(CNN) — Joe Biden issued a blistering condemnation of President Donald Trump on Tuesday and pledged to offer a break from the “selfishness and fear” that he said have marked Trump’s tenure in office and response to protests against racism and police brutality.
In a speech in Philadelphia, the presumptive Democratic 2020 presidential nominee addressed systemic racism and empathized with those who are protesting across the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in ways Trump has not.
His remarks offered a striking contrast to Trump that came about 16 hours after peaceful protesters in a park outside the White House were hit with tear gas so that Trump could cross the park and visit St. John’s Church for a photo opportunity — a move that the Episcopal bishop that oversees the church later condemned.
“I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate. I’ll seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued our country, not use them for political gain. I’ll do my job and I’ll take responsibility — I won’t blame others,” Biden said.
It was Biden’s first trip outside Delaware in months after the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to in-person campaign activities. It came amid protests in major cities across the nation — accompanied by looting and property damage in some cities, as well as police violence targeting protesters.
Building on his campaign’s core theme that the “soul of the nation” is at stake, Biden made explicit his differences in approach from Trump, who on Monday urged governors to “dominate” protesters, and bragged on Twitter Tuesday morning that “overwhelming force” and “domination” had been on display in the nation’s capital.
Biden also challenged Americans: “Look at where we are now and think anew: Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?”
“Is this what we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren — fear, anger, finger-pointing, rather than the pursuit of happiness? Incompetence and anxiety, self-absorption, selfishness? Or do we want to be the America we know we can be, the America we know in our hearts we could be and should be?” Biden said.
The former vice president reserved his harshest words for Trump’s trip across Lafayette Square on Monday evening, when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a peaceful crowd. Trump visited St. John’s Church, where he held up a Bible and posed for photographs with staffers and Cabinet members, but did not offer a prayer.
“The president held up the Bible at St. John’s Church yesterday. I just wish he opened it every once in a while instead of just brandishing it,” Biden said. “If he opened it, he could have learned something.”
The speech comes at a fraught moment for the nation, after seven days of protests as uncertainty looms over where a country already rocked by a pandemic and the soaring job losses it has forced will go from here.
Biden called on Congress to make a “down payment” on what he said would be the “work of a generation” in excising systemic racism, including launching a national police oversight board if he is elected in November.
He said lawmakers should outlaw police choke holds, stop transferring “weapons of war” to police departments and increase oversight and accountability of police departments.
“It’s time to pass legislation that will give true meaning to our constitutional promise of legal protection under the law,” Biden said.
Biden has provided a dramatic contrast with Trump in recent days. Biden has spoken with Floyd’s family and on Sunday visited the site of a protest in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.
On Monday, as Trump urged governors in a phone call to “dominate” protesters, Biden held a discussion with African American community leaders in Wilmington and a virtual roundtable with the mayors of cities that have seen protests and violence: Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and St. Paul, Minnesota.
Biden also directly addressed Floyd’s killing, calling it “a wake-up call for our nation” as he began his speech.
“‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ George Floyd’s last words. But they didn’t die with him. They’re still being heard. They’re echoing across this nation,” Biden said.
“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,” Biden said. “And they 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.'”