Defying the wishes of local leaders to stay away and at the risk of sparking more tension, US President Donald Trump deliberately flew into a racial tinderbox.
From the moment he landed in Kenosha, Wisconsin — the latest flashpoint in America’s reckoning on race — the divisions authorities had warned about were on full display.
His motorcade was greeted with a mix of Trump supporters waving campaign signs and protestors with Black Lives Matter placards.
Helicopters buzzed overhead and a heavy presence of armoured vehicles stalked the streets, as the bruised and battered community braced for more trouble.
Kenosha has been on edge since the police shooting of 29-year-old black man Jacob Blake late last month, which left him paralysed from the waist down.
He was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer after reaching inside his car. Officers were responding to a call about domestic violence.
Chaos and violence consumed the streets in the days that followed, leaving large blocks of the city in ruins.
It then turned deadly when a militia group, claiming to be protecting property, clashed with protesters.
Trump visits a city on its knees with a clear objective
While you would expect a president to visit a town on its knees, the cocktail of tensions playing out in the community offered Trump a platform to reinforce his campaign message of “law and order”.
With the United States deeply polarised over issues of racial injustice and police use of force, Trump sought to appeal to his base of supporters as opinion polls show him narrowing the lead with his democratic rival Joe Biden.
The state is a key battleground, which Trump won by a whisker in 2016. He needs to keep it in his column at the November poll.
And from the outset, his objectives were clear.
He met with local law enforcement and owners of damaged businesses. Supporters of racial justice were not on his schedule.
An offer to meet with Mr Blake’s family was made but cancelled after they asked for lawyers to be present.
“I thought it would be better not to do anything where there are lawyers involved,” Trump said.
At a roundtable meeting with police and an audience littered with business owners affected by last week’s destruction, Trump bounced between pre-written comments and going off-script.
He opened by thanking police for doing a “fantastic job” and criticised the “fake news” media.
And while Trump dodged questions about systemic racism and problems in policing, he did say that he felt “terribly for anybody who goes through that,” referring to the police shooting.
He said that he was honoured to meet with the co-pastors of Blake’s mother, the only two Black people at Trump’s roundtable.
More funding to bolster law enforcement was pledged and promises to rebuild Kenosha made while he denied the presence of systemic racism in the ranks of law enforcement.
Flanked by Attorney-General William Barr and acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, Trump described police as “great, great people” while labelling those involved with destructive protests as “violent mobs” committing “domestic terror”.
Trump condemns ‘dangerous anti-police rhetoric’
But when it came to 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager charged with allegedly shooting dead two rioters and injuring a third, the President declined to denounce his actions. Instead, he suggested the teen was acting in self-defence.
Pastor James Ward appealed for greater efforts to “change the hearts of people” and bring healing and peace to the community, while his wife and co-pastor Sharon Ward said: “I think it’s important to have black people at the table to help solve the problem.”
Trump also quickly drew attention to how swiftly Kenosha had managed to bring the chaos under control after accepting his offer of federal assistance, repeatedly exclaiming how safe he feels in the city.
Then, speaking directly to his base, he took credit for restoring the peace after sending in federal National Guard troops.
He contrasted that to how Portland had handled its protests, which have now roiled for 95 days.
But it was governors, not the President, who sent in the National Guard troops.
Nor was the presence of guardsmen the sole factor in tamping down the violence. The shock of two people being shot dead and another injured appears to have taken the heat out of the riots.
“To stop the political violence, we must also confront the radical ideology … We have to condemn the dangerous anti-police rhetoric,” Trump said.
Law and order becomes a key message of the election
It all fits neatly in the President’s re-election pitch and fears of lawless streets under a Joe Biden presidency, controlled by the radical-left wing Democrats.
Last week’s Republican National Convention heavily focused on the theme, seemingly shifting attention away from the coronavirus pandemic, despite 1,000 Americans still dying each day.
It seems to have struck such a chord that it got Biden out his basement and back on the campaign trail.
Biden was pinning his hopes on winning the election by focusing the nation’s attention on the President’s handling on the coronavirus pandemic.
But the country has again shifted, and the former vice-president has been forced to make his stance on the violence and chaos clear to the public.
“I want to be clear about this: Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting, it’s lawlessness, plain and simple,” Mr Biden said yesterday.
It’s difficult to say this early whether the President’s political bet to travel to the state uninvited will play in his favour but it’s certainly jolted his opponent into action.
Biden has now also pledged a trip to the bruised city.
As Trump toured burnt-out businesses and met with police, hundreds gathered at the corner where Mr Blake was shot.
The streets haven’t yet returned to violence, but the tribes in the deeply divided nation remain on full display.