Biden, in Kenosha, Makes Case for Healing and Unity, Not Division

KENOSHA, Wis. — Drawing a sharp contrast with President Trump, Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday aligned himself strongly and sympathetically with protesters of racial injustice and with Black voters during an afternoon of raw interactions with people still grappling with the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Two days after Mr. Trump traveled to Kenosha to focus attention on street violence and disorder, Mr. Biden sought to strike a drastically different tone, as he repudiated the president’s divisive approach to matters of racial injustice and civil unrest and offered an alternative vision focused on national unity.

In his first day of campaigning outside his home state of Delaware or neighboring Pennsylvania since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, Mr. Biden met for about an hour with Mr. Blake’s family and legal team immediately after landing in the critical battleground state of Wisconsin, and spoke with Mr. Blake himself by phone.

Mr. Biden also hosted a listening session with activists, elected officials, clergy members, businesspeople and a few law enforcement officers, aiming to appeal to a broader cross-section of the community than Mr. Trump did on his trip. The former vice president emphasized his commitment to correcting decades of systemic racism, as he acknowledged racial disparities in health care, education and the criminal justice system and said that “we’re finally now getting to the point” of addressing “the original sin: slavery. And all the vestiges of it.”

“Win or lose, I’m going to go down fighting,” Mr. Biden said as he described the possibility of a more just future. “I’m going to go down fighting for racial equality, equity across the board.”

He also took pains to warn against violent expressions of anger, regardless of “how angry you are.”

Mr. Biden spoke in a relatively spare sanctuary at Grace Lutheran Church, with some stained glass images dotting the walls. He listened as a Black lawyer discussed racism in the legal system. A white store owner praised the community spirit of a close-knit city even as she described the experience of her business being looted. And Porche Bennett, an organizer for Black Lives Activists of Kenosha, drew applause after she described the challenges and bias many Black Americans face in their daily lives.

Mr. Biden, who took notes during the remarks, at times paced by the pews as he responded, hitting notes of optimism as he declared that this was a moment to “cut another slice off institutional racism.”

“There are certain things worth losing over, and this is something worth losing over if we have to,” Mr. Biden said of combating injustice, quickly adding, “But we’re not going to lose.”

The scene and substance of the discussion provided a striking contrast to Mr. Trump’s visit on Tuesday. The president did not meet with the Blake family or grapple with the searing issues of police brutality or racism. Instead he met with local law enforcement leaders and delivered a message of protesters run amok, and of “looters” and “rioters” he said were cowing liberal politicians. He rejected the idea of systemic racism while expressing empathy with police officers who he said have a dangerous job.

While several law enforcement members were listed as participants in the meeting, Mr. Biden’s event did not focus on the police perspective in the way that Mr. Trump’s trip did.

Mr. Biden sought to underscore promises that have animated his campaign from the beginning: that he can restore civility and steadiness at a polarized and perilous moment for the nation, and that Mr. Trump is an incendiary figure who escalates already fraught situations and emboldens bigots.

“Not all his fault, but it legitimizes,” he said of Mr. Trump’s messaging. “It legitimizes a dark side of human nature.”

Mr. Trump on Thursday mocked Mr. Biden’s visit and took credit for restoring order in Wisconsin. “Biden went there today,” the president told supporters at an evening rally in Latrobe, Pa. “There was nobody there! He was a little late. I said, ‘listen, we ended that problem.’”

Mr. Trump also made fun of Mr. Biden for wearing a mask, saying it “gives him a feeling of security.”

“Did you ever see a man who likes a mask as much as him?” Mr. Trump asked the crowd, to laughter, after offering a caveat that people should wash their hands and wear masks in close quarters.

Mr. Biden’s appearance came as Republicans have mounted an onslaught designed to cast him as a weak leader incapable of stopping lawlessness in the streets, a message that has worried some of Mr. Biden’s Democratic allies.

On Monday, to the relief of some of his supporters, Mr. Biden moved to vigorously reject that characterization, insisting in a speech in Pittsburgh: “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting.” He included that message in a new ad, part of a $45 million one-week television and digital advertising purchase, the campaign’s largest to date.

He repeated a version of those points again on Thursday, warning, “If you loot or you burn, you should be held accountable.”

“It just cannot be tolerated, across the board,” he added.

But he spent much of his appearance at the church, which stretched for over an hour, expressing empathy for Black Americans. “I can’t understand what it’s like to walk out the door or send my son out the door or my daughter and worry about just because they’re Black they may not come back,” Mr. Biden said, to nods in the audience.

Earlier in the day, at Mr. Biden’s meeting with Mr. Blake’s family members, Jacob Blake’s mother said a prayer, which Mr. Biden later recalled: “She said, ‘I’m praying for Jacob, but I’m praying for the policeman as well. I’m praying that things change.’”

Mr. Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who suffered serious injuries in the shooting, spoke by telephone and “shared about the pain he is enduring, and the vice president commiserated,” said a lawyer for the Blake family, Benjamin Crump.

Mr. Biden said of the meeting, “What I came away with was the overwhelming sense of resilience and optimism that they have about the kind of response they’re getting.”

Kenosha has been rocked by protests since the police shooting of Mr. Blake, and some demonstrations have turned destructive. A white teenager who has expressed support for Mr. Trump was charged with homicide after two people were shot to death during clashes, and the president later defended him.

While the city of Kenosha leans heavily Democratic, the surrounding county is far more politically mixed, and voters of a range of political persuasions were on hand near the church where Mr. Biden held his community meeting.

April Valdez hung a large Trump 2020 banner on her porch. Ms. Valdez, who is white and has lived in Kenosha since 2002, said the demonstrations grew so worrisome last month that she and her husband sent their three young children out of the area for about a week, fearing they would be hurt.

“Change-wise, I unfortunately think anything Democratic-handled at this point is going to put us further into destruction,” she said.

As she spoke, a small crowd gathered in Civic Center Park in Kenosha and began to march in the direction of the church where Mr. Biden was expected, chanting and waving a Black Lives Matter flag.

Vaun Mayes, a Milwaukee activist, was one of the Black leaders in the crowd. He intended to vote for Mr. Biden in November, he said, though he disagreed with Mr. Biden’s record on criminal justice.

“I don’t know if we have any choice on voting for him,” he said. “We can’t stand four more years of Trump.”

Mr. Biden, who for years fashioned himself as a “tough on crime” Democrat, played a leading role in the 1994 crime bill. That record has both discomfited advocates of criminal justice reform and other progressives in Mr. Biden’s party, and made it more difficult for Mr. Trump to paint his opponent as an enemy of law enforcement.

At the same time, Mr. Biden has emphasized his commitment to addressing the mistreatment of Black Americans at the hands of the police. On Thursday, his campaign released an ad about policing in which he declares, “Now is the time for racial justice.”

Mr. Biden said he had planned his trip to Wisconsin with input from local and state leaders. As Mr. Biden weighs an accelerated travel schedule after Labor Day weekend, the Wisconsin trip also offered something of a test case for how he will seek to campaign across the country amid a pandemic, with trips planned next week to states including Michigan and Pennsylvania. He generally sought to stay socially distant, though he was spotted shaking hands with a campaign staff member.

Mr. Biden ended his trip with a visit to a Milwaukee suburb on Thursday afternoon for an education-focused stop in a backyard.

The earlier church appearance was among Mr. Biden’s most sustained, unscripted engagements with voters in months, and there were a few off-key moments. He promised, in a city reeling from the shooting of Mr. Blake, that he would wrap up a tangent about taxes or else someone may “shoot me.” And as he urged a fuller accounting of American history in schools, he asked a room that included many African-Americans, “Did anybody know before what’s recently happened, that Black Wall Street in Oklahoma was burned to the ground?”

But often, he sought to give attendees and viewers encouragement about their efforts to pursue racial justice, despite what he called Mr. Trump’s “rant about, you know, law and order.” And he appeared to invoke a spate of recent positive polls to suggest that Mr. Trump’s messaging on “law and order” was not breaking through.

“He hasn’t” made inroads, Mr. Biden said, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Not at all. No, I’m — it should give you a little bit of confidence in the American people. They ain’t buying it.”

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs reported from Kenosha, and Katie Glueck from New York. Reporting was contributed by Julie Bosman from Kenosha, Thomas Kaplan from Connecticut, Peter Baker from Latrobe, Pa., and Maggie Haberman from New York.