Inside the Protest that Stopped the Trump Rally

The day the protesters won

Politico

March 13, 2016

By Keith O’Brien

CHICAGO—By sundown on Friday night, the crowd assembled inside the arena was chanting and ready to cheer on their candidate: Donald Trump. Six thousand strong and still trickling in through the metal detectors at the front gate, they had traveled from across the Midwest, taking vacation days from work, booking bus tickets from afar, and waiting, at times, more than 12 hours outside on the streets of Chicago for a night with the GOP frontrunner.

But not everyone was there to cheer. Just 50 feet in front of the podium where Trump was scheduled to appear at any moment, Nathaniel Lewis, a 25-year-old African-American graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, had established a beachhead of sorts: a pocket of about three dozen college students and activists. They were ready, too.

What Lewis and dozens of his UIC classmates had planned was perhaps bigger—and better organized—than any protest Trump had faced to date. It had been a week in the making, and now everyone was in place: with roughly 2,500 on the street outside and hundreds more inside, including dozens working directly with Lewis. As they waited, the crowd growing loud around them, a few were starting to feel doubts about what they were hoping to do.

“I don’t want to get punched in the face,” one woman, an undergrad, told Lewis over the din inside the UIC Pavilion. Lewis nodded.

“I’m not going to let that happen to you,” he assured her.

A few minutes later, the woman was back. “Can we leave?” she asked Lewis.

In the moment, standing next to them, I could understand what she was worried about. I was just there to watch, but I could feel it myself. The protesters, mostly black and Latino and young, were standing shoulder to shoulder with the people that their protest would upset most. The crowd was white—all of them—sporting “Hillary for Prison” and “Bomb the Hell out of ISIS” pins, wearing camouflage ball caps, hunter orange, and N.R.A. gear, and shouting for their candidate, who was late, but coming, surely coming.

“U-S-A!” they chanted.

And: “Build that Wall!”

And: “We want Trump!”

“If you want to leave, y’all can do that,” Lewis told the woman at his side, leaning in close so she could hear him. While he felt comfortable promising that she wouldn’t get punched, he could not assure her that they wouldn’t get arrested. “We will be escorted out of here,” he told her.

The plan was straightforward. Once Trump began speaking, Lewis would begin sending messages to the groups around the hall—and, so prompted, they would each stand up, chanting, and disrupt the speech. It would then build to a crescendo: right there, in front of Trump’s podium. Lewis and the other protesters in front were going to link up—“arm in arm,” he instructed the students around him—and make their presence known in a silent, but conspicuous, circle. “It will speak louder,” Lewis said, “than anybody who interrupts Trump’s speeches.”

They never got that chance. Just after 6:30 p.m. on Friday, a Trump official appeared on stage and abruptly told the crowd that the event was off. Trump would not be appearing. The crowd was shocked; the protesters spontaneously erupted in cheers. The official cited “safety” concerns, though both Chicago law enforcement and university police said they had reported none. In the coming hours, Trump would appear on television, calling the cancellation a “wise decision,” given the threat of what might have happened. “I don’t want to see anybody getting hurt,” he would tell CNN. On Twitter, he would blame “an organized group of people, many of them thugs” for what happened in Chicago, and assert that Bernie Sanders’ campaign had orchestrated the protesters. Protesters themselves – and even Trump’s GOP rivals – would denounce Trump for fomenting the violence that has flared at his rallies with increasing frequency over recent days, leading up to Friday night’s dramatic cancellation – the single most electric moment for the growing anti-Trump protest movement.

“Please go in peace,” the official told the crowd from the stage Friday night.

And that was the exact moment when the violence began, pitting Trump supporters against protesters, whites against blacks. An event—teetering on the edge until that moment, but still calm—devolved quickly into an angry scrum, and Lewis and his fellow students found themselves in the middle of it. They were standing near the podium where the candidate would not be appearing—with an increasingly angry crowd around them that knew exactly who had prevented Donald Trump from showing up.

“Stay together!” Lewis urged his fellow protesters.

The Trump supporters surged toward them, shouting and swearing. The confrontation the student protesters had hoped to avoid was coming, and there was nothing any of them could do to stop it.

***

THE UNLIKELY journey to the floor at the Trump rally had begun four nights earlier in a lecture hall on campus at UIC. The first meeting drew about 100 students, many of them campus leaders frustrated that their college had decided to host the Trump rally at all. They launched a “Stop Trump” Facebook page, and, over the weekend, the page had drawn about a thousand likes. That’s how I found out about the group. I wanted to tell the story of the growing national unrest about the Trump campaign through the eyes of the protesters, so I reached out to the student leaders at UIC and requested behind-the-scenes access to their protest. They agreed, inviting me to Chicago.

At that first meeting on Monday, which I did not attend, finding consensus on an actual protest plan sputtered in the lecture hall. “People had too many agendas,” UIC student Brian Geiger said later. “We didn’t get much accomplished.” There were supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and even one guy in a Ted Cruz shirt, but the students were intent on keeping the protest nonpartisan.

Students couldn’t agree how—or where—to protest. Angry over recent news of activists being physically assaulted at Trump events, some felt they shouldn’t be passive if attacked on Friday night. But others like Geiger—an African-American senior majoring in political science and an honors student at UIC—countered that non-violence was the only approach they could take. Anything else, he said, would reflect badly on them, the university and the cause. “What I’m fearful of,” he said, “is folks who are coming to this campus and want to start violence. That’s what scares me.”

But the students’ biggest concern, by far, was their own safety. Mateo Uribe Rios, a UIC senior and undocumented immigrant who came to the United States from Colombia as a child about 15 years ago, felt anxious just thinking about being on campus with a large Trump rally in the works. “I’m scared down to my bones,” Rios said. “We are the direct targets here. We—the students of color and undocumented students—are the targets of Trump’s narrative. If there’s violence, it will be focused on us.”

Looking out at the lecture hall on Monday night—at students black and Latino, Muslim and gay—Joe Iosbaker had to agree. Unlike most of the students there, he was a seasoned activist, 57 and bespectacled, with flecks of gray in his beard. As a leader in the SEIU’s Local 73, representing some 3,500 UIC employees, Iosbaker had protested for other causes many times before, and even been arrested, he said. Despite the obstacles, apparent in the lecture hall, he believed the students could find a way.

“You can organize a march so that you’re safe,” he said. “You can. You can organize it so nobody gets hurt. But it’s going to take a conscious effort.”

***

JUAN ROJAS is cautious by nature. Maybe it’s the scientist in him. At 19, a sophomore at UIC, he is working toward becoming a doctor. He volunteers in Chicago public schools teaching health education. His major is neuroscience, and he bashfully acknowledges a grade point average hovering just above 3.9. “He’s an intelligent, driven person,” said friend and fellow UIC sophomore Casandra Robledo, a pre-nursing major, with brown hair and braces on her teeth. “None of us are the stereotypical protester.”

Perhaps with the exception of Miguel Del Toral, a 26-year-old graduate student and member of the Chicago Socialist Party. He is round in the middle, with bushy black hair and a beard to match. Rojas, by comparison, is a short and slim, a sliver of a man in tight jeans, cuffed at the ankle. And while Del Toral seems to shout his thoughts, Rojas is measured, his gaze steady behind rectangular glasses. The pair didn’t even know each other a few days earlier. And yet, by Thursday night, there they were— along with Lewis and Robledo—standing at the front of a lecture hall near the UIC quad, presiding over the second meeting of the students.

“We just want to make sure we’re all on the same page,” Rojas said, to begin.

I was sitting in the fourth row, among about three dozen students, most of them Latino and African-American – a representative slice of UIC’s diverse student body. Since Monday, using Google docs and a messaging app called WhatsApp, the group had looped in roughly 60 people and begun to formulate a detailed plan. For starters, a large group of them, led by Rojas, would march from the quad to the corner of Harrison Avenue and Racine Street, just outside the arena where Trump would speak. Del Toral would oversee the portable megaphone system they were borrowing for the event and would make sure no one hijacked the microphone for their own political purposes. “I’ll get them off,” he said.

Lewis and Robledo would help oversee the group of students interested in going inside. The goal: get in line long before the doors opened at 3 p.m. so they could claim center stage, between Trump’s podium and the media’s television cameras. “We will take the floor,” Lewis said. “I’m not even concerned about that.” Rojas was thinking about an exit strategy. He wanted to make sure the students inside the arena got out – either escorted by security, or on their own before the end of the event when tensions might be most strained.

“For safety concerns,” Rojas told the group. “We don’t want to be in direct conflict with anyone. We don’t want it to be Us vs. Them. It’s about unity and respect and tolerance.”

Still, everyone in the room knew they were taking risks, which the students categorized by color to make the stakes plain. “Peacemakers,” folks on the edge of the march, were green, with little risk of problems. Marchers and those going inside were yellow and could be detained. “That doesn’t mean you’ll be charged,” Rojas clarified. “But you are acknowledging that you have that risk and you’re okay with that.” Red was the final category.

“What does red do?” an African-American female student asked.

“You’re at the front of the march,” Rojas told her. Or inside the event itself, prepared to disrupt it with peaceful chanting. “You’re at risk of being arrested,” Geiger said, putting it another way.

The woman, new to the group that night, grabbed a pen and began to sign up.

“I want to be red,” she declared.

***

AS THE RALLY approached, even some Trump supporters were worried about what the campaign seemed to be stirring up. It didn’t dampen their excitement, though. The first of them began getting in line outside the arena at 3 a.m.—in the dark, in the middle of the night, 16 hours before their candidate was scheduled to appear. “I’m excited, man,” Jeff Stinnett told me. “I want to see him.” He wanted to see Trump so badly, in fact, that Stinnett, 36, had taken a Greyhound bus all the way from Louisville, Ky., just to be here. And he wasn’t the only one traveling from afar. By dawn, people from exurban Naperville and the state capital, Springfield, three hours south, had joined Stinnett in line. They packed peanut butter sandwiches, boarded commuter trains in the dark, and, at least in one case, came all the way from Iowa. “This is my ninth one,” said Travis Klinefelter, who drove his Camry all the way from Dubuque to attend. “So it’s no big deal.”

Klinefelter, a 39-year-old nurse, was part of the Trump revolution. He had never caucused in Iowa until this year. And he wasn’t worried about all the attention Trump was getting for his stance on the KKK’s endorsement or his rhetoric at recent events. “I think he’ll tone it down,” Klinefelter said. “It’s advertising. He’s a businessman. He’s got to get the word out.”

But standing outside the arena on Friday morning, he did concede that this event felt different, more urgent maybe, more tense—a tension that made him question whether he should stay home. “I’ll admit it,” Klinefelter told me. “I was a little afraid: Should I go?” He—and everyone else in line—had heard reports about a protest in the making in Chicago, and a big one this time. Still, he decided he had to come. “I just wanted to see it,” he said. “I’m not going to let people intimidate me.” And others in line felt the same way. “Keep your heads on a swivel,” John Righeimer told his teenaged son and two other boys in his care for the day, “and stay close to me.” He wasn’t missing this. “This is the first time in my life,” Righeimer said, “I actually believe in somebody I’m voting for.”

By mid-afternoon, the line stretched around the block. And by 3 p.m., people began filing through security into the arena, the supporters taking their seats and the protesters doing the same, one next to the other in many cases, while sending updates to those back on campus via text message and apps.

“We’re inside…”

“I’m sitting in the stands…”

“By the press. Sec 104…”

“On the floor in the middle…”

The problem now was the march. Rojas, dressed in a red UIC sweatshirt, was late. He couldn’t find his sound system, or, briefly, his peacemakers.

“Were you at the meeting last night?” he asked a group of students gathering in a quad increasingly packed with students.

“No,” they replied.

“Sorry,” he said.

Around 4 p.m., two hours before Trump was scheduled to take the stage, the group finally began to materialize. And then Rojas got more bad news.

“Is the plan still to walk?” a school administrator asked him.

Yes, Rojas replied, in a crowded room near the quad.

“Because if you’re going to do it, you’re going to get stuck.”

A thousand protesters or more, organized by other liberal activists and unaffiliated with the UIC students, had already claimed the corner of Harrison and Racine, chanting and waving signs: “Make America Sane Again.” “The whole corner,” the administrator said, “is packed with people.” And it was worth considering scaling back the march—or something. “It’s your call,” the administrator told Rojas.

But there was no turning back now. Iosbaker, the union leader and elder among them, reminded everyone once again that they were marching in peace.

“We’re not the police,” he said. “We’re not even the people police.”

Then Rojas gave the word.

“It’s time to head out,” he said.

***

AS THE MARCHERS made their way west on Harrison Avenue, pushing their way into the crowd and ultimately into the intersection outside the arena, Lewis, Robledo and about three dozen others stood at center stage inside the arena.

“We’ve got our circle,” Lewis said. And about eight groups of protesters scattered elsewhere in the arena. They were ready.

But the peaceful part of the plan was already getting hard to sustain. Across the arena, a few protesters unaffiliated with the UIC group, had been escorted out, prompting chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump.” Everyone—the protesters and Trump supporters both—had been on their feet for hours, deprived of food and water. Trump supporters were suspicious of the UIC students at center stage, angry that they were occupying prime real estate, and frustrated, at one point, that several latecomers wedged their way in.

“He touched me!” a Trump supporter, five feet from me, shouted at one point, trying to draw attention to the soon-to-be-protesters.

“Be chill,” Lewis said to his group.

“We don’t take shit,” the Trump supporter warned.

“Neither do we,” a student replied.

“Respect,” Lewis admonished the student. “Respect.”

“Don’t be provoked by this—please,” another, older protester urged the students, whispering. “We’ll be thrown out in five minutes.”

Everyone knew the group’s cover was blown. And yet, the crowd at the rally remained peaceful, the two sides uneasy, but quietly co-existing.

“If we stay cool,” Lewis said, “they can’t do anything.”

And then Trump’s campaign made the announcement: The rally was canceled. Trump supporters—some of whom had driven 300 miles to be here—shrieked. Protesters roared in celebration, dropping their charade and whipping out whatever signs they had managed to smuggle inside the arena. And within a minute, Trump supporters at center stage wheeled around to confront the people they believed to be responsible for Trump’s decision to cancel: the young, multi-racial protesters.

“You’re a fucking loser!” one Trump partisan said again and again, shouting, mere inches from a woman’s face.

“A fucking terrorist!” shouted another Trump supporter, turning on a student who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent.

Even in the din I could hear one Trump partisan chant:

“Runaway slaves! Runaway slaves!”

No one joined him, but no one stopped him either.

“Back up!” Lewis kept shouting to the angry would-be Trump voters—his hands up, palms out, defensive. “Back up!”

Still, they kept coming, surging forward. I got struck in the head with a thrown object, something hard, metal perhaps. Protesters, unaffiliated with the UIC movement, lashed out, pushing back, fighting in skirmishes with willing Trump participants, baiting the violence. And the UIC students, angry to the point of tears, had to be held back from making similar mistakes, until finally the protesters, facing the crowd, linked arms as they had planned, coming together in a circle.

“Stay together!” Lewis urged them, shouting. On their own campus, in their own city, surrounded by police and U.S. Secret Service, none of them felt safe. But there was nowhere to go. For nearly a half an hour, they, and everyone else, was effectively trapped in the arena, two sides of an angry political discourse hemmed in together by concrete walls.

***

CHICAGO POLICE reported no arrests—and no public safety threat, either. And in a statement late Friday, the UIC Police Chief Kevin Booker cited Trump’s “abrupt announcement of the cancellation of the event” for causing the bulk of the problems. Even still, Booker noted, authorities were able to clear the arena “with no injuries or arrests.”

Outside, skirmishes continued for a while: more shouting, more pushing, more posturing from both sides. But soon, the Trump supporters, who had waited all day and into the night, drifted away, ceding the streets to the protesters, the UIC students and others, who began to sense the gravity of what had happened.

They had begun four days earlier with nothing. They had hoped that morning just to get inside the arena, maybe just a few of them, and maybe make a dent in the side of Trump’s candidacy. And they had started the afternoon with a list of printed, approved chants that Rojas had folded up in his pocket—chants they had come up with the night before. But in the dark, beneath the streetlights after the rally that wasn’t, they went off script, chanting something else.

“We stopped Trump! We stopped Trump!”

“You did it,” an older, white protester told Lewis.

But Lewis shook him off. “We did it,” he said, correcting him. “There’s no you, there’s no I. We did it.”

Tired, and having accounted for the safety all of his people inside the arena, Lewis headed home, leaving Rojas and others to man the megaphone still sitting in the intersection, surrounded by a wall of people.

“Let’s march,” Rojas said finally, standing next to Robledo.

And so they did, all of them together, back to campus.

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