well as a prayer that things will change. 

And the most important distinction between Biden and Trump’s visits, Justin Blake said, was simple: Trump did not once mention Jacob Blake during his stop. Biden was the opposite.

“He came to this county and this city and said Little Jake’s name,” Justin Blake said.

The requests of public officials asking Trump to stay out of Kenosha and Wisconsin were jointly made by Gov. Tony Evers, Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, and County Executive Jim Kreuser. Only Evers expressed concern over Biden’s visit, largely over the potential spread of COVID-19. 

“I would prefer no one be here, be it candidate Trump or candidate Biden,” Evers told reporters Thursday while Biden was in Kenosha. Evers said he spoke to Biden on the phone and “believes he even read part of the same letter he wrote to Trump” to Biden. 

Anthony Smith, 25, a manager at Sugar Boxx, an ice cream shop in Uptown Kenosha, said Biden should have held off for a few more days. He also said Trump should not have come.

“With all this tragedy going on, we’ve got to really get ourselves together,” Smith said. “We just lost almost $30 million worth of businesses here. It’s hard out here, and for them to come out right now—I mean, just give us a couple weeks or a month, you know what I mean?”

Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian and County Executive Jim Kreuser previously told Trump not to come yet, but have not yet commented on Biden’s visit. Evers, speaking with reporters Thursday, said “I would prefer that no one be here.”

Still, other Kenoshans were excited that Biden came to town.

“I’m here supporting Black Lives Matter, and I wanted to see what he had to say about it in our community,” said Tremaine Watkins, a 29-year-old Black Kenoshan who was among the crowd outside Grace Lutheran Church. “He should’ve came today. I want him to see what’s going on in here.”

Kevin Breckenfeld, a retired resident of Pleasant Prairie, a bordering village of Kenosha, said he wished Biden would have come before Trump, but said he was not sure Biden would have come at all had the President not made a stop. Thursday marked Biden’s first campaign stop in Wisconsin and the first stop in the state by a Democratic presidential candidate since Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

Nevertheless, Breckenfeld appreciated Biden’s visit.

“Trump’s timing is awful, because he is a divider,” Breckenfeld said. “But if Biden came first, I think it’s OK because he’s a healer.”

Inside the church, Tim Mahone, chair of the Mary Lou and Arthur F. Mahone Fund, also said Biden’s leadership is about “unity not division.”

Rita Ramacci, a business owner in Downtown Kenosha, agreed.

“He’s not trying to incite trouble, whereas I think Trump was trying to rile it up a little bit,” Ramacci said.

“What unites us in our inner soul is love, compassion. In this time of healing, of hurt, and pain, we need that love and compassion,” Mahone said.  We thank you for being here today because we know your leadership is important in Kenosha and in our country.”

Jonathan Sadowski contributed to this report.