Early in the week, events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in America’s midwest, might have been remembered mostly as yet another shooting of an African American man by the police after a white officer fired at least seven bullets at Jacob Blake’s back, in front of his three young children.
By the end of the week, a different but no less disturbing image was also stamped on the national consciousness. Of the police allowing a white agitator carrying a semi-automatic rifle to walk away having allegedly killed two people and gravely wounding a third, after individuals presenting themselves as vigilantes swaggered close to those chanting support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jacob Blake, 29, is in hospital in Kenosha severely wounded, paralyzed from the waist down and fearing he may not walk again.
Both of these events were caught on film and the two contrasting videos swiftly took on national political significance in the week of the Republican national convention to nominate Donald Trump for re-election.
The president and his allies focused largely on the protests and unrest that followed Blake’s shooting, including looting and arson that overshadowed largely peaceful demonstrations, as a warning of the bleak future Americans face if Joe Biden wins the election.
Trump’s critics accused him of exploiting the tragedy for political gain, and noted that the unrest in Kenosha, as in Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, before it, happened on his watch. They said that the president had made it worse by encouraging white nationalist vigilantism that saw local police officers welcome armed militia to the streets of Kenosha.
Law enforcement officers watched as Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, walked past them even as people shouted to the police that he had killed two men.
Rittenhouse turned himself in the following day, after returning home to Antioch, Illinois, about 15 miles away. He is charged with homicide and other felonies.
The events took on added significance when the Milwaukee Bucks, the professional basketball team in the city 40 miles north up the shore of Lake Michigan, led what effectively became a league-wide strike.
A boycott of the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs came in solidarity with those demanding justice over what the team called the “horrendous shootings”.
This was followed by walkouts and boycotts by teams in America’s soccer, women’s basketball and baseball leagues. The 2018 US Open tennis champion, Naomi Osaka, refused to play a semi-final in the principal pre-US Open tournament.
This was all focused on Wisconsin, a key swing state where Trump has fallen behind in the opinion polls after winning unexpectedly in 2016.
“Everything is hitting closer and closer to home,” said Shanie Thomas, in Kenosha on Friday, who lives close to where Rittenhouse opened fire.
“There is a racial division in Kenosha. It looks like corruption. Us Black folks aren’t going anywhere and none of this protesting or burning stuff down is going to stop until they start treating us as equal.”
The frequently provocative Fox News host, Tucker Carlson, sought to justify Rittenhouse’s actions. “Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?” he said on Wednesday. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
Kenosha’s police chief, Daniel Miskinis, did nothing to dispel that notion when he suggested that Rittenhouse’s victims, Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, got themselves killed by being out after curfew. When Miskinis was asked if he objected to armed paramilitary types on the streets, he declined to reply.
“The silence says everything we need to know about who he supports in the fight for justice,” said the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The county sheriff, David Beth, defended his deputies after they were seen welcoming white, armed members of the public.
This was even though they were breaking curfew, national guard officers were heard telling them to leave the streets, and Beth has said the answer to whether armed civilians should be “deputized” to carry out law enforcement in Kenosha was “Hell, no”.
Two years ago, Beth had to apologise for remarks following a car chase to arrest five people, four of them Black, for shoplifting.
“I’m to the point that I think society has to come to a threshold where there’s some people that aren’t worth saving. We need to build warehouses, to put these people into it and lock them away for the rest of their lives,” he said.
This week, the ACLU called for Beth and Miskinis to resign, saying they had failed to do their jobs.
All of this was played out at the Republican convention. The party had planned to use socialism as the stick to beat the Democrats with but that scare tactic is far from effective against an old establishment moderate like Biden, and is no longer a turn-off for many younger voters.
The unrest provides a sharper weapon.
Vice-President Mike Pence led the way in trying to scare people into believing that Black Lives Matter protesters would eventually come for them.
“The hard truth is you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” he said. “Let me be clear, the violence must stop, whether in Minneapolis, Portland or Kenosha.”
Trump in his speech noted that the unrest was in “Democrat-run cities”.
That prompted Biden to accuse Trump of encouraging violence. “He views this as a political benefit to him,” Biden told MSNBC. “He’s rooting for more violence, not less, and is clear about that. And what’s he doing? He’s kept pouring gasoline on the fire. This happens to be Donald Trump’s America.”
In Wisconsin, a Marquette university law school poll found that support for Black Lives Matter fell from 61% shortly after Floyd’s death in May to 48% three months later as unrest spread across the country. But at the same time the president has received poor ratings for his handling of the aftermath of Floyd’s killing.
Paula Caldwell, a manufacturing company worker spoke to the Guardian in a largely white, middle-class part of Kenosha this week about three miles from where Blake was shot and people are marching.
She’ll be voting for the president again and doubted that the unrest will have much impact on the election in this small city that typically has had an annual murder rate of no higher than four in the last decade.
“I don’t think this Jacob Blake situation will have any effects on voting in November,” she said. “I feel bad for the family of Jacob Blake but I think there’s more to the story than we’re told. I think it’s wrong that he was shot seven times and I think he should’ve been apprehended. There is more involved here. There are outside forces trying to create chaos for their own agenda.”
Back in the largely Black, poorer neighborhood where Shanie Thomas has lived for more than 30 years, just a few blocks from where the unrest has been occurring, Thomas said emphatically: “We need to vote Trump out.”
She decried jobs that pay “crumbs” and described Trump as “the definition of allowing the rich to get richer and the poor get poorer”.
She added: “We need someone in the office who is going to fight for equal rights. Equality can be reached through voting only if everyone is allowed to vote, including the millions of Black people in jail and prison.”
She said that those in power know that the majority of people who don’t have voting rights are Black, but that all votes should matter.
Thomas looked at her neighborhood, where shops have been boarded up since Sunday and people now have to drive several miles for groceries.
She said: “They love to say ‘all lives matter,’ so why can’t all lives vote?”
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