“Fuck Donald Trump!”
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.
On Friday, it doesn’t seem like that force has materialized. A Trump supporter named Matt is dual-wielding signs, mocking the paltry number of protesters: “At Least You Tried, Protesters!” and “Liberals Claimed 3,000 Strong — I See 30.” The count isn’t that low — there are about 50 of them across the street and kitty-corner to the main entrance — but I’m still surprised by the thin ranks.
“I can’t afford to go to a top-tier university, and I’ve been working since I was 15 years old,” Matt tells me. “I’ve been busting my ass my entire life.”
“What do you make of Bernie Sanders’ proposal, of free tuition for college?” I ask.
“That oversaturates the value of a degree.” Matt sputters a bit. “It would give away too many degrees, and make it harder to find a job.”
“What do you want to hear from Trump today?”
“I want to hear him speak from the heart. He really gets the people.”
This is a sentiment I hear over and over again — from the kindly old lady who confides to me that Trump “says what I want to say”; from Jeff, the friendly Iraq War veteran who teases me about looking tired, and who considers Trump “pure American”; from Sami, the Egyptian immigrant with a soft purring voice, and neatly clipped hair, beaming that Trump “owes nobody anything.” I like all of these people. For such a rah-rah, flagsucking crowd, they sure seem to know the game’s rigged against them, in a way the Mark Halperins of the world never will.
So it’s all the more baffling — and enervating — when in the same friendly tone, Jeff talks about “collateral damage” and loosening the rules of engagement in combat zones, and Sami says we need to start bombing ISIS territory and “kill them all,” and young, cheery Leah beams, wide-eyed and manic, that she would proudly pour the foundation of Trump’s magnificent border wall.
As I walked south down Racine, I hear another “Fuck Donald Trump,” this time from a moving van, punctuated with a deep, blaring horn, the black movers laughing and punching the air as they drive on.
A cordon of Chicago cops begins walking up the street, drawing impromptu applause and cheers from the crowd. Another car honks, its occupants yelling something indecipherable at two other placard holders, a father (“Hillary Should Be Indicted”) and son (“What PART of Illegal Do You Not Understand?”) duo.
“What’d they say to you?”
Alan, the dad, has a bristle mustache and a black “Trump for President” baseball hat. “He said we were racist,” says his wife, a very blonde woman who appears from behind the sign, like a magician’s assistant.
My eyes dart to the son’s knit Confederate flag cap.
As Alan explains to me how senators are using the VA as a slush fund, a shop teacher-type in line starts yelling in my direction that the press “distort.” Mrs. Alan is alarmed by this possibility, finally cupping a hand around her husband’s ear and madly whispering for him to clam up, lest the VA payola dynamite fall into the wrong hands.
I understand their suspicions, as they pepper me with questions about my political affiliations. These are people used to being laughed at, and Trump had made it a point, over and over again on the stump, to incite his faithful against the media — a low-cost tactic in a country where nobody really likes the media anyway. On the other hand, Alan seems pretty damn dumb. Later, in the maelstrom, as he winds his way around the arena floor, still holding his sign in a bid of defiance, a long-haired protester yells out, “Your hat’s made in China!” from the stands.
It’s a good day for hecklers among the flank of protesters on Harrison Street.
“Enjoy your hate party!”
“Be careful — nobody get arrested! Don’t sucker-punch anybody!”
A Trump supporter in a T-shirt depicting a cartoon donkey with a big, red, “Ghostbusters”-style “No” embossed over it rears back and hoots, “Booooooo!” back across the street.
It’s almost time for me to go in; I hope the arena won’t reach capacity before I can get inside. I ask a young, stolid protester with a red mohawk and a boxer’s nose what he thinks of the Trump supporters.
“They’ll get what’s coming to them.”
Besides the lack of beer, and the Secret Service detail, the rally seems like a college basketball game. Not a UIC Flames game, though — more caucasian, like the big game in Hoosiers.
I’ve finally entered the Pavilion as the anti-Trump protesters, now armed with a megaphone, bring the thunder, booming over the intersection:
“People say it’s unfair to compare Trump to Hitler — unfair to whom?”
“America was never great!”
Trump’s supporters seem more focused on their chicken tenders.
I walk into the arena; there’s a balcony level, dotted with a few Trump buzzards, looking down on mezzanine seating. The general-admission level is about a quarter full, everyone crowded close to the dais. Occupying what would be midcourt is a media pen, ringed with metal barriers, dozens of journalists typing on laptops. On a raised platform at eye-level with Trump’s podium, all of the cameramen and on-air talent mill about.
I begin talking to a smiling man who reminds me of Harpo Marx — he’s circling the floor, holding aloft a piece of paper reading, “Viva Mexico, Viva America, Viva Trump.”
“Trump is pro-Mexican. Immigration, we have to do it legally. Family is very important…. I got relatives that are undocumented,” he tells me.
I’m surprised. “As someone with undocumented relatives, how do you feel about Trump wanting to deport them?”
“They will have to, but then they’ll come back. I’m trying to work to get them jobs down South. Hockey.”
“Is hockey the next big thing in Mexico?”
“Yeah!” He steps forward, grinning. “Did you know 90 percent of all official hockey sticks used in the U.S. are made in Mexico?”
I didn’t — but suddenly a peal of boos goes up from stage right. The herd moves to fill whatever space there is around the action, the hue and cry rippling outward into the further reaches of the arena.
The protesters have made little effort to camouflage themselves; several rows at the northwest corner of the mezzanine are occupied by a group of about 15 young Muslims I had seen outside, the girls in neat hijabs. In the coming hours, more and more young people congregate there, most of them black and Latino — plus one especially downcast young American Indian, holding a mournful sign reading simply “1492.”
I look over the crowd to see three brothers I had met outside — Muhammed, Ibrahim and Jordan — being frogmarched up the steps. It’s surreal to see them outside, in their “Muslims United Against Trump” shirts, pass the guy in the “Stomp My Flag and I’ll Stomp Your Ass” shirt making out with his girlfriend.
“We can’t have a president with these views. It’s not just Muslims, it’s not even color,” Muhammed had told me earlier.
“Are you guys planning on protesting inside?”
“A silent protest. Islam is peace. Peaceful is how we’re gonna protest.”
Peaceful is not how they’re ejected; as best I can tell, they had merely taken off their jackets, but out they go, the crowd hissing at them like you might a particularly despised wrestling stable.
Chants of “USA! USA!” break out as the bad men fade from view.
To my surprise, the floor level of the arena is not filling any further, at least with Trump supporters. But the ranks of protesters has swelled.
Earlier, young pro-lifer Leah had confided that she had a hot tip for me. She leaned in. “I’ve been looking around for protesters, and telling the people I know. People are going to be arrested,” she said with a satisfied grin.
It’s starting to look like it might happen. Younger Trump supporters begin drifting away from the dais to the empty backcourt, facing a backend now entirely comprised of protesters. The shouting is getting heated, face to face, and finally it becomes physical — some shoving and half-cocked fists. Cops periodically wade into this shallow end of the pool, occasionally marching a black protester out the back, or away from the crowd, as he pleads his case.
A middle-aged man in open-toed sandals, a tank top and the worst wig I’ve ever seen, wedged under his red “Make America Great Again” hat like a Halloween hayride dummy, patrols the perimeter, shouting with the other Trump supporters.
“Your leaders are reds!”
“The hate’s coming from you!”
“If you’re undocumented, why don’t you go back?”
“Get out of my country!”
I creep next to the security team, in conference with a Trump advance man with slicked-back hair, and eavesdrop on their discussion.
“Can you call the strike team?” asks the Trump man, using a creepy term that’s apparently meant to describe Trump’s volunteers.
One of the security men sighs. “We’re doing the best we can to isolate the guys, but this whole section….” His voice trails off.
I’m thirsty, but water costs $4.50. The sole water fountain I can find dribbles a weak rivulet of water all over the mouthguard. I feel sick to my stomach, depressed, nauseous, and Trump hasn’t even appeared.
Then something happens. A man is on the dais, finally — the first I’d seen all day. But it is not Trump.
“Mr. Trump just arrived in Chicago, and after meeting with law enforcement, has determined, that for the safety of all the tens of thousands of people that have gathered in and around the arena, tonight’s rally will be postponed…”
An anguished, shocked cry fills the room and drowns out whatever else the speaker says. A black teenager jumps the railing and runs in a figure-eight, pumping his arms and dancing.
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.
The Trump supporters begin to recover. A deranged man begins bashing his fists downward, yelling, “Socialism!” The police begin flooding the aisles. Chants of “Bernie!” now fill the arena louder than chants of “Trump!”
The Trump supporters bitch in the hallway on the way out.
“Dude, I was in the front row.”
“This is what they get from 50 years of Democratic leadership.”
“These people don’t have jobs.”
After about a half hour of protesters blocking the Trump supporters’ cars from exiting the parking garage, they finally begin leaving. The roads flanked on either side by police horses, they run a final gauntlet: thousands of protesters taunting and jeering them on all sides.
“Have a nice night!”
Walking back to the train, I see a solitary city worker picking up traffic cones. Everything is now quiet. A street sweeper is the only car on the street, idling, waiting to scrub out the only thing Donald Trump brought to Chicago Friday evening: horse shit.