Trump Is Inciting Racist Violence in Kenosha—And Democrats Are Complicit

Democrats are failing to articulate a clear moral vision that is opposed to Trump’s ultra-racist, law-and-order politics.

Alice Herman and Emilio Leanza

Protesters in solidarity with the Blake family listened as James Blake, Sr. gave remarks at the August 28 rally in Kenosha. Alice Herman

It was 6:30 p.m. on August 28 in Kenosha, 30 min­utes before the Wis­con­sin state-imposed cur­few was set to begin and an hour after the end of a ral­ly called by the fam­i­ly of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot sev­en times and left par­a­lyzed from the waist down by a police offi­cer on August 23.

Ear­li­er in the after­noon of August 28, the streets of Kenosha had been filled with more than 1,000 Black Lives Mat­ters pro­test­ers, chant­i­ng, singing and hand­ing out Gatorade and hand san­i­tiz­er. Now, the streets were marked by emp­ty stretch­es of shut­tered busi­ness­es, each sealed with fresh ply­wood. The ral­ly for racial jus­tice fol­lowed five days of ener­getic protests in Kenosha against the police shoot­ing of Blake, and police bru­tal­i­ty more broad­ly.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has depict­ed the city as a site of law­less­ness — a place that, with­out the pres­ence of the Nation­al Guard and a dystopi­an lock­down order that closed high­way exits and shut off gas sta­tion pumps, would quick­ly descend into chaos. And Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cians — most promi­nent­ly, pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Joe Biden — have failed to suf­fi­cient­ly repu­di­ate Trump’s racist rhetoric, reflex­ive­ly appeal­ing to white fear with a less overt ver­sion of the president’s tough-on-crime” script.

Trump has tak­en cred­it for force­ful­ly quelling the Kenosha rebel­lion: If I didn’t INSIST on hav­ing the Nation­al Guard acti­vate and go into Kenosha, Wis­con­sin, there would be no Kenosha right now,” he tweet­ed on August 31.

But it was Wisconsin’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov­er­nor Tony Evers who ini­tial­ly called for the crack­down.

Last week marked the third time Evers has called the Nation­al Guard to tamp down protests in Wis­con­sin this sum­mer. In June, the gov­er­nor also autho­rized troops to back up riot police in Madi­son and Mil­wau­kee. In Kenosha last week, Evers argued that the unrest was so dire that he need­ed to send for rein­force­ments, request­ing bat­tal­ions of Nation­al Guard mem­bers from Ari­zona, Michi­gan and Alaba­ma.

In an agree­ment between Evers and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, over 1,500 Nation­al Guard troops, and up to 200 fed­er­al agents were deployed and patrolling the city by Sep­tem­ber 1. Pro­test­ers endured tear gas, pep­per spray and ket­tling” — an often dan­ger­ous tac­tic used by police to cor­ral, and ulti­mate­ly trap, pro­test­ers in a restrict­ed area. Fed­er­al agents seized a van filled with med­ical sup­plies and food, and, as in Port­land, Ore­gon, detained civil­ians in unmarked vans around the city. In all, over 200 arrests were made in Kenosha last week.

One Mil­wau­kee orga­niz­er, Ash­ton Mon­roe, told In These Times that to pro­vide protest sup­port in Kenosha on August 27, he was forced to dri­ve through back roads because they have [the exits] closed down to Illi­nois, so you get trapped, going around there for hours.”

And amid the height­ened pres­ence of riot police and Nation­al Guard troops in Kenosha — osten­si­bly to main­tain order — Kyle Rit­ten­house, a Blue Lives Mat­ter” enthu­si­ast with an assault rifle, shot and killed two peo­ple dur­ing a protest on the night of August 25.

Many feared Trump would use his Sep­tem­ber 1 vis­it to Kenosha to incite more vig­i­lante attacks. He had already defend­ed Rit­ten­house, who he claimed act­ed out of self-defense and tweet­ed praise for the pro-Trump car­a­van that pep­per sprayed and paint­balled Black Lives Mat­ter pro­test­ers in Port­land on August 29.

Once in Kenosha, Trump con­tin­ued to praise the police as well as demo­nize pro­test­ers while remain­ing silent on Rittenhouse’s acts. Vio­lent mobs,” the Pres­i­dent told an audi­ence of law enforce­ment offi­cials and sym­pa­thet­ic Wis­con­sin politi­cians, had demol­ished or dam­aged at least 25 busi­ness­es, burned down pub­lic build­ings, and threw bricks at police offi­cers. Trump con­tin­ued, These are not acts of peace­ful protest, but real­ly domes­tic ter­ror.”

Even though Trump did not com­ment on Rit­ten­house direct­ly that day, his pro-cop Kenosha ral­ly — fol­low­ing his defense of Rit­ten­house — sent the mes­sage that it is not only accept­able for vig­i­lantes to tar­get pro­test­ers, but at a moment when the legit­i­ma­cy of law enforce­ment is being called into ques­tion, it’s actu­al­ly nec­es­sary. Unlike Trump’s 2017 state­ment that there were very fine peo­ple, on both sides” after a white suprema­cist ran over anti-racist pro­test­er Heather Hey­er in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, his com­ments on Kenosha endorsed only one side: that of the police and their vig­i­lante prox­ies.

As Trump allies him­self with mil­i­tant white suprema­cists in antic­i­pa­tion of the 2020 elec­tion, estab­lish­ment Democ­rats are tac­it­ly com­plic­it. By fail­ing to dis­tin­guish between pro­test­ers demon­strat­ing against police bru­tal­i­ty and white suprema­cists like Rit­ten­house, Democ­rats in Wis­con­sin and on the nation­al stage have helped lay the ground­work for Trump’s fascis­tic esca­la­tion.

Wis­con­sin Sen­a­tor Tam­my Bald­win (D) wrote, on August 26, The van­dal­ism, armed mili­tia, gun vio­lence and fatal shoot­ings in Kenosha are not advanc­ing the cause of racial jus­tice in the wake of the police shoot­ing of Jacob Blake.” She lumped anti-police-bru­tal­i­ty pro­test­ers alleged­ly com­mit­ting van­dal­ism with white suprema­cist mil­i­tants and mur­der­ers.

Biden also weighed in on August 31, in a pre-record­ed speech, to deny Trump’s claim that the for­mer vice president’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign was anti-law enforce­ment. Now more than ever, Biden said, he believed that riot­ing is not protest­ing. Set­ting fires is not protest­ing… it’s law­less­ness, plain and sim­ple. And those who do it should be pros­e­cut­ed.” Biden’s state­ment, address­ing civ­il unrest in cities across the coun­try, was prompt­ed by Trump’s Kenosha vis­it on the same day.

But Biden doesn’t need to com­pete with Trump by dou­bling down on law and order” lite rhetoric; what­ev­er Biden says, Trump will lash out with base­less attacks on his cred­i­bil­i­ty. Short­ly after Biden uploaded his tough on crime” speech, for exam­ple, Trump dis­missed the for­mer Vice President’s com­ments, sug­gest­ing, absurd­ly, that Biden was secret­ly being con­trolled by Peo­ple that are in the dark shad­ows,” allud­ing to QAnon, a right wing inter­net con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry.

Estab­lish­ment Democ­rats want us to think there is a wide rift between them and a pres­i­dent who con­dones white vig­i­lan­tism. But the dis­pute over the Kenosha upris­ings has revealed Democ­rats’ inabil­i­ty to artic­u­late a clear moral vision that is dis­tinct from, and opposed to, Trump’s ultra-racist, law-and-order pol­i­tics. When it comes to beef­ing up law enforce­ment and crack­ing down on pro­test­ers, both sides are com­plic­it in per­pet­u­at­ing sys­temic racism and uphold­ing mil­i­tary-style polic­ing.

This does not mean both sides are equal: The Trump admin­is­tra­tion clear­ly is tak­ing the racist war on Black Lives Mat­ter to new, ter­ri­fy­ing lev­els. But Trump’s move to the far­ther right does not give Democ­rats an excuse to vil­i­fy pro­test­ers or imply that vio­lence against them is jus­ti­fied.

And as the high-pro­file politi­cians strug­gle to prove their law and order” bonafides, pro­test­ers are left to deal with the con­se­quences.

At the August 28 ral­ly held by Blake’s fam­i­ly, before the cur­few emp­tied the streets of Kenosha, Jacob Blake’s father stood on a podi­um in Civic Cen­ter Park, a cen­tral square that has served as a gath­er­ing spot for demon­stra­tors since ear­ly in the protests. Near­by, at the coun­ty cour­t­house, a mas­sive stone build­ing that spans sev­er­al blocks, a con­tin­gent of Nation­al Guard mem­bers — clad in desert camo, and car­ry­ing assault rifles — sur­veilled the crowd from behind a chain link fence.

You see they brought these cats over here back behind that fence to put a cap in your ass,” said Jacob Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., while point­ing to the sol­diers. That’s what they’re here for, [but] I don’t want no caps no more.” He also point­ed out the diverg­ing respons­es to his son and Rit­ten­house.

We’re still suf­fer­ing because there are two jus­tice sys­tems. There’s one for that white boy that walked down the street and killed two peo­ple and blew anoth­er man’s arm off. And then there is a jus­tice sys­tem for mine.”

Alice Her­man is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.

Emilio Lean­za is a jour­nal­ist based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin and the asso­ciate edi­tor of The Pro­gres­sive.

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