KENOSHA, Wisconsin—President Donald Trump used his visit to this reeling Midwestern city on Tuesday to decry “tremendous violence” and minimize the Black Lives Matter protests that have become the largest protest movement in American history.
Meanwhile, his supporters cheered on a 17-year-old accused of murdering two protesters here after a 29-year-old Black man was shot seven times and at least temporarily paralyzed.
“I think peaceful protest is fantastic, I think it’s great but, by and large, this is not peaceful protest,” Trump said after he inspected damage left in the wake of sometimes violent unrest with law enforcement officials.
“When you walk into an area and you see buildings that are burned down and, fortunately here we stopped it early and so the damage is relatively minimal, but when you look at some of these areas [where] they refuse to allow us to go in and help them, and by the time you get there the place is disintegrated,” Trump added.
The president went on to claim that the people of Kenosha were not asking for structural change following the shooting and possible paralysis of Jacob Blake at the hands of police, but were instead asking for “law and order.”
The reality, of course, was very different in a city that has long struggled with allegations of corrupt policing, and where sentiment about Trump was bitterly divided.
The president’s visit was not welcomed—and in fact actively opposed—by many local officials, who feared Trump would inflame tensions after the shooting of Blake, days of demonstrations, and the deaths of two protesters, both allegedly at the hands of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old pro-cop teen vigilante.
Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, a Democrat, accused Trump of falsely claiming in the leadup to his visit that “angry mobs” had tried to storm the mayor’s house on Monday night. “Nothing of the sort happened,” he said. “The city of Kenosha remains peaceful and focused on healing our community.”
Dueling groups faced off in Kenosha’s Civic Center Park, a locus for recent protests, as Trump arrived. Trump supporters—the president carried Kenosha county by fractions of a percentage point in 2016—cheered while protesters chanted “fascism” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Meanwhile, Blake’s family joined a community gathering at the site of his shooting. Free haircuts and acupuncture were on offer for those traumatized by so much violence in their midst, and children danced on bouncy castles that dangled a respite from a country in turmoil.
“I and many people don’t want him to come here,” Kenosha resident Adelana Akindes, 24, told The Daily Beast. “We feel like he’s just going to escalate everything that’s been happening—all of the… fear and, like, violence surrounding the protests, it’s going to just escalate.”
She said Trump’s presence in Kenosha wouldn’t address the “real problems,” like systemic racism and police brutality.
But Angela Wojtak, a 37-year-old Trump supporter from Kenosha, told The Daily Beast that she didn’t believe Trump was trying to inflame the situation.
“I think he wants to legitimately come and help and see what happened and see what the community needs and offer support in any way, just like he offered federal troops in the beginning,” she said.
The president kept up the theme of restoring suburban tranquility that was a hallmark of the just-wrapped Republican National Convention—even if he often seemed to diverge from common sense along the way.
“This is going to heal very quickly,” Trump said of protest-related damage. “Some people think those are two terrible words—law and order—and they’re not terrible at all, they’re beautiful.”
The arrest of Rittenhouse, who allegedly murdered two men after traveling to Kenosha to act as a Blue Lives Matter-style militiaman during protests, has become a flashpoint in the city of 100,000, particularly after Trump suggested on Monday that the teen acted in self defense.
Bill Sanders, a 53-year-old Trump supporter from Kenosha, told The Daily Beast he would have done the same thing if he were in Rittenhouse’s position.
“If he wouldn’t have shot them guys it would have been him,” he said.
Wojtak agreed. “I think the government has a responsibility to protect our businesses and us. And if you’re not taking that responsibility, then you need to protect yourself,” she said.
But Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) said ahead of Trump’s visit that armed vigilantism was “not what this country is about.”
“And if we can’t ensure the promise of America to everyone—and right now we don’t have that promise for many people who have black and brown skin—you certainly can’t be somehow condoning the actions of armed vigilantes that makes, not just Kenosha not safe, but our suburbs not safe, and all of our communities not safe,” he said at a press conference.
Even some Trump supporters acknowledged he was unlikely to do a whole lot of good for the local healing process.
“I don’t think he’s personally… trying to promote any kind of violence,” said Wojtak. “But unfortunately you’re gonna have people that are pissed off and angry that he’s coming.”