Former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday called the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death “a wake-up call for our nation” and vowed to reverse the nation’s “systemic racism with long-overdue concrete changes.”
The presumptive Democratic nominee – in a 20-minute speech that was carried live by all three major national cable news networks – slammed President Trump as being “more interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care” and charged that the president “is part of the problem and accelerates it.”
Biden – who traveled outside of his home state of Delaware for the first time in two and a half months since the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the country – delivered his address from the Philadelphia City Hall. His speech came one week after protests began flaring in cities across the nation after Floyd – who was handcuffed – died after a white police officer put his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes.
Floyd’s death and the resulting peaceful protests — as well as violent clashes and rioting — quickly pushed longstanding concerns over police brutality against minorities and the broader issue of the country’s history of systemic racism firmly back into the national spotlight.
Biden, who’s spoken out numerous times since the death of Floyd, started his address by spotlighting Floyd’s last words – “I can’t breathe” – which were recorded by a bystander.
“George Floyd’s last words. But they didn’t die with him. They’re still being heard. They’re echoing across this nation,” Biden emphasized. “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.”
And he stressed that Floyd’s words “speak to a nation where every day millions of people – not at the moment of losing their life, but in the course of living their life – are saying to themselves, ‘I can’t breathe.'”
The former vice president spoke the morning after federal authorities in the nation’s capital forcibly cleared demonstrators from outside the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church — which caught on fire Sunday during protests — near the White House before Trump walked to the church. Critics of the president slammed Trump after law enforcement forced the crowd to disperse and accused him of a “photo op” – but some supporters backed his move against what they called “professional agitators.”
“When peaceful protestors dispersed in order for a 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, a photo op, at one of the most historic churches in the country or at least in Washington DC, we can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle. More interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care,” Biden said.
Firing back in a statement after Biden’s speech, Trump re-election campaign senior adviser Katrina Pierson accused the former vice president of “repeating the erroneous claim that protesters in Lafayette Park were tear gassed last night to clear a path for President Trump, when the Park Police says they used no tear gas and were not aware that the President was coming through.”
And Pierson charged that “Joe Biden’s campaign made it clear that they stand with the rioters, the people burning businesses in minority communities and causing mayhem, by donating to post bail for those arrested. He has obviously made the crass political calculation that unrest in America is a benefit to his candidacy.”
But the former vice president, roughly a minute into his address, stressed that “there’s no place for violence – no place for looting or destroying property or burning churches or destroying businesses – many of them built by the very people of color who in the first time in their lives were beginning to realize their dreams and build wealth for their families.”
Pointing to the photos of the president holding a Bible outside of a historic church near the White House that was attacked during the unrest, Biden said “the president held up the Bible at St. John’s church yesterday. I just wish he’d open it once and 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 our selves. It’s really hard work, but it’s the work of America. Donald Trump isn’t interested in doing that work. Instead, he’s preening and sweeping away all of the guardrails that have long protected our nation’s democracy.”
Biden urged that “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 1st Amendment. At the beginning, it says ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble, to petition their government for a redress of grievances.’ That’s kind of an essential notion build into this country.”
Biden — referring to inflammatory tweets and comments by the president over the past week — emphasized that “the president of the United States must be part of the solution, not the problem. But this president today is part of the problem and accelerates it.”
And he charged that “Donald Trump’s turned this country into a battlefield driven by old resentments and fresh fears. He thinks division helps him. His narcissism’s become more important than the nation’s well-being that he leads.”
The Trump campaign’s Pierson – in her statement – argued that “over the course of his public life, Joe Biden has used the politics of racial division when they suited his needs and he is doing it again. In contrast, President Trump has addressed the nation twice, expressed horror and sorrow for the death of George Floyd, stood with the peaceful protestors, and made it clear that he would not abide our cities being overtaken by violent, uncontrollable rioters.”
But in his speech, Biden said that “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.”
The former vice president also spotlighted that “the moment has come for our nation to deal with systemic racism, to deal with the growing economic inequity that exists in our nation. To deal with the denial of promise of this nation.”
He called on Congress “to act this month on a measure that would be the first step in this direction, starting with real police reform.”
Pointing to a bill by Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York that would outlaw chokeholds, Biden urged that “Congress should put it on the president’s desk in the next few days. There are other measures to stop transferring weapons of war to police forces, to improve oversight and accountability, to create a model use of force standard, that also should be made law this month.”
And taking aim at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – the top Republican in the Senate – Biden stressed “no more excuses, no more delays. 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 legal protection under the law.”
He also vowed if elected to create a national police oversight commission during his first 100 days in the Oval Office. He said that the federal government needs to give the cities and states tools and resources to implement police reforms.
“We all need to take a hard look at the culture that allows for the senseless tragedies that keep [happening.] And we need to learn from the cities and precincts that are getting it right,” he added.
And Biden highlighted that “in order to have true American justice we need economic justice as well.” He also said Congress should act immediately “to rectify racial inequities” in the coronavirus pandemic recovery funds being made available to most Americans.
Biden also struck a personal note, saying that “like many of you, I know what it means to grieve… I know what it feels like when you think you can’t go on. I know what it means to have that black hole in your chest where your grief is sucked into it.”
He explained that “just a few days ago marked the fifth anniversary of my son Beau’s passing from cancer.”
And he stressed that “the best way to bear the loss of pain is to turn that anger and anguish into purpose.”