In protest-torn Kenosha, Trump backs police

Trump speaks to the press as he tours an area affected by civil unrest in Kenosha. PHOTO: AFP
Trump talks with local business people while examining property damage to a Kenosha business in the aftermath of recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice. PHOTO: REUTERS
Trump speaks to reporters before heading to Illinois and Wisconsin aboard Air Force One. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump's visit on Tuesday (Sept 1) to Kenosha, the Wisconsin city devastated by riots over the shooting of a black man by police, was an occasion to double down on his law and order message as a key driver of his re-election campaign.

The visit focused on the riot-hit parts of the city, and on law enforcement; the President had his Attorney-General William Barr at his side.

Mr Trump also pledged several million dollars to revive the city.

"Loss of business and loss of property is staggering," Mr Riki Tagliapietra, a local businessman helping to lead a rebuilding effort, told him at a meeting with local business leaders and Republican politicians as Democrats stayed away.

Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, had advised Mr Trump not to visit, saying it would exacerbate tensions.

The President did not meet the family of Mr Jacob Blake, whose shooting on Aug 23 triggered the initial protests against police racism and brutality. He also did not mention the deadly incident on Aug 25 when 17-year-old white teenager Kyle Rittenhouse - since charged with homicide - shot three people, killing two of them.

Politically the visit made sense. Wisconsin, with 10 all-important Electoral College votes, is a swing state, which Mr Trump won in 2016 by fewer than 25,000 votes.

Meanwhile, the presidential race has tightened. An Emerson College poll conducted over Aug 30-31 found that President Trump has tightened the race to a two-point margin, and is now trailing former Vice-President Joe Biden 49 per cent to 47 per cent (in July, Mr Biden held a four-point lead - 50 to 46 per cent.)

"It's all Democrats! Everything's Democrat! All these problems are Democrat cities," President Trump said, referring to the unrest that has roiled several cities.

"Violent mobs demolished or damaged at least 25 businesses, burned down public buildings, and threw bricks at police officers - which your police officers won't stand for, and they didn't stand for it," President Trump said at the meeting. "These are not acts of peaceful protest, but really domestic terror."

"We're hiring more police, surging tough-on-crime federal prosecutors, increasing penalties for assaulting law enforcement and for dismantling Antifa," he said. "This is a bad group of people," he added. "Very, very bad, very dangerous people. And we are doing a big number on Antifa."

Members of Antifa - the name is a combination of anti-fascism - usually appear at demonstrations dressed in black with face coverings and have often fought with police and attacked property. But Antifa is organisationally amorphous, described by analysts as more like a network.

And while the President has been calling for the classification of Antifa as a domestic terror group, analysts see that as intensely political. And security analysts have advised caution.

In June, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests in a string of cities that in places saw violence, Ms Heather Williams, a senior policy researcher and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, wrote for the non-partisan Rand Corporation: "It is not clear what role Antifa has played in recent protests and how that provides a transparent rationale for why it should be designated as a terrorist organisation."

"Such an action could also raise further questions about the definitional value and apolitical nature of the US terrorist organisation list. Using recent demonstrations as the impetus for such a designation could further fuel extremist violence and undermine the US legal framework for counter-terrorism investigations."

White militias have also appeared at the protests, especially lately in Portland, Oregon and in Kenosha.

Reports have not established that the teenager who on Aug 25 used a semi-automatic rifle and killed two people and wounded a third in a running melee was formally a member of any group. But he was not of age to own such a weapon, and he also crossed state lines with it, which is illegal. And police allowed him, as well as armed white militia, to be on the streets despite curfew orders.

At a press briefing on Monday, President Trump, when asked whether he would condemn the 17-year-old, seemed to defend him, suggesting that he had been acting in self-defence - which is the shooter's lawyer's argument.

"It seems abundantly clear that Donald Trump is staking his re-election on what he calls the issue of law and order," Professor of American Studies at Cornell University Glenn Altschuler told The Straits Times.

That means "essentially trying to stoke fear among Americans at the prospect of looting, arson and anarchy in their communities; and anger against protesters for racial justice by equating them with anarchists, looters, arsonists and so on. That was the theme of the Republican National Convention… and he is now doubling down on that strategy", he said.

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