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Joe Biden Listens to Anguish at a Black Church in Wilmington

WILMINGTON, Del. — As the nation entered another day of unrest in response to the killing of George Floyd, who was pinned under a police officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. emerged from isolation to meet with parishioners and community leaders at a black church in Delaware.

The event Monday morning, at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was part listening session, part campaign speech and part forum for members of Wilmington’s black community to express their collective anguish.

“Anger just doesn’t come out of nowhere,” Eugene Young, president of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, said of the protests against police brutality that have gripped cities across the country. “This anger comes from the fact that you have people in our community that feel as though the knee has been on their back for a long time.”

Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, Democrat of Delaware, had to pause to collect herself while recalling an exchange the night before with a 23-year-old protester in Wilmington.

“He used the term ‘I’m standing my ground,’ which broke my heart, and then he said, ‘I’m willing to die,’” Ms. Blunt Rochester said, her voice rising. “And he said, ‘I have so much rage.’ And I said: ‘How old are you? What’s your name? How old are you?’ And I just tried to hold him! Covid or not!”

For around an hour, Mr. Biden sat silently at the front of the church, a surgical mask covering his face, taking notes as speaker after speaker expressed versions of the same message: We support you, but you need to do more.

“Over the eight years you were vice president, there were lots of successes, but the African-American community did not experience the same economic opportunity and upward mobility that they did in the ’90s,” State Senator Darius Brown said. “We’re here not only to love you but to push you, because if we can publicly support every other Democratic base, then we should publicly support the African-American Democratic base.”

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The Rev. Shanika Perry, the church’s youth pastor, asked Mr. Biden to meet with young black people, and to choose a black woman as his running mate.

“They want to be at the table,” she said of young voters. “It is not enough to have the youth pastor speaking on their behalf. They have brilliant ideas themselves.”

Black women, Ms. Perry said, want a seat at the table, too. They are the most reliable voting bloc within the Democratic Party, she noted, adding, “but when it matters, you guys don’t necessarily include us when it comes to positions of power.”

When Mr. Biden finally stood up to speak, he quoted the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard — “‘Faith sees best in the dark,’” he said, “and it’s been pretty dark, it’s been real dark” — before condemning Mr. Trump for, he said, publicly legitimizing the racism that protesters are fighting against.

Earlier in his career, “I thought we could actually defeat hate,” Mr. Biden said. “What I realized — not just white supremacy, hate — hate just hides. Hate just hides. It doesn’t go away. And when you have somebody in power who breathes oxygen to the hate under the rocks, it comes out from under the rocks.”

Mr. Biden said that he did not take black voters for granted and that he was putting together a detailed set of policy proposals to address their concerns.

He said that he believed the events of the past few months — between the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affecting black communities and, now, Mr. Floyd’s killing — would force more Americans to confront institutionalized racism.

“Ordinary folks who don’t think of themselves as having a prejudiced bone in their body, don’t think of themselves as racist, have kind of had the mask pulled off,” he said.

As Mr. Floyd’s death and the resulting unrest convulsed the country last week, Mr. Biden gave the sort of address to a nation in crisis that Americans normally would expect to hear from the Oval Office. In the Friday speech, he sought to paint a contrast with the president, who was mostly stoking the flames, calling protesters “thugs” and suggesting that they could be shot.

This is the sort of moment that can define presidential races, and it fits neatly with one of the biggest messages Mr. Biden’s campaign has sought to convey all year: that he can provide steady leadership instead of chaos. But, occurring as it has during a pandemic that has shut down in-person campaign events, it is a uniquely difficult moment to seize.

In Friday’s speech, which he delivered virtually, Mr. Biden urged Americans to grapple with the fact that the country’s long history of racism was not history at all, but a “deep, open wound.”

“The pain is too immense for one community to bear alone,” he said. “I believe it’s the duty of every American to grapple with it, and to grapple with it now. With our complacency, our silence, we are complicit in perpetuating these cycles of violence.”

Two days later, after a night of unrest in Wilmington, Mr. Biden visited the site of the protests and toured damaged businesses with Ms. Blunt Rochester.

Former President Barack Obama, who has endorsed Mr. Biden, expressed support for peaceful protesters in a Medium post on Monday, and urged those protesters to vote — not only in the presidential race, but also in state and local races — and to make concrete demands of their elected officials.

“The more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away,” Mr. Obama wrote.

He expressed hope that the current anger could lead to substantive change in a way that past protests over police killings and systemic racism did not.

It was that hope that the parishioners and leaders who addressed Mr. Biden on Monday were loudly searching for.

“Right before this all happened, somebody gave me a gift,” Ms. Blunt Rochester said, a bright red face mask pulled down around her chin, her arm raised to display the bracelet she was wearing.

“It says ‘breathe.’ Breathe. Because many times we come in rooms where we just can’t breathe, and then to see George Floyd — he is a representation that people feel our breath has been taken away. And we’ve got to get it back.”

Thomas Kaplan reported from Wilmington, and Maggie Astor from New York.

Source: NY times

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