KENOSHA – As President Donald Trump surveyed damage from looting and arson in Kenosha, the family of Jacob Blake tried to focus not on the president but on bringing the community together.
“We’re not going to get caught up with him,” Blake’s uncle, Justin Blake, said of Trump. “He wishes we would and we’re not. We’re here to heal Kenosha and push forward our agenda.”
Justin Blake spoke at the scene of the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake. The corner was outfitted with a DJ, a grill for ribs and burgers, two bounce houses and tables with information about voter registration. The air was filled with the sound of children playing, news crews setting up and the rallying cries of Justin Blake, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore of Milwaukee.
Less than a mile away, National Guard troops and armored law enforcement vehicles surrounded Bradford High School, where Trump held a roundtable discussion with law enforcement officials.
Some Kenoshans were on edge, fearing the president’s visit could ignite passions after the shooting of Blake, looting and arson, and the killing of a pair of protesters two days after Blake was shot and paralyzed.
“We’re holding our breath because his rhetoric so often can be divisive instead of unifying,” said state Revenue Secretary Peter Barca, a Democrat from Kenosha who served for years in the Legislature and Congress.
While passions flared during Trump’s time in Kenosha, they did not boil over. By evening, most of Trump’s opponents and supporters were off the streets, though about 100 protesters were clustered near the county courthouse.
Around 5:30 p.m. after the president had left, a lone Trump supporter and a crowd of protesters faced off. The Trump backer threw a punch that didn’t connect and some in the crowd punched and kicked him as others shielded him and called for others to stop. The crowd then marched the Trump supporter out of the area.
Officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake after officers scuffled with him and deployed Tasers twice. Police have said Blake had a knife, but have not said whether it was in his hand or his vehicle when he was shot.
Peaceful protests followed, but they turned later into unrest that resulted in smashed windows and the burning of buildings and vehicles.
Two nights later, a gunman killed two people and wounded a third. Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from nearby Antioch, Illinois, has been charged with intentional homicide and other felonies. He was part of an armed group that roamed Kenosha’s streets saying they were there to protect property.
Justin Blake told the crowd Tuesday to remain peaceful, as they have in recent days.
“We understand why you’re angry and upset,” he said. “We can understand why you would want to burn something down. We’re asking you not to. That fist that you raise up in anger we’re asking you to raise up higher in unity.”
He said America needs a president that will unite people. Trump is free to visit Kenosha, he said, but added, “We want the same rights he got, and we want to be able to get our children home safely.”
Others at the scene of the Blake shooting also sought to show the president and the world that they were committed to peace.
“If the president of the United States, if he loves chaos, we are not going to create the backdrop for the violent chaos he wants to see,” Moore said.
Jesse Jackson describes ‘a pattern of killing’
Jackson has been in Kenosha frequently in the days since the shooting. On Tuesday he described “a pattern of killing,” saying that “we deserve equal protection under the law. We’re not getting it.”
He said Trump has given “inspiration to the militia. The militia gains strength from his words.”
Also speaking was Sedan Smith, the brother of Sylville Smith, who was fatally shot by a Milwaukee police officer during a traffic stop in 2016. He called for police to be held accountable.
“We as a people are tired of hearing, ‘I feared for my life,’” he said. “This is something that they have quoted many times and have gotten away with it in their actions of murder, in their actions of injustice, in their actions of wrongdoing and egregious acts that they perform on our people.”
Others show support for Trump
As Trump stopped by Bradford High School, his backers and opponents gathered across the street, intermingling with one another. A man wearing a Black Lives Matter face mask argued with a Trump supporter as people from both sides filmed each other. A group led by a man with a megaphone chanted “Justice for Jacob Blake” as another group waved American flags and Trump placards.
At Civic Center Park, the two sides also mixed together.
Barbara Griffin, who lives about 10 blocks from the Uptown neighborhood that was looted, held up a sign that said “Trump saved Kenosha.”
“I’ll be the first one to protect anyone’s right to protest, but you do not have a right to burn and loot,” she said.
“The people I know of diverse background don’t condone this but I blame what happened to Kenosha to our mayor, who did nothing, to our governor, who did nothing until way too late,” she said, referring to Mayor John Antaramian and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
“I believe in our legal system where we investigate crimes and prosecute them according to the law,“ Griffin said. “Not by videotape and raw emotion. Let’s get some facts and figures and let’s get things cooled down and we can do what needs to happen.“
She disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement that has gained momentum since George Floyd was killed this summer by a Minneapolis police officer.
“They’re a terrorist organization,” Griffin said. “They’re trying to terrorize silent America, (telling) middle-class America to be quiet.”
Priscilla Barrios of Racine came to Kenosha with her three children. She said her father grew up in Kenosha, they visit often, and she wanted to come to see the damage — and hoped to see Trump as well. She said she didn’t think the president’s visit would bring more conflict.
“I think it is important,” said Barrios, who voted for Trump four years ago and plans to again.
David Swartz, who carried a homemade “Dump Trump” sign, said he feared the president’s visit would create more turmoil in a city that’s trying to come together.
“I don’t think ‘law and order’ is the answer. We’re not going to shoot our way out of this,” said Swartz, a lifelong Kenoshan. “I believe Trump is fueling the flames and adding to the division.”
Betty Crosby said she was horrified by the police response to Blake and Rittenhouse. Blake was shot in the back while three of his children watched. Rittenhouse was not apprehended right after the crime, even though police were near him and bystanders were yelling that he had just killed people.
“A Black person wouldn’t have had a chance — pow, pow, pow,” said Crosby as she contended police would have gunned down a Black person walking the streets with a rifle just after people had been killed.
Crosby, 57, lived in Kenosha for more than 30 years but now lives in Racine. She said the viral footage of Blake being shot made her sad and fearful that her own son, who lives in Kenosha, could be shot by police.
“You’re supposed to be looking out for us, not against us,” she said of police.
But she also criticized the looting and fire-setting, saying she fears for her safety when she wakes up.
Angela Sissel, a 52-year-old Kenosha resident who said she lives a few blocks from the recent unrest, said just before Trump’s visit that she was nervous about it.
“I’m honestly worried it’ll start more trouble,” she said while on a walk with her Shih Tzu, Endora. “He tends to say things that are very inflammatory at the wrong times.”
She said she isn’t a fan of Republicans or Democrats, but added that she’s been relieved things have calmed down in Kenosha after days of violent unrest.
“If it’s not him making the wrong kind of comments, it’s his supporters,” she said of Trump and his backers. “It’s already just very tender right now.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to the Blake shooting being fatal.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.