George Packer (Togo 1982-83)
Staff writer for The Atlantic
Here is a prediction about the November election: If Donald Trump wins, in a trustworthy vote, what’s happening this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, will be one reason. Maybe the reason. And yet Joe Biden has it in his power to spare the country a second Trump term.
Events are unfolding with the inevitable logic of a nightmare. A white police officer shoots a Black man as he’s leaning into a car with his three sons inside — shoots him point-blank in the back, seven times, “as if he didn’t matter,” the victim’s father later says. If George Floyd was crushed to death by depraved indifference, Jacob Blake is the object of an attempted execution. Somehow, he survives — but his body is shattered, paralyzed from the waist down, maybe for life. Kenosha explodes in rage, the same rage that’s been igniting around the country all summer long, fading in Minneapolis only to flare up in Portland. In Kenosha, as elsewhere, what starts in peaceful protest soon leads to violence: cars burned, shops smashed, local businesses destroyed. Police and rioters incite one another to escalate; armed vigilantes take matters into their own hands; and a teenager from out of state kills two local men with an AR-15-style rifle. The authorities are overwhelmed and ineffectual, offering little in the way of information or protection. Within a couple of days, much of the small city is a ruined landscape.
The victim’s family demands justice. His mother, Julia Jackson, calls for something else, too. Two days after the shooting, with her son fighting for his life, she begins her public remarks softly, almost inaudibly, but her own words seem to give her growing strength, and finally a profound resonance. She says that her son would not be happy with the damage to his community. “As I have prayed for my son’s healing, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, I also have been praying, even before this, for the healing of our country,” Jackson says, and she goes on: “We are the United States. Have we been united? Do you understand what’s going to happen when we fall? Because a house that is against each other cannot stand. To all of the police officers, I’m praying for you and your families. To all of the citizens, my Black and brown sisters and brothers, I’m praying for you. I believe that you are an intelligent being just like the rest of us. Everybody, let’s use our hearts, our love, and our intelligence to work together to show the rest of the world how humans are supposed to treat each other. America is great when we behave greatly.”
Her words fall like a healing rain over the grief and the fires of this terrible year. She speaks to the whole country, to our shared humanity, and our desperation. Julia Jackson has given the essential speech of 2020, the one we most need to hear. And her last words — they seem to be directed at the president.
The day before, on Monday, the Republicans began their remote convention. The simultaneous mayhem in Kenosha seemed like part of the script, as it played into their main theme: that Biden is a tool of radical leftists who hate America, who want to bring the chaos of the cities they govern out to the suburbs where the real Americans live. The Republicans won’t let such an opportunity go to waste. “Law and order are on the ballot,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday night. Other speakers were harsher.
It’s no use dismissing their words as partisan talking points. They are effective ones, backed up by certain facts. Trump will bang this loud, ugly drum until Election Day. He knows that Kenosha has placed Democrats in a trap. They’ve embraced the protests and the causes that drive them. The third night of the Democratic convention was consumed with the language and imagery of protest — as if all Americans watching were activists.
On Monday, the day after Blake’s shooting, Biden and his vice-presidential nominee, Senator Kamala Harris, released statements expressing outrage. The next day, Biden’s spokesperson released a statement opposing “burning down communities and needless destruction.” And on Wednesday, Biden, after speaking with the Blake family, condemned both the initial incident and the subsequent destruction. “Burning down communities is not protest,” he pleaded in a video. “It’s needless violence.” He said the same after George Floyd’s killing.
How many Americans have heard him? In the crude terms of a presidential campaign, voters know that the Democrat means it when he denounces police brutality, but less so when he denounces riots. To reach the public and convince it otherwise, Biden has to go beyond boilerplate and make it personal, memorable.
Harris, a Black former prosecutor and now an advocate for police reform, seems uniquely positioned to speak to the crisis. But she has said little all week, which suggests that there might be things she doesn’t want to say. On Thursday, Harris directly addressed the events in Kenosha, affirming that Americans “must always defend peaceful protest and peaceful protesters. We should not confuse them with those looting and committing acts of violence.” She quickly moved on. Democratic leaders, from the nearly invisible mayor of Kenosha up to those on the presidential ticket, are reluctant to tarnish a just cause, amplify Republican attacks, or draw the wrath of their own progressive base (Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut deleted a tweet saying that both the Blake shooting and the riots were wrong after commenters accused him of equating the two). So Democrats continue to mute their response to the violence and hope it will subside, even though it has persisted straight through the summer.
In mid-August, a Pew Research Center poll found that the issue of violent crime ranks fifth in importance to registered voters — behind the economy, health care, the Supreme Court, and the pandemic, but ahead of foreign policy, guns, race, immigration, and climate change. The poll found a large partisan gap on the issue: three-quarters of Trump voters rated violent crime “very important,” second behind only the economy. Nonetheless, nearly half of Biden voters also rated it “very important.” Other polls show that, over the summer, Biden has lost some of the support he gained among older white Americans in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic.
With some exceptions, the media have been reluctant to shine a bright light on the summer’s violence — both the riots and the concurrent spike in violence. The New York Times ignored or downplayed the subject for weeks. One of its first major articles appeared in mid-August, under the headline “In the Wake of Covid-19 Lockdowns, a Troubling Surge in Homicides.” The piece argued that the crime surge had to do with the end of the lockdown that coincided with the beginning of summer, citing the skepticism of criminologists that “the increase is tied to any pullback by the police in response to criticism or defunding efforts,” and pointing to economic disruption and the spread of despair. But it also offered a different explanation, contradicting the thesis: “Police officials in several cities have said the protests have diverted officers from crime-fighting duty or emboldened criminals.”
After the 2016 election, the Times admitted that it had somehow missed the story, and it earnestly set about at self-correction. Like many other outlets, the paper sent reporters to talk to Americans who had put Trump in the White House. It was a new beat, almost a foreign bureau — heartland reporting — but that focus soon faded as the president’s daily depredations consumed the media’s attention. This election year, news organizations grown more activist might miss the story again, this time on principle — as they avoid stories that don’t support their preferred narrative. Trump supporters are hoping for it.
On Tuesday night, the CNN host Don Lemon warned his colleague Chris Cuomo that riots were hurting Biden and the Democrats: “Chris, as you know and I know, it’s showing up in the polls, it’s showing up in focus groups. It’s the only thing right now that’s sticking.” Lemon urged Biden to speak out about both police reform and violence. With Kenosha and the political conventions, the coverage seems to be changing. On Thursday, the Times ran a piece headlined “How Chaos in Kenosha Is Already Swaying Some Voters in Wisconsin.” Half a dozen Kenosha residents, reckoning with damaged buildings and businesses, expressed displeasure with the uncertain response of Democratic officials. Ellen Ferwerda, an antique store owner, “said that she was desperate for Trump to lose in November but that she had ‘huge concern’ the unrest in her town could help him win. She added that local Democratic leaders seemed hesitant to condemn the mayhem.”
Nothing will harm a campaign like the wishful thinking, fearful hesitation, or sheer complacency that fails to address what voters can plainly see. Kenosha gives Biden a chance to help himself and the country. Ordinarily it’s the incumbent president’s job to show up at the scene of a national tragedy and give a unifying speech. But Trump is temperamentally incapable of doing so and, in fact, has a political interest in America’s open wounds and burning cities.
Biden, then, should go immediately to Wisconsin, the crucial state that Hillary Clinton infamously ignored. He should meet the Blake family and give them his support and comfort. He should also meet Kenoshans like the small-business owners quoted in the Times piece, who doubt that Democrats care about the wreckage of their dreams. Then, on the burned-out streets, without a script, from the heart, Biden should speak to the city and the country. He should speak for justice and for safety, for reform and against riots, for the crying need to bring the country together. If he says these things half as well as Julia Jackson did, we might not have to live with four more years of Trump.
GEORGE PACKER is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.