Monday, September 7, 2020

Behind the Scenes of Biden's Visit

During the week, I work at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It's an old church on a main thoroughfare in the city's uptown, located between that used car lot you saw burning on TV two weeks ago Monday and the uptown business district where fires continued well into the next day. The stench of the smoke was strong inside our building all that Tuesday.

The presidential limo speeds by on September 1

A week after that, Donald Trump's motorcade passed in front of the church on its way to the burnt down shops of uptown so he could walk around the rubble in his granny heels and talk to the guy who sold Rode's Camera Shop eight years ago to the guy who didn't want to be part of Trump's campaign video.

Wednesday morning, I was told that Joe Biden was coming to Grace the next day to have a dialogue with a select group of religious and community leaders, an event closed to the public. 

I don't know how the event was arranged. I imagine that Biden's office called the local Democratic Party and asked where they could set up a meeting; the local people know Grace's pastor, who is passionately active on social justice issues and a committed Green New Dealer (you can buy his book on amazon), a young pastor still burning the candle at both ends. He had just returned from two weeks in California on Tuesday, so he had been away for all the turmoil since Jacob Blake's shooting.

I was sworn to secrecy about Biden's visit, which was kind of awkward. Just that morning, I had posted a graphic here and on Facebook chiding Biden and his running mate for not coming to Wisconsin despite having the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee and despite Trump and Pence chalking up frequent flyer miles to the Dairy State lately. 

I felt I couldn't delete my posts without possibly letting the cat out of the bag (although by afternoon, that Biden was coming to Kenosha on Thursday was all over the media. Just not the specifics of his visit).

Complicating matters, the church had already scheduled a major prayer vigil and rally for Wednesday afternoon, involving the local and national bishops of the ELCA and other clergy from around town.

While about 100 people were participating in the prayer vigil outside, the Secret Service, local police and sheriff deputies, and advance members of the Biden campaign were busy inside: determining which entrance Biden would use and which room he and his wife would wait in; what room the event would be held in and what path he would use to get from one room to another; where the pool reporter and media cameras could be set up; and who would be allowed to be in the building after 10:00 a.m. Thursday.

That latter bit meant that Grace could have its free breakfast program on Thursday morning as usual, but that we would have to cancel the free diaper program for the second week in a row. The diaper program volunteers had not felt safe to open up the previous Thursday afternoon. Having confirmed with the volunteers and having assured some mothers that the program would be open on September 2, I had to get back in touch with them to tell them it couldn't.

For the Bidens' waiting room, the campaign laid claim to a room used for Sunday School by a Latino congregation that shares Grace's building. The food pantry coordinator and I had to clear all the Sunday School equipment out of the room, trying to make sure we would know where to put everything back in its proper place. I called Amistad Cristiana's pastor to let him know we had messed with his stuff — although I couldn't tell him why.

Thursday morning, I arrived at work to find that a Milwaukee television crew was already parked across the street. One of the invited clergy had posted about the event to Facebook, so the secret was out. I began fielding calls from Chicago TV stations and other media asking whether Grace was hosting the former Vice President. I told them I had no comment, which was as good as saying yes. (What was I supposed to do? Lie?)

More TV crews gathered across the street, and so did a crowd. A congressional candidate from Indiana showed up at the front door; Biden's staff were out of the building for the moment, but instructed me via email to turn her away. She wasn't on the guest list. (Some good came from her trip to Kenosha, however. At the same time, there was a woman in the office seeking financial assistance — Grace gets a lot more requests for help with rent, utilities, prescriptions, car payments, etc., than it could hope to handle in its wildest dreams — and the Indiana candidate was able to connect the woman with someone willing and able to help.)

The local Democratic Party delivered a bunch of Biden-Harris lawn signs for the neighbors to put up in their yards. This, even though the Biden entourage would not be coming down 60th Street at all, but would arrive by side streets at a back service door that leads down to the basement kitchen.

I followed the Secret Service's bomb-sniffing dog around the church, locking rooms up after his handler declared them cleared. After that, I stood outside ready to direct the invited guests to the entrance where they would have their body temperature checked and be issued a mask if they didn't have one already. COVID-19 protocols were strictly enforced; security procedures included issuing a clip-on pin to those of us allowed to be on the premises, then swapping them out at a set time for a different pin, each of which had to be returned and accounted for at the end of the event.

Outside, the crowd outside kept growing. Residents and reporters freely passed back and forth across 60th street. There were cars and pick-ups festooned with political signs driving up and to the street. By contrast, while waiting for Trump to pass by on Tuesday, the street was closed for hours, and everyone was required to stay off not just the street but the sidewalks as well. 

Early in the afternoon, a crowd of local Black Lives Matter activists — the newly formed group is Black Lives Activists of Kenosha, or BLAK — came parading down the middle of 60th Street, blocking traffic, as police with bullhorns ordered them to get off the roadway. A portion of the BLAK group gathered in the courtyard outside the window of my office and seemed to be dealing respectfully with the woman there who was the first level of security for the entrance behind her.

One press photog knew to wait out back.
All the invited guests had arrived, and, unknown to the people out front, so had the Bidens. Since I didn't have clearance to go into the sanctuary where Biden's meeting was, I went into my office to continue writing up the previous day's prayer vigil and rally for Grace's weekly newsletter. Then, starting right at 2:00 sharp, the phone started ringing off the hook. An organized harassment campaign accused the church of harboring a baby-killer, of defending a rapist, and of not being real Lutherans. (Grace is a member congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; there is a separate, much more conservative Wisconsin Synod Lutheran sect that considers every other Lutheran church apostate.)

After answering calls from the first three harangutans, I just let the phone ring. When I checked the answering service for the church's message the next day, I found that not one of the calls left there before the service filled up was from our 262 area code. I realize that with cell phones, area codes don't necessarily equal geography, but none? Calls came from Colorado Springs; Buffalo; Seattle; north central New Jersey; Macon, Georgia; and several widespread area codes in California.

Connolly, one of the people from the regional Biden campaign office, took pity on me for my incessantly ringing phone and invited me to come sit in the back of the sanctuary with the press pool and the directors of our food pantry and breakfast program. I did not get to meet the Bidens, but I did get a few good photos thanks to my telephoto lens.

The woman in the orange headdress was a representative from the BLAK group; I don't believe she was on the original guest list, so I guess someone must have offered to let one BLAK protester in. When I came in, she was telling her story from the microphone set up on the side of the room for guest questions. Biden gave a sympathetic if lengthy answer; I missed some of it when his voice lowered to a near-whisper, the pews under the balcony not being acoustically optimal. As the event ended, Joe and Jill Biden came into the pews for an off-microphone minute with this woman.

And then they were off. The press pool, Secret Service, and campaign people gathered up their gear and headed for a meeting with a teacher in a Milwaukee suburb. Connolly stayed behind with us; we still had a few Biden-Harris yard signs in my office, so she took one for her mother, who lives in Illinois where the Biden-Harris campaign is less active.

Meanwhile, someone had hacked or spoofed the breakfast program/food pantry's email and sent out some bizarre diatribe to its entire contact list. Including, of course, its many donors.

On the other hand, Friday morning, one of the phone callers to whom I had actually talked to (or rather, listened to) live Thursday afternoon called back to apologize for his tone of voice. One of the Wisconsin Synod callers, he didn't take back what he said; indeed, he repeated a lot of it. Just how he said it. 

I'll can be satisfied with that.

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