12 March 2016

My Reflections On The Trump Rally Protest

Something big happened in Chicago yesterday. Donald Trump came to the city, with the objective of holding a campaign rally in a public space on my school's campus. Within hours of the announcement of this event, an online petition began circling throughout my community - asking that our administrators rethink the decision to rent our space to a presidential candidate who openly spews a message of hate, who has stated that undocumented people living in the United States should return to where they came from, who talks about building walls between us and our neighbors, who doesn't totally deny his endorsements or ties to the KKK.

One of my protest signs

As an ethnically diverse urban university, with a history of collective organizing, and a strong community of activists and organizers, we banded together to demand that Trump not be allowed on our campus. Many of us registered for tickets to the rally, some of us were able to get inside. In addition to the nearly 40,000 signatures our petition received, an open letter from our faculty and staff asked that the administration consider cancelling the event, for fear of bringing violence and hatred to our campus, putting our students, our employees, and our neighbors at risk. Our demands were heard, and though the Trump rally wasn't initially cancelled, the University worked with local law enforcement to let us know that this would remain a peaceful event.

My RSVP to the Donald Trump rally

I arrived around 4:45 pm with my posters in hand, and began marching with the students as they left the Quad - a space that has seen its fair share of organizing and protest over the last 50 years. We chanted "Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Donald Trump Has Got to Go!" holding our signs in the air. I noticed that we stopped using the paths, as protesters began to walk on the grass, through our landscaped foliage, which irked me in a way. The initial marching felt confused, unorganized, and like we didn't actually know where we were going. We were shepherded into a barricaded section of Harrison Street, with police on horse, police on bikes, police on foot - all working to separate us from those waiting in line to get into the rally. I remarked over and over again that I didn't know how to get out, that there weren't any exits that I could find, which made me understandably nervous. There were lulls where we stood quiet, confused, not yelling, not speaking, not knowing where to go or what to do. Then someone would yell, "Dump Trump! Dump Trump!" and another chant would begin. There seemed to be a lack of organization within the crowd, a lack of leadership. There were multiple organizers who had brought speakers and megaphones, but no one told us where we were going, where we were going to plant ourselves, and there was no unified chant that rang through all of the protesters. The thing had grown to be so big, that it was chaotic and aimless.

Protestors moving in a somewhat chaotic fashion from the Quad to the UIC Pavilion

But this isn't what bothered me. What left a bad taste in my mouth about the entire protest wasn't the lack of leadership or the lack of purpose - what bothered me was that we were fighting hate with more hate. One of the chants that kept happening in my section was a call-and-response of "When I say TRUMP, you say BIGOT - TRUMP - BIGOT - TRUMP - BIGOT!" People seemed to really respond to this, laughing, yelling, participating. I felt uncomfortable calling him a bigot. I felt uncomfortable yelling hatefully at his supporters. I'm new to organizing, this was only my second protest - but it felt off. We felt directionless and aimless, without a unified call to action. When we don't have the words, when we are coming from a place of animosity and dislike, aren't we putting ourselves on par with the same hate that Trump is spinning and spewing?

Helicopters circled overhead, people watched
from the trees, a Mexican flag billowed in the wind

At one point, my friend and colleague Lena asked for the microphone. She began to sing "This Land Is Your Land" and we all joined her. For the second verse, the lyrics shifted - she had changed them to reflect the diverse community of UIC, a community that welcomes dialogue, debate, and discussion. A space that allows for difference and encourages us to disagree in a safe and academic way. And for the few minutes that Lena led the song, I felt like we were all in it together. That this land is all of our land, for better or for worse. That when we set our differences aside, when we raise our voices in song, when we stop basing our dialogue and work around hate, we can actually make something happen.

This image went slightly viral last night. "Overcomb girl"
was a trending topic on Twitter, and Alyssa's
photograph of me wound up in the Boston Globe.

Shortly after the sun set, we headed home. My friend Alyssa said something to the effect of, "Nothing good happens in the dark," and I agreed. These things, though well-intentioned, have a way of turning ugly. Inside of the rally, spurts of violence were breaking out between protestors and Trump supporters. I know very few details, but I am glad we weren't inside. As we walked to the train, I stopped to take a goofy photo on Alyssa's partner's motorcycle - laughing and hamming it up. When we got to the train, whole crowds of protesters and Trump supporters pushed their way on board. A young man wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat stopped to hold the door for us - and in that moment, I felt like we were on the same side. A group of Americans, trying to get on the train, on our journey home - together.

The news of the rally being cancelled came to us over our phones, we made it home safely. But the work isn't done yet. It's only just begun. On Tuesday, we take to the polls. In November, we return. Between now and then, we can continue to protest, to petition, to volunteer for political organizations, to volunteer to make our communities better at a local level. The work is never done. America will always be great, she just needs some TLC in order to sparkle and burn at her brightest.

Updated (3/17/16): A few articles have been published in the last week that shed more light around the protests on Friday. This one talks about some of the misconceptions around the media portrayals of the protest. Another wonderful article features words spoken by my fellow activists Alyssa and Simon.