Biden vows to combat institutional racism as he meets with black leaders in Delaware

Former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden meets with clergy members and community activists during a visit to Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware on June 1, 2020.

(CNN) -- Joe Biden in a speech on Tuesday condemned President Donald Trump over the use of tear gas against peaceful protesters outside the White House in order to clear a park so that the President could visit a church for a photo opportunity.

"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," the former vice president and presumptive Democratic 2020 nominee said in Philadelphia.

Characterizing the moment as a "battle for the soul of our nation" -- an echo of Biden's central campaign theme -- Biden condemned Trump's actions Monday night, which played out on live television as protesters who had been chanting with their hands in the air were suddenly scattered throughout Washington's streets.

"When peaceful protestors are dispersed by the order of the President from the doorstep of the people's house, the White House -- using tear gas and flash grenades -- in order to stage a photo op, a photo op, at one of the most historic churches in the country or at least Washington, DC, we can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle," Biden said.

"More interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care," he said. "For that's what the presidency is: a duty of care -- to care to all of us, not just those who vote for us, but all of us; not just our donors, but all of us."

Biden also issued a call for immediate reforms in Congress as a "down payment" on what he said would be major efforts to address systemic racism if he wins the presidency.

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's speech -- his first trip outside Delaware since mid-March amid the coronavirus pandemic -- as the nation is convulsed by violence and protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

He used the speech to underscore his differences in style and values with Trump, offering himself as a healing force.

"I promise you this: I won't traffic in fear and division. I won't fan the flames of hate," Biden said.

"I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country -- not use them for political gain. I'll do my job and take responsibility. I won't blame others. I'll never forget that the job isn't about me. It's about you. And I'll work to not only rebuild this nation. But to build it better than it was."

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 three 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.'"

This story has been updated to reflect Biden delivered his speech.

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