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Biden to arrive in Kenosha just as the city achieves a fragile calm

"If Vice President Biden and Sister Harris would like to come and talk, we are ready to talk. But I'm not looking for anybody to come here and say nice things," Jacob Blake's uncle said.
Image: Presidential Candidate Joe Biden Holds Campaign Event In Pittsburgh
Joe Biden boards a plane at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, Pa., on Monday.Alex Wong / Getty Images

KENOSHA, Wis. — A citywide curfew and the threat of arrest had been in place several days here when the inflammatory state of politics and protest in Kenosha began to reveal itself.

Take, for instance, the sword-wielding white woman who arrived in the heart of the protest zone alone on Monday, joining about a dozen stragglers. She banged her two swords against the steel gates encircling the Kenosha County Courthouse. She chatted with a white man in fatigues with a chest-length beard and a holstered gun. She took swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniel's and banged her swords against a nearby lamppost, creating a kind of carillon past curfew.

The National Guard and local police descended in armored vehicles and SUVs a few moments later, and a team wrestled her into an unmarked van. The man in fatigues began to applaud her arrest and then to heckle Black Lives Matter and its aims.

Fast-forward a few days, and a version of delicate calm has descended on Kenosha now. Most protesters are inside each night before the city's 7 o'clock curfew. A small but assorted mix of people defy it. That is the situation into which Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden will arrive Thursday.

Biden comes to Kenosha against the suggestion of the local NAACP president, Anthony Davis, who said he conveyed a similar message to President Donald Trump, who visited Tuesday.

"I said that Kenosha would welcome them any other time," Davis said. "But things here are fragile. And we, in this community, really need to put our energy into healing ourselves, sitting down and speaking in detail only the way that locals can."

Image: BLM protest
Deja, 6, holds her hand in the air during a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wis., on Tuesday.Morry Gash / AP

Biden told reporters Wednesday that he will arrive with his mind set on progress and unification.

"We've got to heal. We've got to put things together and bring people together," Biden said in Wilmington, Delaware. "So my purpose in going will be to do just that — be a positive influence on what's going on, talk about what needs to be done and try to see if there's a beginning of a mechanism to bring the folks together."

During his visit, Trump met primarily with law enforcement officials and did not visit the family of Jacob Blake, the Black man who was shot seven times by a Kenosha police officer more than a week ago, setting off protests and sporadic violence. Biden will spend time with the Blake family and others.

Davis is not alone in feeling that the city remains somewhere near the boiling point, part of a country where only the surface of the waters is calm.

"I just hope there's no trouble. I didn't want any trouble. ... You know, they clash," Judy Bohaczek, a white Kenosha resident, said about Trump's visit, Biden's visit and the men's supporters. "But I was glad that nothing was done."

Trump, she said, "was in and out quick, and Biden will probably do the same, hopefully."

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Justin Blake, Jacob Blake's uncle, said Tuesday that the family welcomes a conversation with Biden but will expect far more than the right words or displays of empathy.

"If Vice President Biden and Sister Harris would like to come and talk, we are ready to talk," Blake said, referring to vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris. "But I'm not looking for anybody to come here and say nice things. I'm looking for legislative promises, commitments and, if they are elected, swift action."

Clair Rasmussen, a white woman who lives in Kenosha, described Biden's visit as less worrying than Trump's.

"Well, he's not such an antagonist," Rasmussen said. "So I'm glad the other side is coming, because it just shows Kenosha there's support."

For every Clair Rasmussen, there's a Kelly Ingram. He welcomed Trump's visit and hopes for a second Trump term.

"I feel better with Trump leading," said Ingram, who is white. "Because look around: Everything is booming, business is going. And who brought that to my attention was my 15-, 16-year-old kids. They said: 'Dad, look at our neighborhood. All these little storefronts are opening. It ain't the ghetto no more.' I live in the burbs of the ghetto."

Trump won Kenosha County by 255 votes in 2016.

The very notion of worrying about a high-profile politician's visit is a reflection of all that has happened here, of how grave and dramatic things have become.

Image: Protests in Kenosha
A burned-out garbage truck in front of the Kenosha County Courthouse after a night of unrest in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 24.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

The shooting that paralyzed Blake was followed by protests and fires that destroyed some businesses. Then a 17-year-old Trump fan was charged with murder in connection with the shooting deaths of two protesters. He came to Kenosha and joined forces with a vigilante or militia group that assigned itself the task of "protecting" businesses.

Far-right militia members and other armed people have been spotted at least 55 times at Black Lives Matter protests around the country this year, according to data gathered by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate and extremist groups. The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which also researches hate and extremism while working to combat bigotry, has gathered data pointing to 136 such incidents this year.

Law enforcement officials in Kenosha have been widely criticized by protesters and some civic leaders for demonstrating something between friendly appreciation and indifference to militias in the city. However, among the few pieces of data police have released this week was confirmation that nearly 60 percent of those arrested during protests in recent days — on curfew violation or other counts — listed addresses outside Kenosha.

As Biden prepared to visit Kenosha, both Bohaczek and Rasmussen described themselves as ready for a end to the anxiety produced by an influx of visitors, protesters and militia members.

"You know, if we could calm down and get back to normal that way," it would be good, Rasmussen said. "But I think it's going to take a long time for the healing."

Janell Ross and Shaquille Brewster reported from Kenosha. Doha Madani reported from New York.