Joe Biden Listens to Anguish at a Black Church in Wilmington

As the nation entered another day of unrest in response to the killing of George Floyd, who was pinned under a police officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. emerged from isolation to meet with community leaders at a black church in Delaware.

The event Monday morning, at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was part listening session, part campaign speech and part forum for members of Wilmington’s black community to express their collective anguish.

“Anger just doesn’t come out of nowhere,” Eugene Young, president of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, said of the protests against police brutality that have gripped cities across the country. “This anger comes from the fact that you have people in our community that feel as though the knee has been on their back for a long time.”

Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, Democrat of Delaware, had to pause to collect herself while recalling an exchange the night before with a 23-year-old protester in Wilmington.

“He used the term ‘I’m standing my ground,’ which broke my heart, and then he said, ‘I’m willing to die,’” Ms. Blunt Rochester said, her voice rising. “And he said, ‘I have so much rage.’ And I said: ‘How old are you? What’s your name? How old are you?’ And I just tried to hold him! Covid or not!”

For around an hour, Mr. Biden sat silently at the front of the church, a surgical mask covering his face, taking notes as speaker after speaker expressed versions of the same message: We support you, but you need to do more.

“Over the eight years you were vice president, there were lots of successes, but the African-American community did not experience the same economic opportunity and upward mobility that they did in the ’90s,” State Senator Darius Brown said, adding, “We’re here not only to love you but to push you.”

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If there was one contrast between the people in the streets and the people in the church on Monday, it was age: The protesters are largely young. The people speaking to Mr. Biden were middle-aged or older — and they challenged Mr. Biden to address the disparity.

“What I worry about for our young people is feelings of hopelessness and frustration if they don’t feel that they have a hope for their future,” said Devona Williams, chairwoman of the board of trustees at Delaware State University, which is historically black.

“Education doesn’t mean anything if we can’t go birdwatching, if we can’t jog and if we can’t go to a convenience store,” Dr. Williams said. “And if we can’t do the normal things, the normal daily living things, it creates a feeling of oppression and frustration, and all the things that are the tricks of the enemy to get us angry and then cause us to be violent.”

The Rev. Shanika Perry, the church’s youth pastor, asked Mr. Biden to meet with young black people.

“They want to be at the table,” she said. “It is not enough to have the youth pastor speaking on their behalf. They have brilliant ideas themselves.”

Black women want a seat at the table, too, Ms. Perry said, urging Mr. Biden to choose one as his running mate. Black women are the most reliable voting bloc within the Democratic Party, she noted, adding, “but when it matters, you guys don’t necessarily include us when it comes to positions of power.”

When Mr. Biden finally stood up to speak, he quoted the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard — “‘Faith sees best in the dark,’” he said, “and it’s been pretty dark” — before condemning Mr. Trump for, he said, publicly legitimizing the racism that protesters are fighting against.

Earlier in his career, “I thought we could actually defeat hate,” Mr. Biden said. “What I realized — not just white supremacy, but hate — hate just hides. Hate just hides. It doesn’t go away. And when you have somebody in power who breathes oxygen to the hate under the rocks, it comes out from under the rocks.”

Mr. Biden added that he did not take black voters for granted and that he was putting together a detailed set of policy proposals to address their concerns. He also said he believed the events of the past few months would force more Americans to confront institutionalized racism.

It is not just police violence but also the coronavirus pandemic, which has been disproportionately affecting black communities. It is not just Mr. Floyd but also Breonna Taylor, whom the police in Louisville, Ky., killed in her own apartment; Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by two white men while jogging in Georgia; and Christian Cooper, who asked a white woman in Central Park to leash her dog, only for the woman to call the police and claim he was threatening her life.

“Ordinary folks who don’t think of themselves as having a prejudiced bone in their body, don’t think of themselves as racist, have kind of had the mask pulled off,” Mr. Biden said.

As Mr. Floyd’s death and the resulting unrest convulsed the country last week, Mr. Biden gave the sort of address to a nation in crisis that Americans normally would expect to hear from the Oval Office. In the Friday speech, he sought to paint a contrast with the president, who was mostly stoking the flames, calling protesters “thugs” and suggesting that they could be shot.

The moment fits neatly with one of the biggest messages Mr. Biden’s campaign has sought to convey all year: that he can provide steady leadership instead of chaos. But, occurring as it has during a pandemic that has shut down in-person campaign events, it is a uniquely difficult moment to seize.

In Friday’s speech, which he delivered virtually, Mr. Biden urged Americans to grapple with the fact that the country’s long history of racism was not history at all, but a “deep, open wound.”

“The pain is too immense for one community to bear alone,” he said. “I believe it’s the duty of every American to grapple with it, and to grapple with it now. With our complacency, our silence, we are complicit in perpetuating these cycles of violence.”

Mr. Biden did not criticize the protesters’ tactics in those remarks, but he did in a statement later that night, somewhat shifting the unapologetic tone of his initial speech. Two days later, after a night of unrest in Wilmington, Mr. Biden visited the site of the protests and toured damaged businesses with Ms. Blunt Rochester.

Former President Barack Obama, who has endorsed Mr. Biden, expressed support for peaceful protesters in a Medium post on Monday, and urged those protesters to vote — not only in the presidential race, but also in state and local races. He expressed hope that the current anger could lead to substantive change in a way that past protests over police killings and systemic racism did not.

It was that hope that the leaders who addressed Mr. Biden were loudly searching for.

“Right before this all happened, somebody gave me a gift,” Ms. Blunt Rochester said, a bright red face mask pulled down around her chin, her arm raised to display the bracelet she was wearing.

“It says ‘breathe.’ Breathe. Because many times we come in rooms where we just can’t breathe, and then to see George Floyd — he is a representation that people feel our breath has been taken away. And we’ve got to get it back.”

Thomas Kaplan contributed reporting from Wilmington, Del.

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