Seven police gunshots in Jacob Blake’s back put Kenosha, Wis., at the centre of the U.S. reckoning with institutional racism and violence. A 17-year-old with an AR-15 made the small industrial city ground zero for the country’s escalating culture war. And this week, Donald Trump and Joe Biden pulled the community into the fractious contest for the White House.
The Democratic nominee visited on Thursday to meet with Mr. Blake’s family, two days after the President brought his “law and order” campaign message to town, with a tour of local businesses destroyed by protesters in the fury after the shooting.
At least one member of Mr. Blake’s family drew a direct line between the rhetoric of Mr. Trump – who has derided anti-racism protesters as a “mob” and suggested Black politicians should “go back” to other countries – and the violence that unfolded here.
“Trump, he’s had his four years. He’s spouted nothing but venomous, racist comments out of the White House, which led to a police officer shooting at our son, our nephew,” Justin Blake, the injured man’s uncle, told a crowd outside the Grace Lutheran Church, where Mr. Biden spoke with community and business leaders on Thursday. “When you have somebody gaslight people and get them fired up, they feel they can do anything.”
Before Mr. Blake was shot last month, the city of 100,000 on the shore of Lake Michigan was best known as a manufacturing centre and bedroom community of Chicago and Milwaukee. And Kenosha residents were incredulous when the battle over police brutality roiling the country erupted here last month.
When her 18-year-old son was accepted into Howard University in Washington, Colesha Lyttle feared for his safety far from home: As a young Black man, he is disproportionately likely to face mistreatment and violence at the hands of police. That threat has now materialized in her own backyard.
“I’m afraid for him, I’m like ‘don’t go too far,’” said Ms. Lyttle, a 44-year-old health-care worker. “I didn’t think it would come this close to home.”
Officer Rusten Sheskey shot Mr. Blake two Sundays ago while attempting to arrest him. The authorities have said they found a knife in Mr. Blake’s vehicle; his family maintains that he was unarmed. The 29-year-old is expected to survive but is paralyzed from the waist down. Officer Sheskey is under investigation but currently faces no charges.
During subsequent protests, some demonstrators smashed windows and set fire to buildings and cars. Groups of gun-toting vigilantes descended on Kenosha. Kyle Rittenhouse is accused of shooting two protesters to death and injuring a third. He faces charges of homicide and attempted homicide. His defense lawyers argue that he acted in self-defense and the shootings were justified.
Across the city’s small downtown, the signs of the protests were still visible on Thursday. A few buildings were reduced to rubble, several dozen burnt-out cars sat in a dealership lot, and all the storefronts on the main street were boarded up.
Serena Cruz, 25, painted a mural with mountains and a river across the plywood that covers a church run by her in-laws. “We definitely pray to see better days, where the city will grow from it and be even better,” she said.
A coming-together across the city’s divides, however, felt elusive. Some residents said the shootings of Mr. Blake and the protesters may have been justified.
“If an individual had a knife on him, an officer can reasonably use their firearm. You shoot centre mass to stop the threat,” said Matthew Allan, 43, who waved a Trump flag down the street from Mr. Biden’s event. “If he’s continuing to twist, you keep shooting to neutralize that threat.”
Richard Herbert, a 68-year-old residential landlord, said Mr. Rittenhouse’s actions are “under investigation” and people should not “judge” yet. The problem in Kenosha, he said, was that Democratic officials in the state did not send in enough National Guard troops to immediately stop the property destruction.
“The protesters, the rioters, they all knew you could go downtown and start mayhem and the police wouldn’t stop you,” he said.
Mr. Herbert’s words echoed those of Mr. Trump, who on Tuesday said Mr. Rittenhouse “probably would have been killed” by protesters who “very violently attacked him” had he not shot them. Video from the scene, however, shows demonstrators trying to subdue Mr. Rittenhouse only after he opened fire. Mr. Trump did not visit Mr. Blake’s family.
Mr. Biden focused much of his talk on promises to tackle structural racism.
“The curtain’s been pulled back on just what’s going on in this country,” the former vice-president said at the church. “I thought you could defeat hate. It only hides. And when someone in authority breathes oxygen under that rock, it legitimizes those folks to come on out.”
The polar opposite responses epitomized the central imperatives’ of the candidates’ campaigns. While Mr. Trump contends that protests are driving the country towards chaos, Mr. Biden is using a social justice message in a bid to motivate traditionally Democratic Black voters. Wisconsin is a crucial state that went narrowly for Mr. Trump in 2016 after a sharp drop in Democratic turnout.
Many of those who stood outside Mr. Biden’s event expressed weariness at repeated promises of change.
“What more needs to be said? The country is tired of political posturing,” said Djuan Wash, 36, of Black Lives Activists of Kenosha. “Why are we still funding police and not basic necessities like food and education and health care?”
Justin Blake said that should Mr. Biden win, it will be up to the city to keep pressure on him to turn his words into action, and ensure other young Black men do not suffer his nephew’s fate.
“At least the door is open,” he said. “It’s our job as a Kenosha family … to keep their feet to the fire so we get resolution, so we get bills, so we get laws.”
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