KENOSHA, Wis. — President Donald Trump’s visit to Kenosha resembled a Trump campaign stop replete with protest signs, MAGA gear and glimpses of various anti-government and white nationalist symbols.
Many who live here said Trump seemed interested only in making his own points, not in listening to their concerns, while others described Trump’s visit Tuesday as an affirmation of the social order.
“A true leader, the best leaders, are always the best listeners,” said the Rev. Murry Wilson, an associate pastor at Second Baptist Church, one of Kenosha’s predominantly Black congregations. “Listening is one of the great strengths of a leader, and what our president demonstrated by coming here today was not that.”
After days of protests and sporadic violence in Kenosha following the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer, leaving Blake paralyzed, Trump announced a trip to the city of nearly 100,000. The visit, Trump said before his arrival, would “increase enthusiasm” and “could increase love and respect for our country.” However, Wisconsin’s governor and lieutenant governor, the mayor of Kenosha and city’s NAACP branch president asked Trump not to come because it would only inflame tensions. On Tuesday afternoon, Trump arrived anyway, prompting Wilson’s criticism that Trump is failing to lead by listening.
Wilson, a Black Vietnam War veteran and the grandson of people who fled Tulsa, Oklahoma, after its notorious 1921 race massacre, stood near the corner of 40th Street and 28th Avenue, the intersection where Blake was shot. A voter registration event there, a food giveaway and a spontaneous dance party were not enough to fully distract Wilson from the flashbacks to the American carnage he and his family have experienced. As a teenager in Chicago, Wilson connected with the Black Panthers and even spent time with famed leader Fred Hampton the day before Chicago police fatally shot him.
“There is a kind of familiarity to what’s happening and a definite need for love, compassion and justice to come in,” Wilson said. “I don’t think the president brought any of that with him.”
As Trump spoke to officers at police headquarters, the Blake family and a number of local organizations operated the event at the intersection as an alternative space to express support for Blake and to call for increased police accountability. It also served to prevent Trump supporters from clashing with large numbers of social justice activists, which the Trump campaign, some here said, seemed to crave.
“We came here because we refuse to be silent but also to serve as Trump’s political tools,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights activist and head of the Rainbow PUSH coalition. “We will not provide the images that he intends to use to fuel his racist, bigoted and dangerous calls to arms, calls to return him to office again. That is what he is doing here, doing what no person who cares about this country should.”
On the other side of town, in Harbor Park, Jim Larsen said he could not have been more pleased that the president was in town.
“It’s the first time in a week my wife and I have felt we could come anywhere near downtown,” Larsen said. “It sends the right message about who is in charge and who needs to stand down, what kind of country this is supposed to be and how people ought to behave.”
Larsen, a white factory worker hoping that his job will hold for three more years so he can retire, admires what he calls Trump’s “strong leader” style. It sometimes offends people, including his wife, he said. But Trump’s straight talk about crime and the use of government force to control it is necessary. This is the way the country has always functioned, Larsen said. Anything else, to him, is terrifying.
“If the pictures people are going to see of Kenosha on TV and stuff — all the boarded-up businesses and barricades — help to remind Americans of that, and that pushes the voters to return Trump to office, then Trump’s visit was certainly the right thing,” he said.
Larsen said it might be nice to maintain order in Kenosha and other parts of the country with a softer touch.
“But that’s kind of wishful, I guess unrealistic, at this time,” Larsen said. “Kind of like I have got to get through these next few years — that’s how it is for the country. Trump is the guy who sees that. He’s just my guy.”
Closer to police headquarters, Brittany Berman stood near a wall of steel gates holding what she described as an unusually specific protest sign.
“THIS COUNTRY & THIS PRESIDENT TREAT BLACK FOLKS WORSE THAN WHITE TERRORISTS: END INSIDIOUS, INSTITUTIONAL RACISM.”
Berman hails from Antioch, Illinois, the town just across the state line where Kyle Rittenhouse also lives. Rittenhouse, 17, was charged with murder in connection with the deaths of two protesters in Kenosha last week. Rittenhouse, a Trump supporter, claimed intermittently that he came to the city to protect Kenosha businesses he does not own and to help protesters.
Berman, who is white, does not know him and is almost twice his age. She has been living in California, working for a scavenger hunt company, surrounded by people who seem to grasp the concept of institutional racism. But when she was furloughed because of the pandemic, she became free to volunteer. She wants to stop Trump from another narrow victory in Wisconsin, and since she has returned to the Midwest, she said, she has been staggered by how completely normalized racism remains and how often it is openly justified. Trump, to her, is one of the biggest reasons.
“The legitimization and normalization of racism by a president is destructive,” she said. “And that is absolutely what he is here to do. So I felt, since this was going on in my backyard, I had to be here to say this is not all right.”
The problem in Kenosha and so many other cities, Jackson said, is not just that policing seems so frequently to operate in ways that can be deadly for Black men and women. It is also that there are multiple forms of daily violence, exclusion and struggle that Black people are expected to endure in silence.
Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition plans to sue Kenosha in the next few weeks. Of the city’s 216 police officers, nine are Black, Rainbow PUSH’s national field director said. Of the city’s 153 firefighters, three are Black. And less than 1 percent of the city and county of Kenosha’s public contracts — funded with taxpayer dollars — went to Black-owned businesses last year, according to a Rainbow PUSH analysis. City officials have not responded to specific questions about public agency staffing.
With Trump in town, the many still-unanswered questions about what happened to Jacob Blake have been pushed from the center of the national frame, said his uncle Justin Blake, who opted to avoid the area where Trump visited and instead spent time with Jackson and Wilson near 40th and 28th. He denied that the White House made any effort to talk with or meet with the Blake family despite White House statements to the contrary.
“Trump has an agenda. It’s hate and division and re-election,” Blake said. “But we have one, too, and that’s justice for little Jake, and for that matter justice for all the little Jakes around this country. That’s it. We are not going to take this kind of abuse and terror directed at the people who built this country anymore. And today that begins with steering clear of Trump’s circus, even if it is in town.”