It was February 24, 2016, when I first learned that then Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, was coming to speak at my college, Radford University, that next Monday.
Though I was discouraged by the news, as a member of the Black Student Alliance, I was encouraged to act and was not alone. Due to the sudden update, we scrapped our original BSA meeting agenda that week and focused on responding to Trump and the racial undertones of his campaign.
The club meeting felt like a time echo of the meetings young civil rights activists held during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. Like them, we discussed and prepared for the potential dangers of entering such a hostile environment. Those young civil rights activists had prepared for sit-ins of segregated lunch counters by training themselves not to react to acts of intimidation such as being spit upon, hair pulling, or being physically attacked. We prepared for the same. There were few at the meeting who questioned if non-violence was practical if provoked or attacked, but I helped to emphasize, along with club leaders, the importance of non-violence and setting the right example.
Our final set plan was to infiltrate the rally and sit quietly until Trump had said something derogatory about of group of people. On February 29th, I woke up early and met my peers in BSA, along with members from the Latino and Muslim Student Alliance, in line outside the university auditorium. We waited for hours in line until we were seated in the bleachers around noon.
The environment was striking to me. The packed auditorium reflected the America of the past, not the future. There was no sense of diversity at the rally; we stuck out like a sore thumb. Sure, there were a few black and brown people scattered throughout the auditorium, but spotting them out was like playing a game of “Where’s Waldo.” We even had a campaign coordinator ask if we wanted to sit behind Trump, noting our diversity. We declined.
Trump’s outrageous proposals to build a wall along the Mexico-United States border and impose a travel ban on Muslims made it clear that scapegoating marginalized groups of people was the cornerstone of his campaign. The auditorium reflected the fear and anger that resulted from his coded-scapegoating. From a supporter down in the crowd repeatedly targeting and antagonizing us with his Blue Lives Matter poster to the repeated chants of, “build the wall,” the atmosphere wreaked of racial resentment.
Trump’s campaign heavily depended on resentment and it is how he sustained a campaign extensive on rhetoric, but short on details. It is why he did not condemn former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke the previous day. It was all a part of the Nixonian method called the Southern Strategy: the strategic use of racially coded language and dog-whistles designed to gin up fear, anger, and racial resentment among white working-class voters.
Throughout Trump’s speech, there were a many individual outbursts. After that string of vocal outbursts, a student on the opposite side of our bleachers stood up in protest interrupting a joke Trump was setting up about Mexico. While escorted on her way out by police, he pettily asked the woman, “Are you from Mexico?” In response to that racially charged remark, we stood up, black, white, Latino, and Muslim, and joined hands in unity and solidarity. We knew that even one-liners like that were intentional appeals to the xenophobic sentiments among his supporters and audience.
While we were escorted out by police, still hand and hand, I looked at the American flag above the auditorium and knew there was nothing more patriotic or American than the spirit of protest and activism. It is the story America. From the Boston Tea Party colonists who dumped hundreds of chests of British Tea in response to tea taxation, to the workers of the Labor Movement who campaigned on behalf of workers’ rights and labor reform. From the abolitionists who advocated for the abolishment of slavery and equal rights of freedmen, to the suffragists who marched for equal representation and the right to vote for women. From the civil rights protests of the 50’s and 60’s which broke new barriers for blacks and people of color to the feminist protests of the 60’s and 70’s which broke new barriers for girls and women. I feel and believe that the social movements of today are not an exception, but a continuation of this social changing spirit.
We proudly marched out of the rally chanting, “No more hate, no more hate, let’s be equal, let’s be great,” and “Estamos Unidos, we are united!” As the only notable presence of color and diversity at the rally, I felt our exit left a strong and powerful message. Despite not chanting, “black lives matter” until we were outside the building, the entire crowd chanted “all lives matter.” Trump himself hypocritically repeated the infamous rebuttal of the movement. We paid no mind, but I found it ironic considering that Trump has disparaged so many different groups of people, including the disabled.
Despite individuals in our protest facing racial slurs, racist gestures such as the neo-Nazi salute, intimidations of physical violence, and were spat on, every single one of us remained true to our vision of peace, non-violence, and civil disobedience. The only violence that occurred at the rally was when a Times photographer was slammed to the ground in a choke hold by a Secret Service agent for stepping out of the press pen.
Making my way outside, I joined the chorus of my brothers and sisters and the hundreds of protesters outside, all black, brown, and white, chanting “black lives matter” in unison. It was one of the most enlightening experiences of my entire life. We made our way to the Center of Diversity and Inclusion back on campus and watched the breaking news of the protest. Because we remained peaceful and non-violent, media outlets and pundits were discussing the issues we were trying to raise, like the racist undertones of his campaign and his lack of disavowal of David Duke.
Protests and pressure continued to mount on Trump and he officially disavowed David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan a few days later. However, he continued to push the buttons of these hate groups with his nativist and nationalistic rhetoric and he ramped up his infamous “good ol’ days” bombast.
February 29, 2016 is a day I will never forget. We protested the personification of modern American bigotry, Donald Trump.
Despite the racist undertones of his campaign, he soon became the Republican nominee and to my shock, was elected President of the United States. A man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan has succeeded the first black president.
It is a sorrowful time for our country, but I am actually optimistic for the future. Not the near future, but the future in general. His election is a short-term win for hate, but a long-term win for love. In the face of hatred on every front, we are witnessing the largest protests and demonstrations in American history.
That is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy to American democracy. In his last speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned the greatness of America: “The greatness of America,” he said, “lies in the right to protest for right.”
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