Los Angeles – The absence of leadership was deafening Friday in the White House Rose Garden, where cameras and reporters sat focused on an empty podium for nearly an hour as Minneapolis burned, and a nation raged, over the senseless killing of George Floyd.
Floyd, who was black, died in police custody Monday after officer Derek Chauvin was captured on video holding his knee on Floyd’s neck and throat for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s pleas for his life _ “I can’t breathe” – were all too familiar after the death of Eric Garner, who spoke the same dying words from a police chokehold in Staten Island, N.Y., in 2014.
A static shot of the president-less Rose Garden was shown at the bottom of the screen on MSNBC and other outlets (“The president will speak soon”) as news of the unrest erupted around it: clips of demonstrators, horrifying footage of Floyd’s last moments, a press conference announcing that former officer Chauvin had finally been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Then finally, a voice of competent governance broke into the news to address the unfurling crisis. But the words about justice and healing weren’t coming from the capital.
“One of the things every human being must be able to do: Breathe. So simple. So basic. So brutal,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, who was livestreaming from his home studio in Delaware. “(The) same thing happened with (Ahmaud) Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. … It’s a list that dates back 400 years,” he said.
“The original sin of this country still stains our nation today,” Biden said of slavery’s lasting, brutal legacy on the lives of black Americans. “If we stand by and remain silent, we are complicit.”
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who appeared to be holding back anger as he read prepared remarks, was brief and clear: The country needs to fix and heal an “open wound” of systemic racism, and seek justice for Floyd and his family. And Biden will do everything in his power to make sure that happens.
Biden’s direct appeal was in sharp contrast to President Donald Trump’s comments Friday, which arrived via Twitter in the wee hours. Referring to the Minnesota protesters as “thugs,” he wrote, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The contrast between the two men’s approaches couldn’t have been starker, even though they’re both known for saying what’s on their minds and dropping verbal gaffes like cracked Easter eggs. In Trump’s case, it’s a reckless approach that has won him fans. For Biden, it’s been viewed as a deficit that could sink his chances of occupying the Oval Office.
But in 2020, Biden’s unedited, off-the-cuff tendency to speak what he feels – or fumble to find the right words – is arguably more effective against Trump’s rudimentary barbs than, say, the slick verbiage of Mayor Pete Buttigieg or the carefully parsed words of Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar.
“This is no time for incendiary tweets,” said Biden, presumably referring to Trump’s posts, in Friday’s livestream, which was picked up by multiple news platforms. “It’s no time to encourage violence. We need to stand up as a nation, with the black community, with all minority communities, and come together as one America.”
Biden wasn’t utterly commanding or hyper-articulate. But he showed up, and he appeared to care about what happens to us as a people and a nation.
For the thirsty, it felt like stumbling upon an oasis, even though a week ago Biden was lambasted for racially insensitive comments he made during an interview with “Breakfast Club” co-host Charlamagne tha God. Discussing the November election, he said, “Well, I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
Biden apologized for the flippant response, something his competitor has never done. Even online.
After Twitter flagged Trump’s “looting” post for “violating its policies regarding the glorification of violence,” the president tried to walk back his series of insomniac posts.
He could have blamed someone else. The phrase wasn’t even his, after all. It was said by Miami Police Chief Walter Headley Jr. during the height of civil rights protests in the 1960s. Headley also said, “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality. They haven’t seen anything yet.”
Instead, Trump tried to suggest he was misunderstood, then explained what he meant to say in several more confusing tweets: “It was spoken as a fact, not as a statement. It’s very simple, nobody should have any problem with this other than the haters, and those looking to cause trouble on social media,” he wrote.
When Trump did eventually make it to the Rose Garden microphone to speak to the press, in person, it was as if he’d dropped in from an alternate universe of priorities.
He was there to talk about “our relationship with China and how they’ve ripped off the United States like no one has before,” he stated. Then he announced he was cutting ties with the World Health Organization because China has “total control” over WHO.
He ignored two huge infernos – a deadly pandemic and the dire, ongoing costs of systemic racism – in favor of starting a new blaze.
Not once did he mention George Floyd.
But Biden did. In fact, that’s all he talked about, and left viewers with this: “Folks, we gotta stand up,” he said. “We gotta move. We gotta change.”