Speaking at City Hall on Tuesday morning as the country confronted the combined strains of police brutality, protests, riots, the coronavirus, and an economic collapse, Joe Biden condemned President Donald Trump for spreading hatred, and vowed to put racial equality and healing at the forefront of his presidency.
“The country is crying out for leadership, leadership that can unite us, leadership that brings us together, leadership that can recognize the pain and deep grief of communities that have had a knee on their neck for a long time,” the former vice president said in a speech that contrasted starkly with Trump’s approach to the crises bearing down on the nation.
Biden criticized rioters and looters — “We need to distinguish between legitimate peaceful protest and opportunistic violent destruction" — but mostly emphasized the country’s decades-long battle against racism and inequality while accusing Trump of inflaming those divisions to rouse his political base.
“I look at the presidency as a very big job, and nobody will get it right every time and I won’t either. But I promise you this: I won’t traffic in fear and division, I won’t fan the flames of hate, I’ll seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued our country, not use them for political gain," said Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
The speech, carried live on cable networks, delivered Biden’s most extensive public remarks on the converging crises that have convulsed the nation and reshaped the 2020 election. His visit to Philadelphia was his first campaign trip outside of Delaware since mid-March, when the coronavirus curtailed campaigning, but was the latest in a string of public events in which Biden has reemerged in recent days in Wilmington rather than speaking remotely.
Coming at a moment of peril across the country, it was Biden’s most prominent step back onto the national stage since the 2020 campaign went underground. He used it to stress a sharply different vision of leadership compared with Trump.
“President Trump has turned this country into a battlefield riven by old resentments and fresh fears. He thinks division helps him,” Biden said while standing before an array of American flags and a small audience of Democratic officials. “His narcissism has become more important than the nation’s well-being that he leads.”
Biden spoke against the backdrop of a week of protest and, more recently, violent clashes and looting in many cities, including Philadelphia — and as voters in Pennsylvania went to the polls for a primary election in circumstances with few historical precedents. The city and country are also still grappling with more than 100,000 deaths from a virus that has left more than 40 million people unemployed.
People outside City Hall wore masks and listened to the speech on their phones as a line of two dozen police blocked the entrance.
The speech came a day after Trump took a much more combative approach at the White House, when he urged law enforcement to “dominate” the streets and proclaimed, “I am your president of law and order.” Earlier, in a conference call with the nation’s governors, he derided them as “weak” and said he would use the military to assume control if they were unable to stop unrest.
“Sitting there, right in front of him with a very small group, that’s where he [Biden] shines," said Democratic State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia, a Biden surrogate who attended the speech. "It’s so unfortunate we have a president who is tearing people down and making things more tense.”
Trump’s Monday remarks devoted three sentences to George Floyd, the 46-year-old African American man killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, and said nothing about broader inequality. While Trump spoke more about Floyd in a speech Saturday, his overall message, through his Twitter feed and Rose Garden speech, emphasized a punishing response to looters.
Trump pledged to support peaceful protests even as law enforcement used gas and rubber bullets to push back nonviolent protesters outside the White House. Moments later, Trump walked through the cleared space so he could pose holding up a Bible outside the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, where a fire had been set Sunday. Trump stood for the cameras but did not enter.
While Trump has declared the country ready to “transition to greatness” after facing the worst of the coronavirus crisis, Biden depicted a public gripped with “enormous fear, anger, and uncertainty.”
And while Trump on Monday emphasized a message of force and threatened to deploy the military to scarred cities, Biden spent that day speaking with African American community leaders in Wilmington.
Trump, politically battered by his response to the coronavirus and Biden’s growing lead in national polls, is now banking on a commanding response to riots to boost him with voters who have seen cities in flames, store windows smashed, and police, at times, assaulted.
“President Trump continues to offer the full force of his administration to states in need. Americans will remember who fought for their city and who didn’t when they head to the ballot box in November,” said a statement from the Trump campaign.
Biden, however, spoke more Tuesday about the enduring harm of racism and inequality. He said “black and brown communities” have borne a disproportionate share of the death and economic pain of the virus, while also coping with police abuse.
He called demonstrations across the country “a wake-up call for our nation,” and repeated the words Floyd gasped before he was killed: “I can’t breathe.”
“It’s not the first time we’ve heard those words,” Biden said, referencing the 2014 death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police. “But it’s time to listen to those words. To try and understand them. To respond to them. Respond with action.”
Philadelphia is the largest city in a swing state, and is close to his Delaware home. His campaign headquarters is in Center City, he held an early campaign rally on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and he gave a speech at the National Constitution Center after March primary victories effectively won him the Democratic nomination.
Outside the event, a crowd of about 50 was lined up waiting to catch a glimpse of Biden’s motorcade.
Maryann Henderson of Center City stood behind a line of police, clutching her phone.
“I’m here to see the next president. I’m here to see change, it’s got to come,” she said, getting emotional. The retired Camden school guidance counselor said working with children was fueling her tears. “Anyone who’s dealt with children sees it’s got to change,” she said.