Green Bay — She jabbed me hard enough to make me drop my phone. A teenager, she was making it clear I was in her space. She gave me a second jab to the shoulder as her mother appeared at her side.
“You are not welcome here,” the mother said as the daughter shoved me again. “Go back to where you came from.”
I’m a Chicago journalist, and I wanted to see the lingering effects Donald Trump’s supporters would have past election day. I had heard a Green Bay rally would be like walking into the devil’s playground; hell for a black woman like me. It was a lesson my white colleague, Christen, and I would soon learn.
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This was their playground.
When I first learned Trump was holding a rally in northern Wisconsin, I was hesitant to ask Jasmine, a fellow graduate student at Northwestern University, to join me. I knew about the bigotry at the Trump rallies. On the three-hour drive from Chicago, we talked about how everything would be fine. Maybe we were naive.
When the campaign denied our request for media credentials, we joined the 3,000-plus Trump supporters at the KI Convention Center and worked our way to the front, weaving through a sea of white faces, many clad in Republican red. In a crowd that was largely elderly and weathered, pink “Wisconsin women love Trump” signs were visible everywhere, in defiance of the 2005 Trump video and the allegations of assault made by several women.
Amid deafening chants of, “We want Trump! We want Trump!,” we soon learned our very presence upset the supporters in our crowded corner of the hall.
Firing up the crowd, Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke called out twice, “It is pitchfork-and torches time in America!” The crowd answered with a powerful chant, “USA! USA!”
Supporters began to shake signs in front of our faces. One jeered, “We won’t let you get any pictures or video.” Others piled on, “How dare you stand in front of us” and “We’ve been fucking waiting here all day.”
It wasn’t a surprise that racial animosity was prevalent. I’ve known that my entire life. But the power it had in this moment — in the heat of a campaign for the presidency of the United States — shocked me.
I reminded myself of the job that had to be done. I was a journalist. No turning back.
“Go to the back of the bus!” I heard one of the Trump supporters yell not once, but twice.
Not until I heard those words, though, did I notice these people were looking at us differently. Not just at Jasmine but at me. Because I was with her.
I mentioned the comment to her later. To my surprise, Jasmine didn’t hear it. It was impressive really; her ability to drown out verbal attackers around her.
As the anger built around us, I tapped Jasmine on the shoulder and said we should move back in the crowd for safety. My heart still pounding, I told Jasmine, “I’m sorry.”
She put her arm around me and smiled.
“It’s OK. It’s expected.”
It was an act I had spent 23 years perfecting. I knew we should move back in the crowd, but in my world there was nowhere to go. That came with the territory, growing up in a predominantly white suburb.
Be polite. Cordial even. Give a friendly smile with a diplomatic response. No matter what, do not react. Christen was surprised at my ability to stay in character. To be honest, I was, too.
That was until he called her “beautiful.”
Donald Trump spotted a black child wearing pink in the crowd. We had seen her earlier, strolling into the rally with her white parents. She had silky ebony skin and big curly hair layered in highlights. He kept saying, “beautiful, beautiful” as he welcomed her on stage.
I looked in front of me to see the same two women who had shoved me, cheering with bright smiles on their faces. The teenage daughter jumped up and down as if NSYNC had just entered the room.
That little girl was nothing more than a prop for them. A bragging right.
I gasped as the candidate with the orange hair held her close to his chest before making two failed attempts of a sweet kiss on her cheek. The man next to me saw tears spill down my face. He began to clap even louder before asking mockingly if I wanted to hold up a Trump sign.
If only I were white, I thought, life would be easier.
In college, I wrote an article about a lynching near my small Indiana hometown that no one ever talks about anymore. Being in the Green Bay crowd made that image feel real, as if a piece of history I had studied came alive, right before my eyes.
I looked around to see a crowd that looked like me and yet contradicted everything I am. I wondered how it would be different had Jasmine not been standing next to me. It was a strange dichotomy when Trump brought that little girl on stage, highlighting the presence of only a few people of color in the room.
I don’t know if it was shame or embarrassment that I felt, knowing people were watching Jasmine more closely. It became obvious when an older man took photos of her notebook and offered her a Trump sign as a joke that they didn’t want her there.
I saw, really for the first time, this was her reality.
She had been there before.
When I was 11, my mama and I went to pick up milkshakes at a local Wendy’s. While driving away, a white woman began screaming at our car. She thought we were about to hit her.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” she said. My mother just stayed silent, gave a head nod, and allowed the woman to safely cross the street. The woman kept screaming at us as we drove out of the parking lot.
On our way home, I asked my mother why she didn’t say anything. Why didn’t she cuss the woman out or put her in her place?
“Because there was nothing more to do.”
Mama always knew not to fight hate with hate.
“He’s fighting for you,” Sandra Duckett, the Green Bay leader of Women for Trump told me in an interview after the rally, making me shake with anger. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her how violent people at the rally had been. He’s not fighting for me, until he will fight for Jasmine.
The next day, I cried.
Trump has given voice to racism, using the media to broadcast a message of hate and exclusion. Post-election, Trump’s supporters will still feel emboldened by his ugly language and the racial solidarity that they felt at rallies like the one in Green Bay.
I wondered if an equally provocative candidate, with a slightly better strategy, will be able to resurrect the bigotry seen in 2016.
It is my job to be a watchdog for that kind of behavior. It is my job to stop it before it begins.
Leaving the rally, we interviewed Kyle Cropsey, a 23-year-old, who had been energized by the speech. Trump buttons covered the outer layer of his rose red T-shirt. To him, this was the America he always hoped for.
“Look at that crowd,” Cropsey said. “It’s as American as it’s going to get.”
But he was wrong. The playground he refused to surrender, a hell harnessed over time, was no longer his to dominate. While Trump has revealed the racism still rooted in America, its ideas and beliefs are being rejected by an ever-larger part of the country.
He is losing. And the gap between Clinton and Trump widens as Nov. 8 approaches.
As our country becomes browner and more diverse, there is hope of what we can be.
An America rid of racism. An America for me.