A SURJ Chicago Take on the Trump Rally that Never Was.
By now there’s been a lot of coverage and sharing of what happened in Chicago when Trump was blocked from having a rally in our town. The SURJ Chicago group joined thousands of other protestors to turn up and say no to his brand of hate and racism in our town.
This is some of what and how it happened from our experience:
The Friday before the planned rally is when the announcement went out that Trump would be coming to Chicago. Various groups and activists immediately began calling for organizing protests and encouraging people to get tickets for the rally. A Facebook event page was set up to provide basic information about protest activities planned and to gauge interest.
On Monday, 5 days before the rally, a planning meeting was held at the University of Illinois- Chicago (UIC) campus where Trump planned to appear. It was convened and largely coordinated by student of color groups from the campus. They decided to employ a loose coordination structure to manage all of what people wanted to do. Groups/people were encouraged to settle on what particular contribution(s) they wanted to make and to centrally coordinate the timing of the various planned protests during the rally with the goal of spacing them out to maximize the number of disruptions.
We communicated with our partner POC-led groups and the lead student organizers to help determine what our best contribution and message(s) could be. We also talked with SURJ National and discussed what we thought our group was capable of doing. Our group had not collectively organized a high risk protest like this before. The two main considerations for us were: 1) how to devise a strategy within our assessed capacity that would allow a message about Trump’s hate-mongering and race-baiting to break thru and 2) how to link his appearance to local issues, particularly the upcoming Cook County State’s Attorney race and attempts to unseat Anita Alvarez (#ByeAnita). Chicago SURJ decided we could pull off organizing an inside and outside team. The outside team would come with large signs to reinforce our key messages and distribute information about SURJ to white protestors. The inside team would join with a group of UIC students to form a human circle and disrupt the rally at our appointed time.
SURJ Chicago held a meeting on the Thursday night prior to the rally to finalize our plan and participants, and to practice.
On the Friday of the rally, we began to work our plan. Some of our group met up early outside the venue and got on line to enter. Over the course of the afternoon we were joined by others. Once the first group was inside other members of our inside team would meet up outside and join the entrance line in groups. The outside team gathered and set up in the outside protest area. We kept up constant communication via a group message app.
Most of the inside team was able to get space on the arena floor between the podium and press area. We communicated with the coordinating organizers and adjusted our plans accordingly. We began to be joined by many UIC student protestors. Our group eventually grew to about 30 people. The second part of our inside team got into the venue after access to the arena floor was already closed and set up in one of the seating areas alongside protestors from other groups.
Many of us were there and in position for hours- long enough to watch a full Lord of the Rings movie (as observed by one of our team members). On the arena floor, we were surrounded by Trump supporters. At first it was not clear to most of them that we were there to protest but as we were joined by more protestors, particularly People of Color, it became obvious that we were there to oppose rather than support Trump. While there were certainly ugly comments directed our way there were no physical confrontations and nobody tried to move us out. It was only after the announcement was made that Trump had decided to cancel that the crowd grew angrier and more confrontational. Some of us formed a circle around the group and made our way toward the back of the arena chanting as we went. There were some objects thrown at us and we were confronted with very abusive and offensive language from the crowd. By the time we got to the back of the arena though we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of other protestors. And the mood became much more triumphant and celebratory for us.
In Chicago, Trump didn’t cancel because he was afraid of violence breaking out. Trump canceled because Trump supporters were outnumbered by protestors. There were no violent encounters as people waited for him to appear even as it became clear who and how many protesters there were. There were thousands of protestors outside the venue and more protestors were taking over entire sections of the arena in addition to protesters that had posted ourselves throughout the venue. It was clear that Trump would not be able to handle the planned protests in his usual way. In fact he would likely not get much, if any, time to put on his show.
Once outside the arena, we got all of our teams (inside and outside) together and along with many other engaged in peace-keeping as much as we could. We often formed human chains to keep angry Trump supporters from getting too close to protestors exiting the venue.
A few days after the rally, we convened a call to debrief our work and discuss what we had learned.
Here are some of our key lessons and take-aways. We hope you find them useful:
Settle on an anticipated plan, coordination, and formation. In Chicago we plugged in with other groups, particularly Black and other People of Color led groups, took the lead from what they wanted to accomplish, and assessed what we thought we could contribute.
But be flexible. We did not anticipate that we would get the location in the venue that we did. When that happened we checked in and adjusted the plan accordingly. Then that plan wasn’t realized because Trump cancelled his appearance. We quickly modified our plan so that we could still create an opportunity to get our message across particularly with the press. As we exited the event we also joined others in blocking Trump supporters from antagonizing protesters into more violent confrontations. We basically did this by setting up roving human chains to get between angry Trump supporters from protestors exiting the venue.
Get there early. Our ability to have some of our group line up early allowed us to grab some very strategic space on the arena floor between the podium and the press.
Practice, don’t just talk about, how to respond to antagonism. We all knew to be prepared for ugliness and antagonism at the rally but we decided to practice our reactions and tone anyway. For many of us it helped to have that “muscle memory” and reinforcement built in when we were confronted with the antagonism the following day.
White people get less scrutiny at these events. Our inside team was able to create and hold space in a very strategic location of the arena because we were an overwhelming white group at the outset. As we were joined by more People of Color our cover was blown but we’d already taken the space and were a reasonably large group.
Don’t leave anyone alone or behind. We decided that nobody should enter the venue alone. We designated places to meet outside. We had buddies join anybody going to the bathroom. Sticking together was especially critical after the rally was cancelled and angry Trump supporters began to take on protestors.
Use a secure messaging app to communicate. We used the Signal app. It was very helpful to communicate quietly and quickly. Two caveats though- 1) have your phone fully charged and bring extra battery packs and 2) have a back-up plan in case you have iffy signal coverage. Also practice using it in advance so it’s more easier to use in the moment.
Getting our message across is challenging. Our goal was to get across a message about Trump’s race-baiting. We were somewhat successful but much of the mainstream coverage about Chicago ended up being about violence, as far as that was from the actual truth. Assign people specifically to be video/photographers. We also got our message out visually (with t-shirts and signs) and directed press to People of Color protest leaders as much as possible.
- You/we are capable of more than we think and imagine. None of us anticipated the outcome we had in Chicago. And for some of the inside team it was the first time being involved in an action like this. But watched out for each other, kept our goals in mind, adapted as needed and accomplished more than we thought possible.