KENOSHA, WIS. — President Donald Trump’s supporters gathered around Kenosha on Tuesday — in front what now is an auto graveyard after a used car dealership was torched during the riots, and near the rubble of what had been the oldest camera shop in Wisconsin and in the streets near Civic Center Park.
His trip to this troubled city hugging Lake Michigan sparked a de facto turnout rally in this key swing state.
It took no sleuthing to determine these folks — a few hundred sprinkled around the area Trump would visit — were Trump backers. They showed up wearing Trump T-shirts and hats.
There are 62 days before the presidential election, and Trump is increasingly slamming Democratic rival Joe Biden as soft on law and order.
Kenosha is grappling with protests that turned violent in the wake of a white police officer shooting Jacob Blake, a Black man, multiple times in the back.
There have been violent demonstrations in Portland almost every night since the end of May, when George Floyd, another Black man, died when a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him down with a knee to his neck.
Oregon is seen as a lock for Biden, so there has not been, nor likely to be, a Trump stop. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are lavishing attention on Wisconsin, which they narrowly won — by only 22,000 votes — in 2016. Pence will make another visit on Labor Day, to La Crosse.
A short time before Trump arrived to inspect the ruins of Rode’s camera store, I swung by to see the damage. Planted in the debris — that’s all that was left of a business that had been operating since 1911 — was a sign sardonically noting, “Gone in a flash.” The words were painted over a drawing of an old flash camera – one that used bulbs, if you’re old enough to remember.
Around the corner from Rode’s, I talked with Kenosha resident Tristine Fleming, a home schooling mom. She wore a Trump-Pence 2020 tank top. She was guessing that Trump might stop around there because of all the wreckage.
“It’s just been really devastating in this area,” she said. I asked her about Trump’s visit. “In my mind, I think he just really wants to get a feel, as a businessman, like what is the damage done? What is the cost of this? What has happened to these communities and the business owners?”
There is everything right about being concerned about and wanting to help businesses recover.
But there is everything wrong with Trump’s racially coded language. His fear mongering aimed at the suburban female vote. His refusal to acknowledge the incidents triggering protests in Kenosha and other cities seen by so many as race related.He’s not interested in having the national conversations on racism that the revived social justice movements are spawning.
At a roundtable discussion in Kenosha, Trump was asked about the Evanston-raised Blake, who was shot seven times in the back during an arrest, and if he believed “that there is a need for structural change.”
Trump declined to acknowledge systemic racism as a major problem. What people want, said Trump, is “law and order. That’s the change they want. They want law and order. They want the police to be police.”
That is, to keep them “safe, where their houses aren’t broken into, where they’re not raped and murdered. That’s what they want.”
That is, said Trump, “just the way it is. Just the way it is.”
I started my day in Kenosha on 40th Street and 28th Avenue, the block where Jacob Blake was shot.
The Blake family and others would be gathering there later.
Gregory Bennett Jr., is a probation and parole agent for the state of Wisconsin — and a community organizer — who has worked to keep the peace on Kenosha streets for years. Standing a few buildings down from where Blake was shot, I asked Bennett for his analysis of Trump’s visit.
“I never really entertained ignorance. I don’t entertain him. I think his visit is basically a strategic move,” Bennett said.
He added: “He should be uniting people, not dividing them.”
I asked Bennett if Trump had the potential to unite. “His visit alone isn’t anything toward our community or to our culture.”
Trump is not doing the work, said Bennett, nodding at a colleague cutting the grass in an unkempt empty lot. “It’s us.”