William Cummings, Molly Beck and Bill Glauber
Published 12:11 PM EDT Sep 2, 2020
When President Donald Trump visited Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday to survey the damage caused by violent protests, at least one local store’s owners said they had no interest in meeting with the president.
“I said no, thank you,” Paul Willette told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Willette is co-owner of Rode’s Camera Shop, which opened more than 100 years ago before being destroyed in a fire caused by rioters. “I didn’t want anything to do with President Trump.”
“If it were any other president I would, but not this one. I can’t begin to describe my frustration with him. I politely declined coming down there. I didn’t want to be part of that fiasco.”
Rode’s Camera Shop first opened in 1911. Longtime employees Willette and Tom Gram bought the store from their employer, John Rode, in 2011.
Gram, who worked in the shop for more than 40 years before buying it, told WTMJ the White House called him Monday to see if he would join the president to discuss the damage caused to his store. Gram said he immediately refused.
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“I think everything he does turns into a circus and I just didn’t want to be involved in it,” Gram told the Milwaukee station.
The violent demonstrations broke out in Kenosha after a police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, multiple times in the back in August, leaving him paralyzed.
Gram was surprised to see on TV that Trump was instead joined by Rode, the store’s former owner, who still owns the property. Rode was very supportive of the president.
“John Rode III, owner of Rode’s Camera Shop,” Trump said, introducing the previous owner during a roundtable discussion in Kenosha. “We’re going to help you. That’s a very, very complete rebuild we’re talking about down there.”
Trump said the business might have been spared if Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had called in the National Guard sooner, repeating a claim he made throughout his visit to the town.
But it was Evers who activated the state’s National Guard on Aug. 24, which was the same day Rode’s Camera Shop was burned and a day after Blake was shot. Three days later, Evers asked for help from Arizona, Michigan and Alabama, which sent Guard troops.
Earlier Tuesday, Trump and Rode stood outside a burned out storefront, which the Sentinel Journal reported was B&< Office Furniture, a store that was also torched by protesters. The furniture store is located a few streets over from Rode’s Camera.
“This store was here 109 years. Just about the oldest in the nation, doing what you do,” Trump told Rode.
“I just appreciate President Trump coming today; everybody here does,” Rode said. “We’re so thankful that we got the federal troops in to help because once they got here, things did calm down quite a bit. And our city police and sheriff and fire departments are awesome. They worked harder than you can believe, 24/7.”
Trump claimed that if federal support had been called in a “day earlier, we would’ve saved your store.”
“We’re going to work with you. We’re going to help you,” Trump told Rode. “We’ll help you rebuild. It’s a great area. It’s a great state. This should never happen. A thing like this should never happen. They have to call early.”
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Gram told WTMJ he was disappointed to see Rode’s views portrayed as those of current ownership.
He said Trump needs to “bring this country together rather than divide it.”
“I think there’s a lot of good people in this community and to say that only law enforcement is correct is not the message we need to hear right now,” Gram said.
After the store was destroyed, Gram and Willette told the Kenosha News they were devastated by the loss of the business.
“This was just a building, but people’s memories were inside. That’s what is killing me,” Willette said.
“A woman had just come in Monday and brought in a photo of her grandparents in elementary school, wanting it to be restored. I left it on my desk,” he added. “Now it’s all gone. Our customers lost family memories.”
“We understand the protests,” Gram told the Kenosha News. “but why destroy these businesses?”
Contributing: Courtney Subramanian and David Jackson
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