PHILADELPHIA — Joe Biden on Tuesday praised the nationwide peaceful protests following the death of George Floyd, calling his killing in police custody a "wake-up call for our nation" and accusing President Donald Trump of sowing division.
In a speech from Philadelphia City Hall, Biden repeated Floyd's final words before he died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes — and said it was time "to listen to those words ... and respond with action."
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. George Floyd’s last words," the apparent 2020 Democratic presidential nominee said. "But they didn’t die with him. They’re still being heard. They’re echoing across this nation."
“They speak to a nation where every day, millions of people — not at the moment of losing their life, but in the course of living their life — are saying to themselves, 'I can’t breathe.' It’s a wake-up call for our nation, for all of us,” Biden said.
In an almost half-hour speech, Biden said the country was "crying out for leadership that can unite us" — and that he, not Trump, could provide it.
“Donald Trump has turned this country in a battlefield driven by old resentments and fresh fears. He thinks division helps him. His narcissism has become more important than the nation's well-being that he leads,” Biden said.
Biden said the 2020 election presented a stark choice for Americans about the direction of the country and pleaded for people to use their anger to oust Trump from office.
"Is this who we are? is this who we want to be? Is this what we want to pass on to our children... finger pointing instead of the pursuit of happiness?" Biden said.
"I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate. I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country — not use them for political gain," he added. "I’ll do my job and take responsibility. I won’t blame others."
"We're a nation in pain, but we must not let our pain destroy us," he said a moment later.
He also pledged to "deal with systemic racism" and to "deal with the denial of the promise of this nation made to so many."
Addressing Monday night's events outside the White House when police used tear gas against peaceful protesters to clear the area for Trump’s photo-op outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, Biden said that, “We can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle, more interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care.”
Biden, noting that Trump had held up a Bible for the photo-op, said, "I just wish he'd open it once in a while."
"If he opened it, he could have learned something," he said.
Trump, Biden added, also "might want to open up the U.S. Constitution once in a while," and read the First Amendment, hitting the president for urging governors across the U.S. to "dominate" protesters.
"And what it says in the beginning, it says the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition their government for redress and grievances," Biden said. "That’s kind of an essential notion built into this country. Mr. President, that’s America, that’s America."
At the same time, Biden said there was "no place for violence" or "rioting" or "destroying property," while also warning law enforcement that "nor is it acceptable for our police ... to escalate violence."
Biden's speech, given to a small audience of local lawmakers, marked his first large and lengthy public response to Floyd's death and the protests that followed. It came one day after he spoke to African American leaders and visited a church in Wilmington, Delaware. On Sunday, he visited a site in Wilmington where demonstrators had protested Floyd’s death.
The former vice president recently came under fire for telling a radio host and African American voters in an interview that "you ain’t black" if they back Trump's re-election. Biden later apologized for his comments, saying they were "really unfortunate" and that he "shouldn't have been such a wise guy."