March 11th, Friday afternoon, 4:30pm, at the entrance of the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion. I’m sweating buckets as I walk through security for a Donald J. Trump for President rally. I’m wearing my “No Trump!” t-shirt under a few layers, so I wouldn’t be removed from the line (security was turning away anyone wearing an anti-Trump shirt or button). I’m doing everything I can to act “normal” and not look like a protester. I even purposely wore my dorkiest (and most comfortable!) Costco jeans and jacket and a very innocuous t-shirt – with a map of the Midwest on it. Nothing to see here. I’m the epitome of Middle America. Why yeah, um, I, um, “support” the Trump. Please don’t ask a follow up question. Heh.
So, so comfortable.
I was waved through without a second glance (Swing Voter ™ look achieved! Yay!) I eventually grabbed a campaign-issued “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump!” sign (grrr…), found my way to the main floor where I stood near some African-American folks (probably protesters – safety in numbers?) and by the news cameras (if I get beat up, at least it will make the news). I was unreasonably nervous – my mind was running a surprisingly vivid loop of violent attacks on Civil Rights marchers from Eyes on the Prize combined with occasional vignettes Trump protesters being assaulted. Thanks brain. However, in a twisted way, this was reassuring. What’s the worst that could happen to me? Didn’t Fanny Lou Hamer and Bob Moses go through far more trials and tribulations? Buck up!
What brought me to this point? I’ve been thinking about Donald Trump and his exclusionary and dangerous rhetoric for months. I had been hoping that Donald would fizzle out, as he did in 2012, and that we’d be left with a relatively boring Clinton v. Bush general election. Instead, the Republican establishment is unable to crush a bully who calls Mexicans rapists, wants to deport 11 million people, wants to ban travel to the U.S. based solely on religion, openly calls for torture and war crimes, and encourages violence against protesters. He is not just another right-wing politician – Mr. Trump is correctly described as a narcissistic demagogue with authoritarian tendencies and a burgeoning cult of personality by both conservatives and liberals – who trumpets his power to triumph over all adversaries (domestic or foreign) through personal strength.
We know where this leads. Never say – “it couldn’t happen here.” We are only a few generations away from institutionalized segregation and public lynching parties where American citizens were killed for entertainment. Our great-grandparents imprisoned 110, 000+ Japanese-Americans against their will simply because of their ethnic background. Our grandparents fought for (and against) segregation and black voting rights. My mother could not legally marry my father in a southern state until the late 60’s. And we still have to argue around the simple fact that “black lives matter” – and that gay folks and their relationships carry Imago Dei (in the Christian tradition) just like the rest of us. Hispanic and Muslim kids have been ridiculed and bullied by other kids for their heritage – kids who learned hate from their role models – role models like Trump. When a leader comes to the fore who actively endorses prejudice and exclusion, we have a civic duty to use every creative and nonviolent means to protect the most vulnerable of our fellows.
Ok, so I knew I had to do something. But how to choose between sneaking in versus protesting outside? I struggled with this all week, going back and forth, trying to find an answer both ethical and effective.
Ultimately, I decided to go in and seek to peacefully disrupt the event for 3 reasons:
- The stake are high enough to risk it – see above for my take on the importance of opposition to Trump. Not on my watch.
- It’s a smart tactic: Trump rallies have a certain logic – screw political correctness, build the wall, mock opponents, mock the mainstream media, we’re the real Americans, not those thugs and immigrants, etc. However, when someone interrupts this, the fireworks really get going, both from the podium and from the audience. It brings to the fore all the resentments and hatreds that Trump has stirred up. It helps draw out for the cameras (and everyone watching) the vitriol. Exposing hatred is a witness to nonviolence – and brings about positive media coverage that can bring about great change. Recently, look at how quickly the confederate flag came down in South Carolina – largely through the powerful witnesses of Emanuel AME’s church members. In the Civil Rights Movement, King and other Civil Rights leaders often (peacefully) sought to provoke a violent response. When this happened, this galvanized national opposition to segregation (the Freedom Rides) and voter discrimination (Bloody Sunday and the March on Selma). [Note – however, let’s not turn King and the others into plaster saints – they were smart organizers and tacticians, who were willing to allow children to take on Bull Conner’s dogs and water hoses.]
- I (and many others) were willing to take the consequences: This is going to sound pompous and grandiose, but I was willing and able to go to jail/take a punch. I trust my own ability to stay disciplined and non-violent when necessary and I don’t have children who need me on a daily basis. I tried to have freedom songs on my mind all week to encourage me to keep my commitment to myself. Please don’t take this as arrogance. I’m just trying to do my part.
Ultimately, I assumed that I would join one of the Black Lives Matter or another group there, make our points early on in the speech, then be escorted out to boos and catcalls (as has been the usual pattern at Trump rallies). Imagine my surprise when at 6:30pm, they announced from the stage that the rally had been cancelled due to safety reasons – concerns that were overblown by the campaign and debunked by the Chicago Police Department.
A huge sigh of disappointment went up, as well as many cheers. At this point, I threw off my jacket to reveal my “no Trump!” shirt, put on my American flag cape and mask, and started cheering like crazy while ripping up my Trump sign. Some scuffles did break out, but I never saw anyone throw a punch. There was some pushing (and a lot of yelling and profanity), but folks on both sides quickly separated anyone who started getting too confrontational. This was not a triumph of civility on any side, to be sure. But it was far from the “violent chaos” that many media outlets are hyping. I helped break up one scuffle, then helped a group of African-American protesters move safely to the back, where a rather large contingent of anti-Trump supporters was cheering, going nuts, and chanting “We beat Trump!” In this group, I saw nothing but jubilation. On the way out, there were more heated exchanges, but no punches or shoving that I saw. Just outside the building, there was more cheering and chanting. It was calm enough outside that I could answer all the interview questions from a journalist from a Japanese-American newspaper with no trouble.
Walking away from the building, I did intervene at one point (and was quickly helped by a young Hispanic anti-Trump guy) where a Trump supporter was walking to the train and being followed by a large group chanting “racist go home”. She quickly was able to get on the train safely. I intervened again where a young African-American lady was screaming at a guy in a wheelchair. I got in her way and said “Don’t stoop to their level. We’re better than that.” She stopped and gave him space. It actually turned out that the man had been waving a small confederate flag in her face (and I can verify I saw the small red flag on his lap). I don’t know if I could have had that level of forbearance.
To note: at no point did I feel unsafe. There were plenty of police (so many that even Trump supporters commented before the event that “now would be a great time to rob a bank”).
Some major caveats
- A very small but vocal minority of protesters acted out of anger, not love. These folks were not at all connected to the main organizers of the event. There is no excuse to scream profanity at rally goers or to project a physically intimidating presence. It is completely unacceptable to block the exit to a parking garage (as some news sources have reported, but I did not witness).
- At times, exchanges became personal verbal attacks between sides. People – punch up, do not punch down. Mock Trump, satirize Hillary, and burn Bernie in effigy but do not attack their supporters in any way. As it’s said, good satire afflicts the comforted and comforts the afflicted. Not only is it dehumanizing to call a Trump/Bernie supporter stupid, it’s a terribly ineffective in getting her/him to change her/his vote. Also, it should be noted that the rally organizers were explicit in every communication in asking for a civil tone.
- Finally, and this is the big one, I worry that the anti-Trump protesters lost control of the narrative and the moral high ground. The story now is about our rowdiness and the “violent chaos” that took over. Trump can now play the victim and create false stories about “thugs” (I didn’t see any) and the danger of his opposition. This could end up alienating those we need as allies.
- We need a renewed commitment to creative nonviolence among all of Trump’s opponents. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s tactically effective. Let them throw punches and scream in our faces – we’ll gain the sympathy of the country.
Still, Trump was outmaneuvered on Friday night by a determined and fired-up opposition. I’m glad I was able to be a part of his first major cancellation and proud of my city. He blames “professional organizers” for the chaos. It seems like the professional staff of a leading presidential candidate should be able to handle one event, without chickening out.
Please schedule another rally in Chicago, Mr. Trump. We’ll be ready to nonviolently oppose every aspect of your hateful rhetoric – here, or wherever you go.