To begin with, staging a Donald Trump rally at a school like the University of Illinois at Chicago feels like a perfect recipe for stirring up trouble. On the surface, UIC is a many-hued picture of the America that Trump tells his fans to fear. The student body is made up mostly of women, is less than 38 percent white, and is known for its multiculturalism. On Friday night in the university’s quad, a sizable pre-rally protest reflected that same diversity. Those present made it clear that the New York businessman, former reality show host, and current white nationalist darling was a persona non grata on a campus that borders Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, home to the largest Mexican population in the city. It’s not exactly the place you’d think to pick for a political rally if your platform is, essentially, Big Government Just For White People. “Our first response was confusion,” said UIC student Casandra Robledo. “Why would Donald Trump come here, of all places? UIC is this beacon of diversity.”
But what if you, as Cedric the Entertainer might say, wish a motherfucker would protest your rallies? What if you, like Trump, went full George Wallace and made violence an expected and essential feature of your regular appearances on the stump? What if you, a presidential candidate, made violence at first peripheral, then central to your argument to voters? If you wanted to orchestrate what happened Friday night, UIC might be the perfect venue to book. You’d get a massive protest against you, a canceled event that scapegoats local cops, and a "melee" you could go on cable news that night and ascribe purely to protesters. And you wouldn’t even have to show up!
But as I walked up and down the serpentine line of Trump supporters that stretched on for about a half-mile on Friday, I was struck by one thing above all: There weren’t nearly as many white faces as I thought there would be. Given Trump’s usual audience, something seemed off. It turns out that a lot of those folks got in, and helped make the most significant in-person statement against Trump’s demagoguery that we’ve seen to date.
Robledo, a Chicago native and daughter of Mexican immigrants, was one of several organizers of the massive protest effort that led to Trump calling off his speech at UIC’s 9,500-seat pavilion. A MoveOn.org petition effort and other demands to call off the speech prior to Friday hadn’t worked, and it seemed like the students and the university were powerless to “Stop Trump.”
Whether the protest group’s name referred to his speech or his campaign, there appeared to be no stopping Trump anytime soon. The GOP presidential front-runner was — and still is — storming toward the Republican nomination for president, and remains favored to win the Illinois primary and several others on Tuesday. And, hell, should a supporter get pissed enough to haul off and hit a protester during a rally, he or she has had permission from Trump to do so for a while now.
Audience participation has taken on a new meaning at Trump rallies, where seeing the brutality instigated by his supporters is part of the price of admission. Just look at what’s happened in the last couple of weeks alone: Steady protests at a March 3 Trump event in New Orleans were met with some of the most intense Trump-related violence yet seen on the trail; the day prior, John McGraw, a white septuagenarian Trump supporter, sucker-punched Rakeem Jones, a 26-year-old black man who was in the process of being peacefully removed from a Fayetteville, North Carolina rally. (Police officers reacted to the punch by forcefully detaining Jones. Trump is exploring paying the legal fees for McGraw, who later threatened Jones’s life in an interview with Inside Edition, saying, “Next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”)
These interruptions marked by violence have become so frequent, in fact, that Trump seems to currently be coasting on their momentum, mailing in the red-meat rhetoric in between audience outbursts. He’s come to almost depend upon the staccato of protest to enliven his crowd, at least until it’s time to give a haunting salute as they pledge their votes to him.
Robledo told me that security inside and outside the UIC anti-Trump protest was a primary concern for organizers: both the well-being of people like her family — thanks to Trump’s bigoted, bullying immigration policies — and her own when she entered the pavilion on Friday night. “I’m afraid for my safety walking around campus” because of all the Trump supporters there for the rally, she said. “I know a lot of my friends feel the same way.” This is not what Robledo, a sophomore nursing student, expected from a presidential race. “This racism, in a presidential race, has been a little shocking,” she said. “The president of the United States shouldn’t be someone who supports this kind of racism and bigotry. That’s what we think.”
She’s right. They’re right. But, again, the physical danger is now part of the show. Many folks standing in the long line for rally attendees on Friday night — whether supporters, protesters, or observers — knew exactly what to expect; it was what brought them there. A common theme among them was distrust in how the media has been depicting the violence at the rallies, or a desire to simply see it for themselves.
And not all of those suspicious of the media were white. “I don’t really plan on doing anything that’s going to draw attention to me, aside from just the way I look, I guess,” said Eric Smith, a young, black Chicago resident with dreadlocks and a slight beard. “A lot of times they’ll tell you that media will spin things, so if I’m here, it can’t be spun. I just wanted to see if I could see something firsthand.”
Likewise, Trump supporter Jacob Sabaitis, 23, said he wanted to see the violence for himself. “Back in the '60s, the police would dress up like they were for civil rights and start rioting and breaking things,” he said, implying that there were plants in the Trump crowds creating static. “Somebody could buy one of these shirts for $10, punch somebody, and throw a bad name onto all the Trump supporters. Everybody I’ve seen in line today has been giving thumbs down [to protesters], and we get the finger back.”
Josue Paisillas stood in line with a small group of young Bernie Sanders supporters, arriving ready not just to see that violence inside the arena, but also to take part. “We’re going to show him what Chicago’s all about,” he said, his friends enthusiastically backing him up. “We came loaded! We got four people strong right here.”
Thanks to the rally’s cancellation, the sense of anticipation was pretty much all they got. When I ran into the same group hours later, not so much as a single Sanders sign had been harmed. Robledo said after the cancellation announcement that she and fellow organizers were “so thrilled with how smoothly [the protest] went.”
Videos of scuffles inside the arena that happened after the announcement of the event’s cancellation were seen on cable news and have been circulating on social media ever since. One Chicago officer was seen bleeding from the head. There were a few scattered scraps and loud arguments outside, but nothing approaching the descriptions we saw on Twitter of a "near-riot," and certainly nothing like what we saw in New Orleans the previous week. The Trump event attendees filed out in a quiet fashion, hearing a few jeers from the crowd.
But overall, the mood outside was one of exultation, not conflict. DNAinfo Chicago reported that during a post-event confrontation with local police, Black Youth Project 100 organizer Timothy Bradford was bloodied by an officer’s baton and later hospitalized. Bradford was one of only four people who saw criminal charges filed against them, an incredibly small number considering the number of people and the level of tension.
Despite the protesters’ victory in Chicago, the expectation of violence in Trump’s orbit won’t go away. Protests earlier on Friday outside his St. Louis rally were intense. On Saturday, a 22-year-old Wright State student rushed the stage during a Trump speech in Ohio. And that night outside a Trump rally in Kansas City, police pepper-sprayed demonstrators, exacerbating unrest. Trump’s Kansas City speech on Saturday included a call to arrest all protesters at his rallies, with the explicit hope that an “arrest mark” will “ruin the rest of their lives.” But he was interrupted so often that he even walked away from the podium in disgust for a time.
That’s the difference Chicago made. It got under Trump’s skin. And it’s replicable. Even if Trump felt that canceling the event might bolster his cause, I’m willing to bet that UIC’s Stop Trump effort will be duplicated on other campuses and in other communities, pivoting the dominant narrative, however temporarily, away from Trump’s charlatan antics and electoral victories to the stories of those oppressed by his campaign. Perhaps that’s why Trump’s Republican opponents have awakened out of their moral slumber, finally criticizing him for fostering violence against people who are actually exercising their First Amendment rights.
Trump’s fans may feel that he was censored (which, to be clear, is a mischaracterization of First Amendment rights). He functions more as a spigot for their white and working-class resentment than as a provocateur of it, and that requires a certain baseline level of anger. But in casting himself as a victim in Chicago, Trump has only left his jaw unexposed to an opposition that seeks to show that he is so dangerous as to be unwelcome to open up that faucet of hatred without resistance. In a purely political sense, it’s nice to see Trump, for once, be the one hit by a punch he didn’t see coming.