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Tempers, tension and taunts in Kenosha — but also efforts to heal: ‘Trying to turn something good out of all this’

Neighbors, activists and relatives of Jacob Blake took part in the community block party that made the neighborhood feel more like a Labor Day weekend than the epicenter of the nation’s latest reckoning with police violence and racism.

A Black Lives Matter protester burns a “Make America Great Again” hat in downtown Kenosha, Tuesday evening.
A Black Lives Matter protester burns a “Make America Great Again” hat in downtown Kenosha, Tuesday evening.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

KENOSHA, Wis. — The crowd that awaited President Donald Trump’s visit here on Tuesday mirrored much of the American political climate over the past four years: loud, angry, bitter and divided.

But on the block where Jacob Blake was shot in the back by a Kenosha police officer barely a week ago, it was a party — still loud, but focused on healing.

“We’re trying to turn something good out of all this,” Anthony Garden said, slathering sauce over racks of ribs on a grill set up outside Blake’s apartment complex near 40th Street and 28th Avenue.

A few hundred neighbors, activists and relatives of Blake took part in the community block party that made the neighborhood feel more like a Labor Day weekend gathering than the current epicenter of the nation’s latest reckoning with police violence and racism.

Instead, kids jumped in bounce houses, dance music blared, and residents shared water bottles, snacks, and face masks. Organizers also set up tables for people to register to vote, and even get tested for COVID-19.

Organizer Tanya McLean said they were out providing the services that have been denied Black communities for generations.

“We still don’t have the care, safety, and support that every one of us needs,” McLean said, denouncing “the language of hate and fear that Trump and others like him use to divide us.”

Anthony Garden barbecues ribs outside Jacob Blake’s apartment complex in Kenosha on Tuesday.
Anthony Garden barbecues ribs outside Jacob Blake’s apartment complex in Kenosha on Tuesday.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Craig Young, a Chicago native who lives a few blocks from where Blake was shot, said “Trump should’ve stayed where he was. But it’s good to see people taking a tragedy and turning it into something fruitful. It’s sad it had to happen this way.”

“People are healing here,” Kenoshan Joquin Gomez said.

But elsewhere in town and across the region, both supporters and opponents of Trump were busy making their feelings known — and often competing to see who was loudest.

Upon arrival at Waukegan National Airport across the state line, Trump’s motorcade was greeted by people holding signs, some cheerfully bearing his name, some declaring “Black Lives Matter” and others, simply labeling the president “Liar.”

Others chose to forego signs altogether, instead holding up their middle fingers.

In Kenosha, the city square that’s been home to days of raucous protest — and bloodshed — was mostly quiet through the afternoon as Trump made the rounds a few blocks away to survey areas of damage.

National Guard members kept watch outside the Kenosha County Courthouse while a plane flew overhead trailing a banner that read: “Reject Trump’s violence. Vote him out.”

Two groups of demonstrators eventually converged, with about 100 waving Trump flags and shouting “all lives matter” in response to the crowd on the other side that roughly doubled them in size, chanting “Black Lives Matter.”

The discourse devolved from there to name-calling and mutual insults, from “Marxists” and “communists” to “racists” and “Karens.”

Supporters of President Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter protesters argue and shout over each other outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse, in anticipation of the president’s arrive in the Wisconsin city, Tuesday afternoon.
Supporters of President Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter protesters argue and shout over each other outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse, in anticipation of the president’s arrive in the Wisconsin city, Tuesday afternoon.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Some Trump supporters also chanted for the release of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old accused of killing two protesters during a chaotic night last week. Trump has declined to denounce the Antioch teen’s actions.

Steven Fani, 51, said he brought his family with him to thank the president.

“It was very disheartening and frightening to see all the looting and rioting happening around me,” the Kenosha resident said. “I never thought I would see that kind of destruction in my life here in America. … I hope he sees the devastation and helps out these businesses and these people hurt by the riots.”

Supporters of President Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter protesters argue and shout over each other outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse, in anticipation of the president’s arrive in the Wisconsin city, Tuesday afternoon
Supporters of President Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter protesters argue and shout over each other outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse, in anticipation of the president’s arrive in the Wisconsin city, Tuesday afternoon.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Fani said he wanted “all the facts out first” before he’d make up his mind on whether the police shooting of Blake was justified.

But 18-year-old Kenosha resident Shamell Green said Trump’s visit only brought “brutality and chaos.”

Green clashed repeatedly with the supporters of Trump, asking how they could back such a “divisive” person.

“For years he has stoked flames where there was no need to,” Green said. “He separates children from migrant families, he joked about [sexually] assaulting women, and he is now defending a kid who crossed state lines and ended up killing two people here.”

A member of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist organization, and a woman wearing a MAGA hat are pursued by Black Lives Matter protesters after an argument outside the Kenosha County Courthouse, Tuesday evening.
A member of the Proud Boys and a woman wearing a MAGA hat are pursued by Black Lives Matter protesters after an argument outside the Kenosha County Courthouse, Tuesday evening.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As they’ve been every day since the Rittenhouse shooting, the protests were peaceful as the downtown crowd dwindled to about a hundred by 4 p.m.

The tensest moment came when the remaining Black Lives Matter protesters were approached by a man wearing clothing of the “Proud Boys,” which the Anti-Defamation League calls a right-wing extremist group whose activity has attracted white supremacists.

Protesters shouted down the man and chased him to a nearby gas station, drawing a dozen squad cars of police who up until that point had been conspicuously absent from all the demonstrations.

After a brief but tense shouting match with police, protesters headed back to the city square while officers escorted the apparent “Proud Boy” away.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides

Supporters of President Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter protesters argue and shout over each other outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse, in anticipation of the president’s arrive in the Wisconsin city, Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 1, 2020.
Supporters of President Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter protesters argue and shout over each other outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse, in anticipation of the president’s arrive in the Wisconsin city, Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 1, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times