WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden addressed the ongoing civil unrest across the nation Tuesday, calling it a "wake-up call" for America.
Biden slammed President Donald Trump's handling of the multiple crises plaguing the country, including the protests against police brutality and the coronavirus. Biden also laid out his own plan for police reform, and he pressed Congress to pass legislation that would prohibit the use of chokeholds by police.
The solemn, rousing speech in Philadelphia ranged from sweeping references to historical injustice and broadsides against Trump, to the personal story of his son Beau Biden's death. It was Biden's first formal address in public since March, when the coronavirus forced him and millions of other Americans to shelter in place.
"Look, the presidency is a big job. Nobody will get everything right. And I won't either. But I promise you this. I won't traffic in fear and division," Biden said. "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."
The eight days of unrest were sparked by the killing of George Floyd, 46, an unarmed black man in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The officer was charged with third-degree murder, and an independent autopsy found that asphyxiation was the cause of Floyd's death.
The ensuing demonstrations, some of which turned violent, have prompted Trump to called for governors to use harsher tactics and greater force when confronting protesters.
Biden invoked Floyd's memory on Tuesday by repeating his last words. "'I can't breathe.' George Floyd's last words," said Biden. "But they didn't die with him. They're still being heard. They're echoing across this nation."
"They speak to a nation where too often just the color of your skin puts your life at risk. They speak to a nation where more than 100,000 people have lost their lives to a virus and 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment – with a disproportionate number of these deaths and job losses concentrated in the black and minority communities," he added.
Over the past 24 hours, the split-screen image that has been created by the two major party nominees for the White House in November, Biden and Trump, is as stark as any from a presidential race in recent memory.
On Monday, Trump threatened to deploy active-duty U.S. military if states failed to quell the demonstrations in response response to Floyd's death.
As the president spoke, riot police and military police outside the White House used tear gas to clear protesters out of Lafayette Square, a public park in front of the president's residence.
Once the protesters were forcibly cleared, Trump walked through the square and stood in front of St. John's Church, which had been set on fire by protesters the night before. The president stood in front of the church holding a Bible and then later motioned for members of his Cabinet to stand alongside him for a photograph.
Biden addressed the move on Tuesday, saying Trump is more interested in "power than in principle."
"When peaceful protesters are dispersed by the order of the president from the doorstep of the people's house, the White House — using tear gas and flash grenades — in order to stage a photo op at a noble church, we can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle," Biden said.
The former vice president drew a sharp contrast on Tuesday between Trump's leadership style and his own. "I'll do my job and take responsibility. I won't blame others. I'll never forget that the job isn't about me. It's about you," said Biden. "And I'll work to not only rebuild this nation. But to build it better than it was."
A White House spokesman declined to comment on Biden's remarks. The Trump campaign accused Biden of using "the politics of racial division" while defending the president's response to the protest. "President Trump is restoring the nation to order and is clearly the leader we need to return the country to peace and prosperity," said campaign advisor Katrina Pierson.
As coronavirus lockdowns across the country are lifted, the 2020 presidential campaign is poised to enter a new phase, more closely resembling a traditional campaign with both candidates giving speeches and personally appealing to voters.
As of Tuesday, Biden held a 6-point lead over Trump in the Real Clear Politics average of national presidential polls. Trump is the underdog in his reelection race, having trailed Biden in every major national poll since early February.
Biden, who was vice president under Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, has previously said that he decided to run for the White House after hearing Trump say there were "very fine people on both sides" of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in 2017.
On Tuesday, Biden placed Trump's leadership squarely in the category of "enemies" confronting the United States.
"We're facing formidable enemies. They include not only the coronavirus, and the terrible impacts to the lives and livelihoods, but also the selfishness and fear that have loomed over our national life for the last three years," said Biden.
"I wish I could say that hate began with Donald Trump and will end with him. It didn't, and it won't. American history isn't a fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending," Biden said.
"The battle for the soul of this nation has been a constant push and pull for more than 240 years. A tug of war between the American ideal that we're all created equal, and the harsh reality that racism has torn us apart."
"The honest truth is both elements are part of the American character. Both elements. At our best, the American ideal wins out. But it's never a rout. It's always a fight. And the battle is never fully won," Biden continued.
"But we can't ignore the truth that we're at our best when we open our hearts, rather than clench our fists. Donald Trump has turned this country into a battlefield riven 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," he added. "I ask every American. Look at where we are now, and think anew. Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?"