As a longtime activist calling for racial and social equality in his hometown, Isaac Wallner has been moved in recent days by the large street protests demanding justice in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
But as those peaceful daytime demonstrations gave way to violent confrontations with police, destruction of businesses and burning of buildings at night, Wallner said he’s become increasingly worried the urgent push for change will be drowned out by President Donald Trump’s calls for law and order, a central theme of the Republican’s re-election campaign.
“This is an election year, and I feel Trump and the Republican Party will benefit from the unrest, and we need to vote in people who will support us and hear our message,” said Wallner, 30, a lifelong Kenosha resident who works as a truck driver for a road construction company. “We’ve got to find a way to tidy this up and have more peaceful demonstrations to not give the Republicans any more power.”
Tucked in the southeast corner of Wisconsin along Lake Michigan, Kenosha County helped deliver Trump the presidency in 2016 when he became the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the area in 44 years. It was part of a close upset victory Trump scored by fewer than 23,000 votes over Hillary Clinton, who did not campaign in the state.
Four years later, Kenosha County’s status as a bellwether in a key swing state is well-known, but many who live there still did not expect the heated national debate over policing, systemic racism and Trump’s demands to “dominate the streets” in the face of unrest to hit so closely to home.
Massive protests, shattered storefronts, National Guard troops and burning buildings were scenes they had seen on the news in Minneapolis, Chicago or Portland following the police killing of George Floyd earlier this summer. Now, they’ve played out in their small city after Rusten Sheskey, a white Kenosha police officer, shot Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back as he leaned into his SUV.
“I never thought this would happen here. This is organized crime. This is terrorism. They’re destroying our city, and I think a lot of the people who are coming in at night and doing it and aren’t from here,” said Brenda Brady, 36, an art store owner who brought her 8-year-old twins downtown to paint flowers and the word “Hope” on a boarded up storefront. “That’s why I was OK with them bringing in the National Guard. I wish they would have done it sooner.”
Trump has sought to capitalize politically on the crisis in Kenosha, where a spate of fires destroyed dozens of businesses in a single night. Images of burned-out car lots, smoldering piles of bricks that once were buildings and officers in riot gear clashing with demonstrators shooting fireworks and throwing chunks of concrete paint a picture of lawlessness that Trump has insisted must come under control.
The president has offered such unrest as a preview of what cities and towns across America would look like regularly if former vice president Joe Biden is elected — even though it has occurred during his own presidency. Trump has suggested that the looting and destruction of Democratic-run cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis and Portland would come to cities and towns all across the country if Biden and his party won the White House.
“No one will be safe in Biden’s America. My administration will always stand with the men and women of law enforcement,” Trump said in his convention acceptance speech Thursday night at the White House. “We must always have law and order.”
The chaos in Kenosha, however, has cut both ways, as the Trump campaign has distanced itself from alleged 17-year-old vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, who has been charged with murdering two protesters and shooting a third in confrontations along a downtown Kenosha street late Tuesday. Rittenhouse, who idolized police and made frequent “Blue Lives Matter” posts on social media, sat in the front row at a Trump rally in Des Moines earlier this year.
For his part, Biden has accused the president of “pouring gasoline on the racial flames that are burning now,” which includes Trump calling the Black Lives Matter movement a “symbol of hate.” Biden also has expressed outrage at the Blake shooting, which his family said was witnessed by his three children inside the SUV.
“Protesting brutality is a right and absolutely necessary, but burning down communities is not protest,” Biden said this week in pushing back against Trump’s narrative. “It’s needless violence — violence that endangers lives, violence that guts businesses and shutters businesses that serve the community. That’s wrong.”
‘A law-and-order president’
In 2016, Trump’s razor-thin margin in Kenosha County mirrored his win statewide in Wisconsin, the narrowest of his electoral college victories that helped him win the presidency despite losing the national popular vote by nearly 3 million.
The county is anchored by Kenosha, a Democrat-leaning city of 100,000 people,located halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee that is surrounded by more conservative small towns and rural areas.
Trump won Kenosha County by just 255 votes out of nearly 72,000 cast, garnering 46.85% of the vote to 46.52% for Clinton. He won Wisconsin by just 22,000 votes out of nearly 3 million cast, 47.2% to 46.5%, the first time a Republican carried the state since Richard Nixon won by 10 points in 1972.
Trump’s win came with lower voter turnout than the previous two presidential elections and with support from some white working class voters who previously had voted for Democrats. Barack Obama, for example, easily won Kenosha in 2008 with 58% of the vote and in 2012 with 55%, but in doing so collected roughly 25% more total votes than Trump.
Since 2016, Wisconsin Democrats have shown gradual signs of improvement with Gov. Tony Evers winning the county by four points in 2018 over then-incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker. More voters, however, participate in presidential elections, and Trump and Biden are campaigning for votes at a time when Wisconsin’s bitterly divided state politics have reached a fevered pitch.
Evers and the GOP-controlled legislature sparred over whether to hold the April primary amid the coronavirus pandemic and if the state should have a stay-at-home order, with Republicans successfully suing the governor to hold the election and eliminate the order. Now, the state GOP is attacking the Democratic governor for rejecting an offer from Trump earlier this week to send federal law enforcement officers to help secure the city.
“Those people did not have to die, and because of Tony Evers’ actions, they’re dead,” Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told a local radio station in blaming the governor for the shooting deaths of the two protesters and the widespread destruction in Kenosha. Evers has responded by saying he declined Trump’s offer for Homeland Security officers because he already had sought an increase in National Guard troops.
Following the shooting death of the protesters, Evers announced he had authorized an increase in the number of Wisconsin troops in Kenosha to 500. On Thursday, the governor announced more troops were on the way to assist from Alabama, Arizona and Michigan.
Standing outside his grandpa’s boarded-up realty office that has been in downtown Kenosha for more than 50 years, Franco Bosco said he found the shooting of Blake, who grew up in Evanston, “disheartening and sickening.” But Bosco also said he’s frustrated that Evers didn’t accept federal help sooner and deploy more National Guard troops faster to prevent all the destruction to businesses.
“We need more law enforcement,” he said, before crediting Trump for “twisting the governor’s arm” into accepting more help to contain the demonstrations. The 24-year-old office worker said he reluctantly voted for Clinton in 2016, but said this year he’ll consider voting for Trump because of the president’s insistence on getting violent protests and looting under control.
“I’m not a big fan of Biden, but I don’t really like Trump either. It’s a tough call for me. I might just throw a coin and see what happens,” Bosco said. “The most important thing to me is seeing the integrity and safety of Kenosha and the community. I want it to be safe and thriving. So, I might lean that way (toward Trump). We’ll see.”
Terry Andrews said Trump won Kenosha County four years ago because voters were tired of Democrats not delivering jobs for them and the New York businessman represented a fresh approach. The 41-year-old who has worked factory jobs in town and voted for Trump in 2016 predicted the president would win the support of more black voters like him this time around because of the strong economy he built before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though Trump didn’t handle the health crisis well, Andrews said the economy is improving, the stock market is at a record high and blue collar and middle class voters will buy into the president’s tough-on-crime message.
“I think the average Kenoshan is standing in their house, looking at all this looting and saying to themselves, ’Yeah, maybe we do need a law-and-order president,’” said Andrews, a self-described conservative who voted for Obama in 2012 and Republican John McCain in 2008. “This is a serious situation here. Is Joe Biden really going to crack down on this? I don’t think so.”
For four straight nights this week, Matt Krisor and several of his fellow neighbors sat in lawn chairs outside the Residences at Library Park to discourage demonstrators from damaging their apartment building. Shortly before midnight on Tuesday, Krisor was talking about why he hoped the president would win re-election and explained his theory on why Trump had won Kenosha County when other Republicans had failed.
“When the unions got pushed out, the work got pushed out. Tri-Clover is gone. Chrysler left. All the big industries left. You can’t make a decent living,” said Krisor, 55, wearing a sleeveless Harley Davidson T-shirt and a handgun holstered on his denim shorts. “Trump spoke to the middle class, hard-working people. They heard something from him they ain’t heard in years.”
Then several loud bangs suddenly rang out from nearby.
“That’s not fireworks,” Krisor said after a slight flinch. “Those are shots.”
‘This is not who we are’
Roughly two blocks away along Sheridan Road, the 17-year-old Rittenhouse had fired the Smith & Wesson AR-15-style .223 caliber rifle that authorities allege he had been carrying through the streets of Kenosha all night.
When the shooting stopped, 37-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum of Kenosha lay bleeding in a car lot with five gunshot wounds, 26-year-old Anthony Huber of Silver Lake collapsed in the middle of the street suffering a single gunshot wound to the heart and Gaige Grosskreutz of West Allis ran off after being shot in the arm, prosecutors say.
Rosenbaum and Huber died. Rittenhouse has been charged as an adult with murder, attempted murder and reckless homicide among other charges.
Wallner, the longtime Kenosha activist, said he was disturbed not just by the killings, but by the fact that officers in the area showed no apparent concern that a 17-year-old was out past the city’s mandatory curfew patrolling the streets with a rifle. Meanwhile, he said, officers on the same night fired rubber bullets into the medical station where he volunteered to aid injured protesters.
Wallner said he is concerned all of the violence will help fuel Trump’s law-and-order re-election effort in such a crucial swing state. But he also said it’s an opportunity for activists and Democrats to emphasize the president’s role in the mayhem, too, noting what he called Trump’s blanket defense of law enforcement and Rittenhouse’s status as a Trump supporter and avid backer of “Blue Lives Matter.”
“All Trump says is, ’We need law and order, we need law and order.’ Well, your law-and-order message empowered a 17-year-old, who wasn’t legal to carry that gun, to cross state lines to hunt people,” Wallner said. “That’s what his message does. He empowers these people, these militias that are not lawful to go out there and do this under the cover of ’Let’s Make America Great Again.’”
Rittenhouse’s rifle stirred Leslie Schlax from her sleep half a block away. The 65-year-old retired social worker and longtime Democrat said she never expected to see such destruction and violence in her neighborhood, and admitted she was relieved to see the National Guard roll into town.
She worries all of the fallout will distract from the issue that started it all — a police officer shooting Blake in the back in front of his children.
“My fear is that this is all going to play into Trump’s hands,” Schlax said, seated on the front porch of her 127-year-old house, a Biden for president sign planted in the front yard. “I was shocked, shocked he won here the last time.”
“Trump wants this destruction to continue. It distracts from everything else he’s done,” interjected Schlax’s husband John, a 72-year-old retired social worker. “Him not saying anything in support of Black Lives Matter and that kind of mentality will only continue to create chaos and havoc, and that’s what he wants. It’s his only chance to win.”
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s trusted senior adviser and former campaign manager suggested Thursday the unrest benefits the president, telling Fox News, “the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.” During his convention speech, Trump mocked Democrats for not rejecting the violent unrest at their convention, adding that, “Now they’re starting to mention it because their poll numbers are going down like a rock in water. It’s too late, Joe.”
Biden countered that Trump is unwilling to address any of the societal woes that led to Blake’s shooting, the destruction in Kenosha and a 17-year-old’s decision to travel there and shoot protesters.
“This is not who we are. This is not who America is. If they want to bring about some order and safety and security for people, we have to start dealing with the real problems underlying all these issues,” Biden said in an interview with MSNBC. “And the president never speaks to that. He never speaks to that.”
Leslie Schlax said Democrats and Biden need to respond to Trump’s law-and-order attacks more forcefully if they are going to hold onto votes in places like Kenosha.
“Biden is going to have to come up with a very tough, very strong counter message to this,” she said. “He can’t let Trump get away with painting Democrats as soft on crime. We need to get Joe in the White House.”
But for others who have similar disdain for Trump, there is not the corresponding passion to vote for Biden — often a key factor in driving critical voter turnout.
Brady, the art store owner, said Trump is a “dope” and she would never vote for him because of “all of his lies,” but said she doesn’t trust Biden either because he’s a “tool” of the party and “doesn’t always seem to know what he’s talking about.” Brady said she reluctantly voted for Clinton four years ago, but said she may not vote at all this year.
With Kenosha’s schools closed because of the civic unrest, Lacresha Harris brought her daughter downtown to have “art class,” painting “Love has no color” and “Our Black kids lives matter” on a boarded-up storefront window. Harris said called the shooting of Blake, who is said to be paralyzed from the waist down, “heart breaking.” She said the video of the incident “made me sick to my stomach.”
The next day, she and her sister spent hours marching in the streets for justice.
“I have Black men that I’m raising and Black queens that I’m raising, and I had to,” she said. “Trump’s not here. He’s not seeing these streets.”
Harris said most residents of Kenosha have protested peacefully, and she suspects the destruction at night is largely being done by outsiders. The 35-year-old healthcare worker said that after all that has transpired this summer with the shooting of Blake and the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis she will definitely vote in November.
Asked what she thought of Biden, Harris offered a long pause and said, “Not much.” Would she consider voting for Trump? “Hell no!” she replied.
“I guess it’s Biden … by default.”
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