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AMERICA DISRUPTED: Troubles cleave a nation, and a city

It was difficult to celebrate America in Saginaw this year. The deadly coronavirus had torn through the county. Unemployment had surged five-fold. Weeks of protest over racial inequality left many debating what should be hallowed and what must be changed.

The July Fourth fireworks display was cancelled, since there was no venue that felt safe from the sickness.

The dark skies over this mid-Michigan city were a plaintive marker of a nation utterly disrupted in a matter of months. Americans are aiming their anger at each other, talking past each other, invoking race, class and culture. They cannot even agree on the need to wear a mask to protect against a virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans.

A man rides his bicycle past an abandoned service station in the impoverished east side neighborhood of Saginaw, Mich., on Monday, June 29, 2020. It's difficult to celebrate America in Saginaw this July 4th. The deadly pandemic kept families apart. A brutal recession means money is tight. Weeks of protest over racial inequality left many debating what exactly should be celebrated and what must be changed. (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

The discord comes as the country hurtles toward a convulsive presidential election. President Donald Trump portrays himself as a disrupter, with an agenda that is rooted in nationalism and roils racial divisions; his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, calls for a national reset to something resembling normal.

“It’s never been this divided,” says Tom Roy, vice chair of Saginaw’s Republicans.

It is in places like Saginaw County, Michigan, which narrowly flipped from voting for President Barack Obama to voting for Trump, where clarity about America’s future is likely to come. The political fallout from the pandemic, recession and protests is unfolding, leaving a striking degree of uncertainty just four months from Election Day.

Dave Adams poses for a portrait Tuesday, June 30, 2020, at the kitchen table of his parents home in St. Charles, Mich. Adams, 47, left his job as an athletics director at a suburban high school in Saginaw so that he could organize voter turnout against President Donald Trump. When he taught social studies he always made a point of telling students then that all presidents were worthy of respect. Trump was testing his beliefs, he says. “I always thought that the president should be a role model,” Adams said. “The current president is so far from it for me that it blows my mind. It’s everything I’m against.” (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

Will younger voters turn out? Will older voters seek change? Will the suburbs once again provide the pivot points in the country’s partisan divide?

The election will provide answers to all these questions, but not necessarily to the central issue of American life in the year 2020: Can the United States pull itself together?

The country is beset by “parties who see each other as ‘the other’ instead of collaborators in a democracy,” says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Michigan State Troopers talk with two Black men Monday, June 29, 2020, during a stop on the impoverished east side of Saginaw, Mich. Black residents have largely long been relegated to the east side of the city, where blighted and abandoned buildings line streets – remnants of the Great Recession from a decade ago. (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

“A crisis allows you, if you’ve got the leadership, to unite the nation. What’s needed — and we’ve seen this for a while — is a national direction," she said.

Back in 1968, Saginaw was nearly twice as large as the 48,115 people who now call it home. General Motors alone operated at least eight plants in the city and surrounding county, providing middle-class jobs that drew African Americans from the Deep South. The Saginaw River slashes a diagonal line through the city and became a dividing line between Black residents on the east side and white residents on the west.

As GM stumbled and there were layoffs and closures — manufacturing jobs dropped by 50% in the last 30 years. Trump pledged an industrial renaissance, but the area’s 20.7% unemployment is more than four times higher than the day he was elected.

EDS NOTE: OBSCENITY - FILE - In this Monday, June 8, 2020 file photo, an image of George Floyd is projected onto the base of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. The U.S. has been dramatically disrupted in a matter of months, brought low by a global pandemic, Depression-era economic dislocation, and then, nationwide unrest over racial injustice. (AP PhotoSteve Helber)

Until February, Dave Adams was athletic director at Swan Valley High School, a suburban school. Trump’s election changed him and, at 47, he left his job to help turn out voters for the Democrats.

“You don’t want to look back and say woulda, coulda, shoulda,” Adams says. “I always thought that the president should be a role model. The current president is so far from it, for me, that it blows my mind.”

Few Americans think Trump is telling the truth or cares about them, according to April polling by AP-NORC. Even Republicans are more likely to describe Trump as divisive than unifying. But they still overwhelmingly approve of the job he’s doing and many believe a Democratic president would be worse for the country.

Kevin Hayes, a student at Michigan State University, stands Monday, June 29, 2020, near yard signs he proudly planted on his family's front yard in Saginaw, Mich. Hayes, 20, returned home from college after the pandemic effectively shuttered the campus in Lansing. He's spent the time he would have been in school trying to organize, hosting Zoom meetings and calling friends. He said he used to want to be a lawyer, but these days he hopes to run for the state legislature.“I realized I can’t sit on the sidelines,” said Hayes, who is bi-racial. “We have to keep having these tough conversations — organizing people to remember to vote.” (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

The pandemic gave new urgency to having a trustworthy president. It also upended Adams’ own plans. His new job — canvassing neighborhoods — has become a health risk. The recession meant schools might not hire teachers, so he took a second job this month as a custodian to preserve his pension.

“I’ll take what I can get,” he said.

Hattie Norwood doesn’t remember a time when Saginaw was a growing middle-class haven. At just 31, she’s already witnessing the second major recession of her adult life. She sees Saginaw’s problems — crime, poverty, struggling schools, food deserts — as entrenched.

Buildings from different eras of the city's history surround an empty lot in downtown Saginaw, Mich., Monday, June 29, 2020. President Donald Trump won Saginaw county by just over 1,000 votes in 2016, capitalizing on the rusting industrial city's frustrations and its dislike of Democrat Hillary Clinton. (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

The mother of four remembers well the protests that erupted eight years ago when Saginaw police officers fatally shot at Milton Hall, a Black homeless man who was waving a pocket knife, 47 times. The officers never faced charges.

But this moment has changed her.

The pandemic caused the schools to close, depriving kids of the free meals upon which they depended. So Norwood and eight strangers she connected with online met in a Tim Hortons coffee shop on in March to devise a plan to distribute food to families.

FILE - In this Wednesday, April 15, 2020 file photo, protesters carry rifles near the steps of the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Mich. Flag-waving, honking protesters drove past the Michigan Capitol to show their displeasure with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. (AP PhotoPaul Sancya)

When George Floyd, a Black man, died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him on the ground for nearly 8 minutes, she and others organized the county’s first protest in response and later launched Saginaw’s own Black Lives Matter chapter.

“I’ve gained my political grounding,” said Norwood, 31, a communications consultant.

Democrats hope it’s part of a warm-up for November. Young, liberal voters have been cool to Biden, a 77-year-old moderate, and a fight for racial justice may be the thing that mobilizes these often elusive voters.

Pastor Hurley J. Coleman Jr., poses for a portrait Monday, June 29, 2020, inside the sanctuary of the World Outreach Campus Church in Saginaw, Mich. He says recent protests were the first time he's seen Blacks and whites march together in Saginaw favor of racial equality. “This is one of those terrible growth moments where people of goodwill and good thought can bring us to another level. ... When you build on truth, anything is possible.” (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

“I am for doing whatever it takes to get Trump out of office.” Norwood said. “When I leave this place, when I’m gone, there will be brown girls after me and I just can’t fathom a world that continues in this way.”

Tom Roy, who is white, sees a very different America. In his experience, anyone who sacrifices can buy into the stock market and get ahead.

At 57, he thinks of himself as a Reagan Republican. He started playing the stock market in the 1980s, but the profits really piled up years later while working as a manager at a roller rink. He did well enough to buy a Corvette (and six others since).

Youths play a game of one-on-one basketball Monday, June 29, 2020, on a neighborhood street on the impoverished east side of Saginaw, Mich. Saginaw has battled crime, inadequate educational options and food deserts that have largely impacted the city’s Black and Latino residents. (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

Trump had planned to make Roy’s pocketbook politics the heart of this campaign. But the closures caused by the pandemic and the almost-overnight recession disrupted that plan. They also energized the Republican base.

As businesses started to reopen in June, so did the offices of the Saginaw County Republicans — in time for riled up voters to come by, asking to sign a petition to recall the Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, for her stay-at-home orders.

But there was a hitch in the recall effort: There was nothing to sign.

FILE - In this April 18, 2020 file photo, mortician Cordarial O. Holloway, foreground left, funeral director Robert L. Albritten, foreground right, and funeral attendants Eddie Keith, background left, and Ronald Costello place a casket into a hearse in Dawson, Ga. Across the county, the latest Associated Press analysis of available state and local data shows that nearly one-third of those who have died from COVID-19 are African American, with black people representing about 14% of the population in the areas covered. (AP PhotoBrynn Anderson)

“People on Facebook and social media had talked about recalling the governor,” said Roy, a GOP candidate for town trustee who marvels at what he views as evidence of pro-Trump energy. “We never had a document.”

There are those in Saginaw who say maybe the United States isn’t being pulled apart. Maybe it’s growing, even if uncomfortably so.

The Rev. Hurley Coleman, head of the World Outreach Campus Church, knows it’s a hard time to talk about hope.

A billboard remembering Leonard T. Mathews, who people say was a pillar of the community in the impoverished east side of Saginaw, Mich., stands next to the business sign of his former car care service on Monday, June 29, 2020. (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

Still, the protests after Floyd’s death were the first time he’s seen Black and white people march together in Saginaw for racial equality, he said. It made him think this might be a moment of such upheaval that even long-standing barriers are broken, divides disrupted.

“This is one of those terrible growth moments where people of goodwill and good thought can bring us to another level,” Coleman said. “When you build on truth, anything is possible.”

Associated Press writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.

FILE - In this Sunday, May 10, 2020 file photo, Mary Faye Cochran, 86, sings "You Are My Sunshine" over the phone to her son Stacey Smith through a window for a Mother's Day celebration at Provident Village at Creekside assisted living facility in Smyrna, Ga. The U.S. has been dramatically disrupted in a matter of months, brought low by a global pandemic, Depression-era economic dislocation, and then, nationwide unrest over racial injustice. (AP PhotoBrynn Anderson)

A cyclist sits on a Hoyt Park bench Monday, June 29, 2020, in Saginaw, Mich. The county is majority-white and one-fifth the population is Black. (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

FILE - In this May 1, 2020 file photo, a homeless man in New York's Penn Station opens a packet of food given to him by Hamza Deib, owner of Taheni Mediterranean Grill, center, and Mohammed Widdi, Coordinator at Muslims Giving Back. The U.S. has been dramatically disrupted in a matter of months, brought low by a global pandemic, Depression-era economic dislocation, and then, nationwide unrest over racial injustice. (AP PhotoWong Maye-E)

Traffic passes by the Court Street Theatre Monday, June 29, 2020, as the marque signals its reopening date in Saginaw, Mich. The unemployment rate around Saginaw is now 25.6%. (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

Local landscaper and chairman of Saginaw Area Fireworks, Tom Roy, holds a sparkler as he poses for a portrait Monday, June 29, 2020, in Rust Park on Ojibway Island where the city's July 4th fireworks would launch over Saginaw, Mich. Roy scrambled trying to save the display, that annually drew over 150,000 people from the area, but in the end, cancelled the event amid COVID-19 issues. "People were very upset," Roy said. "They just felt they needed it, I guess." (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)

This undated photo provided by Hattie Norwood in July 2020 shows her during efforts by the group Proactive Community Involvement to deliver free meals daily to hungry children in Saginaw, Mich. At just 31, she's already witnessing the second major recession of her adult life. Norwood sees Saginaw's problems -- crime, poverty, struggling schools, food deserts -- as entrenched. "Deja vu," she says. (Hattie Norwood via AP)

A U.S. flag is lit by the midmorning sun on a neighborhood street in Saginaw, Mich., on Monday, June 29, 2020. President Donald Trump won Saginaw county by just over 1,000 votes in 2016, capitalizing on the rusting industrial city's frustrations and its dislike of Democrat Hillary Clinton. (AP PhotoCharles Rex Arbogast)