Editors note: We proudly present our managing editor’s honorary mention winner in the GonzoFest 2016 journalism contest. Aramie’s experience at a recent Trump rally was originally published in LEO Weekly
I leave the house on the morning of March 14. I’ve got a bag packed. Contents: liquid antacid, for tear gas in the eyes. Mineral oil, for pepper spray on the skin. Vinegar and a bandana, to combat fumes. A blend-in outfit: 101st Airborne t-shirt and military satchel. Makeup on, like I meant to look nice. I didn’t shave. Didn’t want the pepper spray to seep into nicks. Pen. Paper. Cell phone, fully charged. Free paper ticket.
I’m ready for the rally. Donald Trump is in town.
- * * * * * *
Now we’re down on a green at the Lenoir-Rhyne University courtyard in Hickory, NC. We didn’t get into the rally. 4,000 tickets were issued for 1,500 seats. Thousands were turned away. The protesters are surrounded by glaring Trump supporters and an old white man begins hollering. “You want to push me? You’re all so fucking stupid!” The crowd ripples, frightened. I start to back away. There is nowhere to go. I’m pinned. All of a sudden a young man is down on the ground just ahead of the people in front of me. I don’t need to state that he is black – this is a Trump rally. Cops tackle the youth, pull him up with a bloodied face. There is no breeze. The white man is escorted away. Not tackled – escorted. The crowd momentarily churns in a sea of confusion. To the left of the chaos, church members begin to sing in the March noonday sun. They sing hymns, strong songs of protest, old Irish ballads. Even for an atheist like me, the sound brings waves of peace and stability to the vibrating, hostile air. The molecules start to settle; the crowd begins to breathe.
Still, there’s a middle-aged, bleached-blond hell-cat who cannot help herself. “Truumpp!!” she screeches, her arms up like goal posts. “We want Trump!” she chants. “We! Want! Trump! We want Donald! Donald Truumpp!!” She appears apoplectic with rage, eyes bulging, mouth bellowing.
The protesters start chanting over her fury, “No Trump!” they yell. “No KKK! No Fascist USA!” Over and over, and the cops lead the bleeding youth away in handcuffs as the chants turn to calls of solidarity. Everyone, including me, puts one fist in the air.
At this point I am probably supposed to state that I attended the Trump rally as a journalist. But if that is supposed to mean I wasn’t also there as a protestor then consider all lines crossed, because I was on the side of the “troublemakers, jobless and losers” all day long.
“Jobless” is the Trump followers’ favorite word to fling at protesters.
“Get a job!”
“You jobless losers!”
“They don’t got no jobs, that’s why they’re here!”
This last one nearly makes my new friend, Angel, turn around and yell that this doesn’t make sense when we’re all attending the exact same rally. Angel and I met in line together. I knew she was a protester by her tie-dyed shirt. She doesn’t bite back though, just marks one impatient gesture then faces forward and mumbles through gritted teeth.
We hear “You all lazy! Get jobs.” That accusation came from a very large man leaning sluggishly on a low stone wall. It’s a bit rich coming from him.
A guy with a red bandana over his face suddenly kneels down and dynamically pulls a seemingly endless wad of cash from his pocket. He flips through the bills like playing cards, right out in the open.
“I got three jobs, mutherfucker!” he shoots straight at the accuser. “I’m all but paying for yo’ ass.” This is definitely not his first rodeo. He’s spent time preparing for these people and their ill-defined allegations.
Throughout the day, far too many people echo that they work two jobs, three jobs even, on top of school and, sometimes, children and chronic illness. I myself work one full and two part time jobs. It’s nothing short of miraculous that any of us made it here on a Monday afternoon to protest the hate-filled speeches and white-power posturing of Mr. Donald Trump and his sea of smirking followers.
We’re witnessing the United States of America which Donald Trump wants to “make great again.” Trouble is, nothing his followers say about how he is going to do this makes any sense. I make it a point throughout the day to listen and talk to Trump followers. I’ll even avoid the easy targets: the crazy ones, the ones that seem dangerous. I’ll talk to normal (“normal”) people choosing to follow a man that encourages them to salute like Nazis.
Angel and I walk into a large courtyard filled with protesters and ringed by Trump supporters. A woman near me sniffs loudly and hollers.
“Them people ain’t got no jobs,” she announces in a loud, Hickory accent, pointing at a group with ‘Bless Your Heart Donald! Love, The South’ picket signs. “They doin’ this just to get on teevee.”
Since I’ve ruled out talking to obvious crazies, I decide against asking her any questions. She sounds and acts like a character from South Park.
On the steps of the University I find a woman called Brenda with a pin stuck on her t-shirt, right on her heart. The pin reads “Build the Wall.” A sleepy-looking man stands next to her. So what is there to like about Donald Trump? “Well he’s helping all the drug addicts, and the immigrants too.” How? “Well he has got ideas to get the heroin addicts to stop using drugs so they can have a life again. Because right now,” she stops and looks at me like I’m not even going to believe what she’s about to say, “right now?” she continues. “They ain’t got NO lives!”
It’s so hard to talk to these people.
Brenda goes on at length about immigration, turning from side to side like a human bullhorn. She hits all the predictable points that racist people make (“’They’ don’t belong here” and “’They’ take our jobs”) and I have nearly lost her completely on almost every topic. The sun is getting fierce and her meandering points go up, under and all around the bushes. People are milling about on the stairs. Some listening to Brenda, others muttering and rolling their eyes.
“What about the immigrants addicted to heroin?” a soft-spoken man asks her, pointedly. “Should they ‘go back home’ too?” Everyone pauses.
“Yes,” declares Brenda loudly. “Of course. They don’t belong here. Never did.”
“Is that mercy?” asks the quiet man, among background cries of “We’re ALL immigrants!”
The sleepy-looking guy beside Brenda lurches awake. “It’s mercy for the rest of us.”
His response makes me ill. I walk away. I follow a narrow sidewalk around the brick auditorium where fifteen police and S.W.A.T. team officers stand with their hands on cell phones or thumbs hooked into belt loops. At least 200 protestors stand behind moveable, white barriers erected beside the auditorium’s exit doors where Trump and his entourage will eventually exit the building. The rest of the protesters voice their piece on the other side of the auditorium. Cries of “No justice, no peace” can be heard through the air. The rally was two hours late in starting due to a dense, gray fog which descended that morning, delaying Trump’s plane. It’s delicious to think that nature herself gave us such an apt metaphor for the arrival of the Donald. Donald Trump: bringing a fog of confusion wherever he goes.
But the gray mist has burned away in the sun, and the protesters gather not only behind the barriers but also into the patches of shade thrown by the buildings. We can’t see anything inside, of course, but a loudspeaker projecting into the crowd announces that Governor Chris Christie is about to take the mic to introduce Trump. Trump’s supporters flank the protesters everywhere they go. They form a thin but ever-present band of faces – white faces – disapproving expressions and Trump 2016 hats.
I go down into the thick of the protester circle. It feels safe here, chummy. Everyone is talking, laughing. Jokes fly and spirits are up. Good protests are always like this. It’s what happens when justice lovers and freedom fighters come together with their own. For so often we feel as though we all hold it down alone in a bitter, hate-filled world. I reflect that Trump supporters also might describe themselves as justice lovers and freedom fighters. But their words ring empty and hollow when the actions they wish to employ include banishing humans from a land they helped build and pay taxes on, and turning blind eyes to those in need in an out-of-sight-out-of-mind fashion. A couple guys are taking turns carrying each other on their shoulders and holding their nation’s flag. The sidewalk nearly trips the walker, and as he rights himself quickly, a Trump supporter spits and says “Aw, didn’t fall and crack his head open – that’s a damn shame.” This same Trump supporter will later pace the end of the rally shouting that Trump is “a loving, caring man – he’s man who loves all people.” Now, I just think these people are crazy. I think they’re fucking nuts, and that there are simply a lot of them. Enough to vote for Trump.
A guy in a green shirt and Mexican flag ball cap begins hollering country-proud slogans to the Trump supporters. All day, the pro-Trump people have been taunting folks with “Go back to Mexico!” since every brown person seems to be a Mexican person in their eyes. Well, this dude really IS from Mexico, and now he’s not going to let them forget it. Some of the things he yells are downright hilarious. Far from dividing the protest crowd, or making anyone uncomfortable, his ferocious fight-backs draw the group together. I, like most progressives, like so many revolutionaries, rarely feel like I truly belong anywhere on this Earth. Suddenly, here we are: a group in the hundreds who love instead of hate, think with strategy and poise, and have come back from bad experiences determined to grow beautifully instead of withering on the vine. I keep looking, but the Trump supporters all seem ignore one another. Anger twists their mouths and mean lines crease their faces.
“My fiancé didn’t want me to come today,” says Dior Scott, a passionate woman who’s kept the energy up in protest center all day long. “He knows my feelings but he also knows if there’s trouble, they gonna shoot me.” I ask how Dior chooses to define herself. A student? A wife or mother, as so many in Hickory do after giving me their name? Dior defines herself solely, completely as “A black woman in America.” When she talks about her fiancé’s fear of violence, a chorus follows with “Yeah, they gonna shoot me, too.” “Uh-huh.” “And me.”
I begin to feel deep frustration and anger at the scowling, white Trump supporters. All of them. Not just the obvious jerks. I’d somehow been hoping the supporters were confused and curious, not hateful. But the reality is that black and brown people are risking their lives and safety to spread love and encouragement for a better world, yet all Trump’s supporters can do is tell us all to “go get jobs,” and instigate violence. A person such as myself, who benefits from white privilege, often needs a reality check to remember how seriously consequences can differ based on skin color. I know this, but have the luxury of often being able to forget about it. I ask Dior if I may take her photograph.
“Yes ma’am, use me baby! Take my picture, make me as your canvass!” she runs her hand up her body and flourishes like a diva. The crowd cracks up. Dior is completely charismatic. The face of revolution.
Next to Dior is Demetra, who was the first person I saw in the early morning line-up to get inside Trump’s auditorium. As we stood waiting, Demetra had come along and plucked a Trump 2016 sign from the lawn, toppling it without breaking stride. Police headed over and I worried for the black of Demetra’s skin. But they ignored her and another woman replaced the sign, frown lines emanating from her leathery face. Demetra had continued to sass down the line. She didn’t even topple another lawn sign – once was enough and she had made her point. I’m thrilled to catch back up with her.
Like Dior, Demetra is captivating. She’s completely in control, shouting with absolute rage and conviction, holding back nothing when the Trump followers egg her on. “Go back to Africa!” yells someone, and Demetra goes from laughing and hugging to a snapped back, forward-facing, straight-flying arrow.
“You! You say that to my face!” she yelled, pointing. “You COME HERE and you SAY THAT to MY FACE!” I’ve rarely seen such raw power flow so easily from anyone. No one comes up to Demetra’s face, and the slur is not repeated.
“I’m here to support my people and my sister,” she says with a big smile, when I ask why she came. “That’s my sister – “ she indicates Dior. Then a man in a red t-shirt appears quietly behind her. “Hey D, put your sign down and come on, let’s go.” Demetra and Dior follow him. They are needed elsewhere. I turn and follow. They seem like they know when and where to be.
On the way back around the auditorium, back down the narrow sidewalk, I pass a Trump supporter huffing around yelling for the cops to make a protester move because he’s blocking her view.
“I just HATE these people!” she spits.
“Ma’am,” the cop has probably never sounded so bored in his life. “Ma’am there is no need to fight. There’s nothing to see. Trump is inside, he’s not even out here.” She continues to argue the world’s most boring argument.
All of a sudden, a quick scuffle breaks out by the moveable barriers. I can’t see what’s happened, but lose sight of Dior and Demetra and see a young white guy dragged out of the crowd and pinned face down on the concrete, surrounded by cops. They slap handcuffs on him and briskly haul him away. I snap photos. Another two men are also cuffed and removed. People begin to join hands, showing they stand together.
“Did you see what happened?” I ask a young woman who says her name is Charity. She’s a full-time mom who loves Bernie Sanders. Her hero is FDR. She didn’t see the fight, but keeps repeating that she “just doesn’t want bloodshed.” The way things have gone at Trump rallies, her wording doesn’t even seem dramatic. I’ve yet to read an account of Trump making an appearance where someone didn’t get punched in the face.
There is smoke rising from the centermost point of the protest. People are bending down, but I can’t see what they’re doing. I snake in closer. “Aw, shit!” I hear an excited laugh. “They’re burning a Trump shirt!”
I can’t say why, but this seems downright hilarious. Maybe because it’s brazen and a little bit lively-juvenile, a cheeky sort of act. I am delighted. I turn to the person behind me and we begin laughing together. Everyone is straining for photos, their arms and phones reaching over the center like strange limb art. I drop to the ground and, through all the legs, snap the coveted shot.
Shaylon Springs later models the scorched shirt for photographs. He holds it proudly with his chin up. Shaylon doesn’t want Trump’s hate-filled USA any more than most folks. I keep trying to remind myself that we are at a Trump rally in the rural part of the country. Most people would never vote Trump … right? I try forgetting the “Trump Wins XxxxX state” headlines from weeks past.
Shaylon’s cousin, Mario, tells me about his sons, 11 and 14. His 11 year old is going through a phase, acting like a bit of a bully. “He’s been putting others down at school. It’s a defense mechanism because he’s scared they’re going to do it to him first. When it happens, we sit down and talk about it. But what am I supposed to say if the President of the United States stands there and acts like that, like a bully?”
It’s an excellent point. Little kids always say they want to be “the President” when they grow up. Will little kids in Trump’s U.S. be clamoring to give the Nazi salute?
Mario and I are momentarily interrupted by a zealous Trumper.
“You ain’t gonna ‘feel no Bern’ until you all go to Hell!!”
It occurs to me that hellfire and brimstone could cater to a specific mental illness, but it’s been a long day and I’m probably just tired.
“My wife is Republican,” continues Mario, smiling at my surprise. “I’m an Independent. But that don’t mean we can’t have conversations. And she doesn’t support Trump. We’re both gonna vote. Black men and women got too many reasons already not to vote. It’s disrespectful for us not to go and vote on something like this. Trump … I mean … how can he relate? He can’t relate to poor people. He’s never been one!” Well said. In my opinion, no politician can relate to the people they claim to serve, but this is Mario’s conversation and mine can be shelved for another day.
After the arrests, we all walk back around the auditorium. Dior and Demetra are chanting slogans of love standing in front of Trump lovers screaming the usual hate-filled tirades. This is when things turned ugly. This brings us to the scene of the very beginning, where a white man is angry, hollering, and a black man is tackled and bloodied.
Back and forth bickering has gone on all day, and at first no one pays the angry white guy much mind. His body leans forward as he yells until he is practically lunging at the group of young black men, who are telling him to shut up. Another white man, dressed in denim and orange, comes out of the crowd and holds the angry older man back. It seems like just another move in the system of checks and balances. All day long: someone gets too heated, friends and fellow attendees remind them to pull back. But then the “voice of reason” suddenly snaps. He whips around in front of my face.
“Who touched me? Who pushed me? Don’t FUCKING touch me! You wanna fucking touch me?” He’s not looking at anyone in particular, but still I jump. “Who wants to touch me?”
“Goddamn,” I’m thinking. “No one!”
A cop leads the ersatz voice of reason away from the crowd, but it’s not over. The angry older man still points and shouts. He screams and stabs the air with a vicious fist to make his points. The air is absolutely electrified. “Whoa … what the fuck?” is all I hear, in echo, but now I’m pinned into the crowd, experiencing the sudden panic that makes concert goers trample one another in the dark. I start backing up like a startled racehorse, going “sorry, sorry,” to everyone I’m pushing. It’s an involuntary reaction. When I force myself to stop moving is when the black man in front me gets tackled by police.
My friend from the morning line, Angel, is on a nearby hill and I fight my way to her. “They had the tear gas out!” she says, stunned. “I got knocked down; they said they were gonna spray us all. I’m ok.”
The churchgoers begin singing Siyahamba. I feel like crying.
This is “Trump’s America”: unpredictable, chaotic, punctuated by moments of love and understanding underneath waves of violence, anger and threats made good. Helping drugs addicts, mixed with tear gas. Declaring the need for walls to keep out brown folk and punishments for abortions alongside the stamping out of civil liberties and worthwhile causes all to the tune of “Marching in the light.” Side versus side, with one group making no concessions and the other group making as many as possible, leaning on each other before anyone snaps in the storm.
The last thing I witness before leaving the rally is a white Trump supporter (do we even need to specify?) talking to a black man and woman. Microphones are everywhere but it doesn’t seem to matter. They’re talking things out. Both sides trying to understand and be understood. It’s a discussion that’s passionate, but not punctuated by low blows or cheap shots. Those moments had their place, but we’re wrapping it all up now. “You know your life matters, you’re told every day that white lives are valued, you already know it,” say the man and woman, over and over. “That’s why we got to stand up and say ‘Black Lives Matter. Our lives matter.” The white women shakes her head, confused. She nods slowly, like she gets it.
“This all feels so violent!” the white woman insists. “When I go to a rally just to hear a speech and then I walk out the door and see all you people here, it just feels so violent.”
“Lady,” the black woman is laughing now, “you don’t know what violence is.”