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Biden listens to anguish at a Black church in Delaware

Former Vice President Joe Biden the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, spoke with community leaders at Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Del., on Monday.
Former Vice President Joe Biden the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, spoke with community leaders at Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Del., on Monday.Erin Schaff/The New York Times

WILMINGTON, Del. — As the nation entered another day of unrest in response to the killing of George Floyd, who was pinned under a police officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes, former vice president Joe Biden emerged from isolation to meet with parishioners and community leaders at a Black church in Delaware.

The event Monday morning, at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was part listening session, part campaign speech, and part forum for members of Wilmington’s Black community to express their collective anguish.

“Anger just doesn’t come out of nowhere,” Eugene Young, president of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, said of the protests against police brutality. “This anger comes from the fact that you have people in our community that feel as though the knee has been on their back for a long time.”

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Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat from Delaware, had to pause to collect herself while recalling an exchange the night before with a 23-year-old protester in Wilmington.

“He used the term ‘I’m standing my ground,’ which broke my heart, and then he said, ‘I’m willing to die,’ ” Rochester said, her voice rising. “And he said, ‘I have so much rage.’ And I said: ‘How old are you? What’s your name? How old are you?’ And I just tried to hold him! COVID or not!”

For around an hour, Biden sat silently at the front of the church, a surgical mask covering his face, taking notes as speaker after speaker expressed versions of the same message: We support you, but you need to do more.

“Over the eight years you were vice president, there were lots of successes, but the African-American community did not experience the same economic opportunity and upward mobility that they did in the ’90s,” state Senator Darius Brown said. “We’re here not only to love you but to push you, because if we can publicly support every other Democratic base, then we should publicly support the African-American Democratic base.”

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The Rev. Shanika Perry, the church’s youth pastor, asked Biden to meet with young Black people and to choose a Black woman as his running mate.

“They want to be at the table,” she said of young voters. “It is not enough to have the youth pastor speaking on their behalf. They have brilliant ideas themselves.”

Biden said that he did not take Black voters for granted and that he was putting together a detailed set of policy proposals to address concerns.

He said that he believed the events of the last few months — between the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affecting Black communities and, now, Floyd’s killing — would force more Americans to confront institutionalized racism.

“Ordinary folks who don’t think of themselves as having a prejudiced bone in their body, don’t think of themselves as racist, have kind of had the mask pulled off,” he said.

This is the sort of moment that can define presidential races, and it fits neatly with one of the biggest messages Biden’s campaign has sought to convey all year: that he can provide steady leadership instead of chaos. But, occurring as it has during a pandemic that has shut down in-person campaign events, it is a uniquely difficult moment to seize.

In Friday’s speech, which he delivered virtually, Biden urged Americans to grapple with the fact that the country’s long history of racism was a “deep, open wound.”

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“The pain is too immense for one community to bear alone,” he said. “I believe it’s the duty of every American to grapple with it and to grapple with it now. With our complacency, our silence, we are complicit in perpetuating these cycles of violence.”