Following a week of nationwide unrest and protests following the death of George Floyd, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president Joe Biden delivered an emotional speech Tuesday morning condemning President Donald Trump, and addressing what he describes as a “wake-up call” for a country upended by racial upheaval.
“‘I can’t breathe.’ ‘I can’t breathe.’ George Floyd’s last words. But they didn’t die with him. They’re still being heard. They’re echoing across this nation,” Biden said in Philadelphia.
Biden, who held his first in-person campaign event in over two months Monday in Wilmington, Delaware, hearing from members of the African American community about their priorities in the wake of Floyd’s death, also emphasized that the protests, coupled with the disproportionate impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on minority communities, highlight the need to address systemic racial injustices.
“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 said, calling it a ‘wake up call’ for the country.
“It's time to listen to those words, to try to understand them. To respond to them, respond with action. The country is crying out for leadership. Leadership that can unite us, leadership that brings us together. Leadership that can recognize pain and deep grief of communities that have had a knee on their neck for a long time,” Biden said.
Biden also addressed the protests across the country, critical of those seeking to insight violence and destruction in the midst of the demonstrations, and police officers increasing tensions with the groups.
“We need to distinguish between legitimate peaceful protests and opportunistic violent destruction,” Biden said.
The Democrat, offering his first major in-person address since essentially securing the nomination, took direct aim at President Trump, following a night defined by the decision to use tear gas to push back peaceful protestors near the White House so that Trump could walk to the historic St. John’s Church nearby and pose with a Bible alongside senior members of administration.
“When peaceful protestors 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.
"More interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care,” Biden added. “For that’s what the presidency is: a duty of care — to all of us, not just our voters, not just our donors, but all of us.”
“The president held up the Bible at St John's Church yesterday. I just wish he opened it once in a while. Instead of brandishing it. If he opened it he could have learned something. They're all called to love one another as we love ourselves, it's really hard work. But it's the work of America,” Biden said, adding that Trump has “no interest” in doing that work.
“In addition to the Bible, the president might also want to open the U.S. Constitution once in a while. If he did he'd find a thing called the First Amendment. And what it says, in the beginning, it says: 'The right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition their government for redress of grievances. That's kind of an essential notion built into this country. Mr. President, that's America. That's America,” Biden added.
The former vice president also said that now is the moment to deal with systemic racism in America, adding that it’s going to take “more than talk” and pushing Congress to act this month to pass policing reform, specifically referencing a bill put forward by New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries.
“It's going to take the work of a generation. But if this agenda will take time to complete it should not wait for the first 100 days of my presidency to get started. A down payment on what is long overdue should come down should come immediately,” Biden said.
Outlining the bill's priorities, Biden backed legislation that would:
- -- ban the use of chokeholds by police;
- -- stop transfer of “weapons of war" to police departments;
- --improve oversight and accountability;
- --create a model "use of force" standard
“If Mitch McConnell can bring in the United States Senate to confirm Trump's unqualified judicial nominees, who will run roughshod over our Constitution now, it's time to pass legislation that will give true meaning to our constitutional promise of equal protection under the law,” Biden added, slamming the Senate’s Republican leader from Kentucky.
Biden also condemned recent tweets from President Trump that Twitter itself deemed to be “glorifying violence,” likening them to the rhetoric of “racist” figures of the Civil Rights era at a time when the nation is grappling with protests fueled by racial division.
In a speech carried live by all three cable news networks, Biden implored all Americans to take a moment of self-reflection in the wake of the unrest that has upended the nation just as some states began to finally emerge from the brutal toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
“[Trump’s] narcissism has become more important than the nation's well-being that he leads. I ask every American, I mean this from the bottom of my heart, I ask every American, look at where we are now and think anew, is this who we are?” Biden asked.
“Is this what we want to be? Is this what we want to pass on to our children and our grandchildren? Fear, anger, finger pointing, rather than the pursuit of happiness? Incompetence and anxiety, self-absorption, selfishness? Or do we want to be the America we know we can be. The American we know in our hearts we could be, and should be?”
The former vice president said that while no person can promise to be a perfect president, the former vice president pledged to try to unite the country and “heal the racial wounds.”
"I promise you this. 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," Biden said. "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. And I’ll work to not only rebuild this nation. But to build it better than it was."
Throughout his campaign, Biden has centered his message around the core message that the country is in “a battle for the soul of the nation,” and has long focused on President Trump’s exploitation of division, launching his run with a video that focused on the events of Charlottesville in 2017 as the catalyst prompting his third run for the White House.
“That’s when we heard the words of the president of the United States that stunned the world, and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were 'very fine people on both sides.' Very fine people on both sides?” Biden said in the April 2019 video launching his campaign.
"With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate, and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had seen in my lifetime,” Biden continued.
During a roundtable on Monday with mayors from major American cities, Biden described the widespread protests as a manifestation of “justifiable” anger, but urged those protestors to refrain from violence and looting, which he argues overshadows their main message.
“We need that anger. We need that to tell us to move forward. It helps us push through this pain and reach the other side to hopefully greater progress, equality and inclusion,” Biden said. “But we're also seeing a justifiable public outrage and protests turned to acts of needless destruction in cities across the country, which are not justified.”
“I think we all agree that the act of protesting should never be overshadowed by the reason we're protesting. It shouldn't drive people away from a just cause that a protest is meant to advance, but violence is endangers lives, it guts local businesses, it is no way forward,” he added, speaking with the mayors of Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and St. Paul.