Exercising Right to Protest Is a Dangerous Undertaking at Trump Rallies

Saturday, March 12, 2016
(photo: Getty Images)

By Ashley Parker, New York Times


When Kashiya Nwanguma learned that Donald Trump would campaign in Louisville, Kentucky, where she is a student, she walked into a FedEx store and printed two colorful signs she had found online, depicting his head on a pig’s body.


Then she steeled herself for what has become the most provocative and potentially dangerous recurring act committed by ordinary voters in the 2016 presidential cycle: protesting Trump inside one of his own rallies.


The moment that Nwanguma, 21, who is black, held up her signs, Trump supporters ripped them away and began shoving her, screaming racial slurs and calling her “leftist scum,” she said in an interview.


“Did I enjoy being treated like trash? No, not at all,” she said.


She came away unharmed. The same could not be said for Rakeem Jones, 26, a protester who was punched in the face by a Trump supporter Wednesday as law enforcement officers were leading him out of a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina.


“He deserved it,” the assailant, John McGraw, told the television program “Inside Edition” after the confrontation, which was captured on video from several angles. “Next time, we might have to kill him.”


McGraw was charged with assault and battery and disorderly conduct, and authorities said they were also preparing to charge him with communicating a threat.


As Trump has unleashed the pent-up fury of economically displaced Americans, a much smaller but equally fervent movement has materialized in response — of people who are determined to shame Trump publicly, even if it means withstanding hostility, slurs, shouting or violence.


In recent weeks, the demonstrations have intensified, interrupting Trump time and again, breaking his train of thought and challenging his ability to command the room.


“Can the protesters stop for a couple of seconds so we can talk?” he said after several interruptions in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday.


Such protests are hardly unique to the Trump campaign. But rarely have they been as frequent or as hostile, and few candidates have been as angry in response.


The rancor is so blatant that Trump was asked about it during the debate Thursday night in Miami. He said he had not seen the violent episode in Fayetteville, and when asked if he was encouraging his supporters’ fury, he said, “I hope not.”


But he added that some of the protesters were “bad dudes” who were seeking confrontation. The “animosity is like I’ve never seen before,” he told Chris Cuomo of CNN after the debate, “and I hope we can straighten it out.”


The tensions between supporters and protesters lately seem to be mirrored by clashes between journalists and Trump’s entourage.


A Secret Service agent was seen on camera grabbing a photographer by the throat and throwing him to the ground last month during a protest. And Tuesday night, in Jupiter, Florida, the Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, roughly yanked the arm of a Breitbart reporter as she tried to ask Trump about affirmative action, she and another reporter said. (A campaign spokeswoman disputed their account.)


Despite pre-event disclaimers urging peaceable conduct, Trump’s tone often seems to encourage aggression. The candidate has berated security guards for not ejecting protesters quickly enough.


Last year, he suggested that a man wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt who was beaten and kicked may have deserved it. In February, as a protester was being removed from an event in Las Vegas, Trump said, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” And in Fayetteville on Wednesday, as people kept interrupting him, Trump lamented the “good old days” when, he said, protesters would have been treated more harshly.


Indeed, the disruptions have become as much a fixture of Trump rallies as the chants to “build the wall” and promises to “make America great again” — so routine that aides prepare for them, the candidate anticipates them and his crowds are instructed in how to handle them.


“If a protester starts demonstrating in the area around you, please, do not touch or harm the protester,” begins a scripted message that precedes all Trump rallies. To quickly alert local law enforcement, the message continues, “please hold a rally sign over your head, and start chanting, ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’”


A cat-and-mouse game precedes each Trump appearance. As audiences filter in through security checks, campaign aides scrutinize those in line, trying to spot groups of protesters by their matching shirts or other signs. People seen as likely disrupters are often ushered out before Trump ever takes the stage. People ejected from a rally in Concord, North Carolina, on Monday included a man in a shirt that read “Fascist Trump,” and a group of men and women in black and white shirts who had linked arms.


The response when a protest breaks out can seem almost biological. Trump supporters typically begin shouting, pointing, jeering — and sometimes pushing, kicking or spitting — at the protester, surrounding the offender in a tight circle.


In Louisville on March 1, Nwanguma was shocked by the reaction from Trump supporters, she said in an interview later. A video of the episode shows her clutching her cellphone and pinballing among outstretched, shoving hands. She said she was thinking, “Oh my God, this can’t be happening,” adding: “I didn’t have any way to assign any names to my feelings.”


Trump tries to turn the interruptions to his advantage, showcasing his large crowds and commanding presence, alternately shouting “Get ’em out of here” and “Be nice.”


In Concord, he referred to demonstrators as “my friends,” and showed flashes of compassion. “Are you OK, honey? Don’t fall,” he said, when a protester seemed to stumble.


But six minutes into the event, when another man was led away, raising both middle fingers to the crowd in a show of defiance, Trump yelled, “Out, out, out!”


“He puts up the wrong finger and we’re supposed to take it nowadays, folks,” Trump said. “Pretty sad. Nasty, nasty people.”


Still, something is enticing more and more protesters to brave the hostile response.


Maria Alcivar, 27, a student at Iowa State whose family is from Ecuador, helped organize four protests at Trump events in Iowa. At the first, outside a football tailgate party, she said her group’s signs were ripped and people shouted.


Now, she said, she and other protesters take safety precautions, meeting in advance to discuss the layout of each venue and agreeing that everyone will leave as a group if one is asked to go.


Alcivar said she always felt nervous before protesting, fearful of being physically assaulted. But once she begins, she said, Trump no longer has control over her, or her message.


“Yes, I’m scared and nervous in the moment,” she said. “But once I start chanting, I feel superpowerful.”


To Learn More:

Twitter Still Trump’s Favorite Tool for Fear Mongering and Character Assassination (by Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman, New York Times)

Conservatives Decide Trump Qualifies as a Fascist (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Trump Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Emboldens Hate Mongers (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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