Joe Biden on Monday pledged to take steps to combat institutional racism and reestablish a police oversight body at the Justice Department as he spoke with African American leaders in Delaware after days of protests across the nation.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee sat for an hour, listening and taking notes while wearing a face mask before standing to address the racial tensions that have erupted following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
The event came ahead of a virtual roundtable later Monday with the mayors of Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and St. Paul, Minnesota, that focused largely on policing. In that roundtable, Biden condemned the violence that has taken place in some American cities, where businesses have been looted and cars burned.
“Protesting is a natural response to American injustice, but burning down communities is not,” he said.
The event in Wilmington marked a cautious return to the campaign trail on the day Delaware’s stay-at-home order is lifted. Fourteen participants – religious, political and community organization leaders – sat spaced widely apart in the pews at Bethel AME church in Biden’s hometown of Wilmington.
It was the second straight day that Biden, who was been at home since the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to in-person campaigning in mid-March, has left his home.
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Biden on Sunday visited a protest site in Wilmington and spoke with those protesting the Floyd’s death. He did not announce the trip and was not accompanied by press, but his campaign later posted photos of Biden at the site. Last week he and his wife Jill Biden laid wreaths at a Memorial Day ceremony.
Biden insisted Monday that he does not take African American voters, whose support was the key catalyst to his becoming the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, for granted. His comments came more than a week after Biden faced criticism for telling popular radio host Charlamagne tha God that if he was struggling to decide between Biden and President Donald Trump, “you ain’t black.”
“I don’t expect anything from the black community. I didn’t take – I’ve never taken for granted, not one single moment … I’ve never, ever, ever done that. It has to be earned. Earned every single time,” he said.
The event drew a stark contrast with Trump, who spent Sunday in the White House and only addressed a nation convulsing in chaos amid protests over Floyd’s killing, riots and looting in some cities and numerous instances of police violence captured on video through tweets.
As Biden listened to community leaders in Delaware, Trump was on a call with the nation’s governors urging them to “dominate” protesters. “Most of you are very weak,” he told them.
Biden faulted Trump, saying he has fomented racism.
“Hate just hides. It doesn’t go away. And when you have somebody in power who breathes oxygen into the hate into the rocks, it comes out from under the rocks,” Biden said, adding that “it matters what the President says.”
Biden’s event could become a template for a slow return to in-person campaign events.
Pulling down his mask and speaking at the end of the event, the presumptive Democratic nominee previewed what the coming weeks could look like for his campaign – saying he plans to deliver “what I hope to be very serious national speeches,” with a focus on the economy.
He said his campaign will roll out next week a new economic proposal “focused heavily on housing, education, access to capital.”
Biden said he has been focused on actions he could take within the first 100 days of his presidency that he anticipates will begin much the way former President Barack Obama’s administration did: In the early stages of an economic recovery.
“We’re going to make sure that the economic recovery deals with … institutional racism but also economic structures that need to be fixed,” Biden said.
Biden said he has been speaking with African American thought leaders in recent days.
Biden said he would re-institute a Justice Department oversight panel that investigated police practices established during Obama’s administration. He said the nation needs to “change the way police are trained.”
During the event, Biden was pushed on his record, with one participant raising his involvement in the passage of the 1994 crime bill, which led to mandatory minimum sentences.
He was urged multiple times to select a black woman as his running mate – though he did not commit to doing so.
“We want a black woman,” one participant told Biden.
Selecting one “would overwhelm and excite and turn the heads” of young African Americans, another said.
Biden pointed to Delaware Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a campaign co-chair who is helping conduct his vice presidential search and was on hand Monday.
“I promise you, there are multiple African American candidates being considered,” Biden said.
In the meeting with Delaware leaders, Biden also said he is focused on campaigning in battleground states with Senate seats also on the line in November, naming Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina.
He said the Senate’s control of judiciary confirmations is central to efforts to address racism through policy-making, saying that while presidents come and go, “justices don’t … some will be there 20, 30, 40 years, making bad policies.”
“It’s not enough to win the presidency. We have to win back the Senate. We have to change the leadership in the Senate. Mitch McConnell cannot remain the majority leader in the Senate,” he said.
This story has been updated to reflect Biden’s roundtable with mayors.