A year ago this week, on March 11, the most promising event of the 2016 elections took place: Donald Trump was successfully no-platformed by protesters in Chicago. An article by Keith O’Brien in Politico Magazine paints a fantastic picture of a successful model of protest.
Hanging over everything was a recent string of assaults against protesters at Trump rallies.
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.”
The following insights into the makings of the protest stands in stark contrast with the center-left takes over the following days that the protests were rooted in violence or standing in opposition to free speech.
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.”
The seldom-remembered fact of it all was that the main event planned never actually happened.
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.”
That would have been something. What happened was a little more violent, and the instigating event was actually Trump’s own cowardice.
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.
Daniel O’Sullivan, for Rolling Stone, also offered his personal account, but editorializing his personal takes more bluntly. He begins by painting a portrait of the feelings creating tension at both ends of the confrontation.
I’ve been outside the UIC Pavilion for about 10 minutes when I first hear someone shout it from a passing car. It’s about 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon. The heckler, in a silver sedan, has come to a rolling stop to yell at the line of rally attendees — now long enough to snake along the length of the arena and a parking garage. The doors to Trump’s rally won’t open for another hour, and already at the south entrance, the maximum-capacity line has been shut off to any stragglers.
Ever since Trump announced he’d be coming to the University of Illinois at Chicago, it hadn’t made sense to me — Chicago writ large isn’t natural Trump territory, much less UIC, with its young, diverse student body. This wouldn’t be one of his barn-burning romps through the Deep South; this would be a pitched drive onto enemy territory, for Trump as well as his supporters — almost uniformly suburban or out-of-staters. Worse, the Trump camp seemed to have a ready-built opposition in formation: the coalition of largely black and Latino activists who had lately rocked Rahm Emanuel’s mayoralty, amidst the compelling evidence his administration had covered up the police murder of unarmed teenager Laquan McDonald.
O’Sullivan successfully captures what it meant when it was announced that Trump would not be speaking.
I look at the Trump supporters around me. They’ve gone totally silent.
To see many people in the same place stunned into silence — shock being slowly absorbed, pain being processed — is, it turns out, an unsettling experience.
It’s like looking at one of those photos from a baseball game, capturing the exact moment a rogue, flying bat lands in the crowd — each face frozen in a different, unnatural expression of panic.
The first sign any of the Trump supporters have processed what’s happening comes when an older couple wordlessly stand up and rush up the stairs past me. The backcourt on the general admission level is filling with protesters, endless protesters, Bernie signs now ringing the auditorium.
A man in camo pants stands with his mouth frozen in a snarl.
Make no mistake what it felt like to the people in that room: unconditional humiliation of the Trump faithful — some of whom had been waiting there since the previous day — at the hands of the black and Latino and Muslim men and women who were mocked and scorned and sucker-punched and kicked out of other rallies, and arrested at other protests, and called garbage and rapists and terrorists and scum, in Chicago and around the country.
I had expected violence, I had expected arrests — both of which were now happening in the arena — but it had not occurred to me that Trump could be backed down. But he has been, and everyone in that room knows it. Trump had been bested, his shtick as a tough guy corroded, his assets stripped.
The name “Trump,” emblazoned in garish gold two stories high on his glass tower on the Chicago River, has come to symbolize some orange-glazed Mussolini who just turned tail and ran back to his jet — all because enough people showed up to give him hell and force-feed him consequences.
These events would fuel our factory of take-making for the next week or so. Trump got the crap scared out of him the next day and the whole thing was clearly in his head. Those most vulnerable to Trump’s policy proposals and all-around atmosphere of hate felt more empowered than ever.
His general election opponent offered this statement.