In the wake of the electoral victories of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in Illinois’ primary elections this Tuesday, onlookers nationwide are surely wondering what role the enormous March 11 anti-Trump protest played in shaping this course of events. To answer that question, however, it is first necessary to examine the misinformation that has swirled around the story of that day and to set the historical record straight.
As professors at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where the Trump rally was held, we were personally involved in the events of March 11 at the Make America Great Again! rally. We initially came together around shared safety concerns to urge the university to reconsider its decision to rent space to the Trump campaign for the rally. Now, we have come together again once more to dispel five major misconceptions that the mainstream media and Donald Trump have perpetuated, which are based on inaccurate information about how events unfolded. Here are the five main misconceptions that have continued to circulate:
Misconception #1: Who Canceled the Event
Trump has claimed that he made the decision to cancel upon the recommendation of the police. Let it be known that the police did not recommend the event be canceled.
In contrast to what Trump has suggested, the rally was shut down by Trump himself, not because of violence.
The Chicago Police Department and the University of Illinois at Chicago police have both stated that they never suggested the rally was too dangerous and should be canceled. In fact, the Chicago Police Department has stated that it never spoke with Donald Trump, that it had the staff power to control the event and that it was safe for Trump to conduct his rally. This is a police force that is accustomed to covering far larger marches, protests and rallies, and through coordination with the University of Illinois at Chicago police, a private security company that regularly works in the campus pavilion, the Secret Service and the Illinois State Police, the people involved in security were prepared for the rally. Officers from various agencies lined virtually every street, stairway, nook and corner of the pavilion space and its surroundings. Trump abruptly canceled the event without direct advisement from event-specific security and police. Trump’s campaign, acting alone, decided to shut down his speech.
Misconception #2: Conditions at the Rally and Protest
Trump has been claiming that he had over 25,000 supporters inside and outside the pavilion and 2,500 protesters. Those are lies. Inside the pavilion were over 9,000 people (close to its full capacity). At least one-third of them were protesters from the university and the community. The 8,500 people outside were also protesters. One of the key strategies pursued by protesters was to get tickets and occupy the space in the pavilion. Trump’s strategy is to denigrate individual or small groups of protesters and have his security or local police eject them. The university had established a protocol for handling protesters that required the presence of an individual observer and involved police video when protesters were being removed. The University of Illinois at Chicago police had exclusive authority to handle those removals. For the Trump campaign staff, this was arguably uncharted and unwelcome territory: an event where he could not perform and control his usual denigration spectacle. Perhaps it was the sheer people power and the very presence and authority of law enforcement with independent orders that prompted him to cancel.
Misconception #3: Why the Rally Was Canceled
In contrast to what Trump has suggested, the rally was shut down by Trump himself, not because of violence.
There was no physical violence reported before the Trump campaign announced the decision to “postpone” the event. News media and cellphone videos show minor confrontations between Trump advocates and Trump opponents inside the pavilion, but nothing on the order of the “violent clashes” cited in the press. Earlier, protesters outside the arena had shouted anti-Trump chants as Trump supporters lined up. Some Trump supporters directed confrontational speech at protesters. Once most people were in the pavilion, protesters outside continued to rally and chant peacefully. Families with strollers, children, faculty, students and Chicagoans from all walks of life mingled while a roster of students spoke on the microphone and guided chants on the edge of campus facing the pavilion. Inside the pavilion, protesters started anti-Trump chants every few minutes, and several were escorted out without undue force, as video corroborates.
“Freedom of speech” does not guarantee a space free from protest, criticism or disagreement.
Incidents justifiably termed “violent” did occur outside of the rally after the “postponement” announcement. Tension inside the pavilion escalated as bitterly disappointed Trump supporters reacted to the elation of Trump protesters. The announcement by the Trump campaign to shut down the event led thousands in the pavilion to jump for joy, cheer and wave banners. At this point, some scuffles and face-offs occurred, and University of Illinois at Chicago police intervened quickly despite the fact that the Trump campaign gave law enforcement no prior warning of the cancellation. They and the Chicago Police Department evacuated the pavilion in an orderly manner. As Trump supporters left, some made obscene gestures, threw bottles and shouted at chanting protesters.
Most arrests that did occur were the consequence of a civil disobedience staged one block north of the pavilion, at an intersection where those leaving the rally by car had to turn to get onto the 290 West Expressway. Over 30 people from Assata’s Daughters, Black Lives Matter Chicago, Organized Communities Against Deportations, and the Chicago League of Abolitionist Whites locked arms to prevent cars from turning west toward the expressway. Creating “soft blockades” as acts of civil disobedience, the people doing this peaceably disruptive action planned to get arrested. However, some Trump supporters tried to run into them with their cars as they U-turned to seek an alternative exit. Others walked toward them and pushed them to the ground, when they could have passed by them via the sidewalk. Other protesters not related to these groups confronted the Trump supporters, some scuffles ensued and the Chicago Police Department intervened. The people making up the physical blockades have alleged that there was excessive use of force by the Chicago police, leading to hospitalization. These are claims that must be investigated as we account for all the outcomes of this event.
There were few arrests and injuries (only in the single digits) given the estimate that 13,000 people attended the event or protested that evening. As one Chicagoan blogged, “The rally I attended yesterday was overwhelmingly peaceful.”
Misconception #4: The Meaning of “Freedom of Speech”
Minutes after his cancellation, Trump started claiming that his freedom of speech had been curtailed. This is false. Trump’s freedom of speech was not violated.
The First Amendment protects citizens from government curtailment of their free expression; it does not protect one citizen from the dissenting speech of another citizen or group of citizens.
Trump’s complaint is particularly egregious given all the effort that the university administration, several law enforcement agencies, student organizers and university staff expended during a week of preparation to ensure that Trump’s freedom of speech would be upheld and protected. Despite the very serious safety and security concerns expressed by faculty, staff and students, the various agencies involved in this event accommodated and facilitated Trump’s rally.
To refer to the protesters, including our students among them, as “thugs” (as Trump did on Twitter) is a slur with inexcusable racial and class undertones.
The pavilion (acting in its capacity as a self-supporting facility at the University of Illinois at Chicago) issued a contract to the organization at least a week before the rally. Several layers of city, state and federal security agencies (cited above) then committed vast resources to planning and policing the event, taking into account the legal and peaceful protests that were planned. The university made an explicit statement that there was no legal justification for canceling the event, and none of the state police or security agencies involved called for its cancellation. All protesters who came were within their First Amendment rights to criticize the candidate and his positions, and those who disrupted the peace within the walls of the private event were escorted out, as is within the bounds of a private event in a rented facility. Enormous efforts were made on the part of the police and security to assure that protesters were not assaulted or battered (which is not legal), as has occurred at past Trump campaign events.
“Freedom of speech” does not guarantee a space free from protest, criticism or disagreement. Nor would it have protected against the cancellation of an event due to concerns about safety or appropriateness of the time, manner or place of the speech. Nonetheless, the event was not canceled by the venue, the university or law enforcement. Trump and his staff made the decision to cancel it without explicit instruction from a state agency or the university.
Misconception #5: Who Orchestrated the Protest
The protest was homegrown.
Often when a political group or leader faces mass opposition, those who oppose the protest will claim that it was orchestrated by outsiders. This case is no different. Faced with the shock of many thousands of protesters, Trump and right-wing conspiracy theorists immediately claimed that MoveOn, philanthropist and activist George Soros, and even the Bernie Sanders campaign were the main instigators of the protest. Trump has referred to a “planned attack.”
Acts of violence and brutality did occur, and it was people of color, as we predicted, who bore the brunt of the violence.
The photographic evidence and witness accounts refute Trump’s account. Yes, MoveOn paid for some signs, but take a good look at the protesters and you will see those with the MoveOn insignia outnumbered by the vast number of homemade signs, banners and unique art on display. Those familiar with MoveOn know that one of its main activities is to organize petition drives, not street protests. As for Bernie Sanders supporters, there were several present holding their Bernie signs, but they were exercising the very freedom of speech that all groups, including Trump supporters, had at the pavilion that day. Sanders himself has stated that his campaign played no role in the event, and Trump and his allies provided no evidence to support their claims.
While all organizations and individuals were welcome, this protest was led and coordinated by a broad coalition of student activists from many different campus organizations. These students in turn, have strong connections with many Chicago grassroots organizations led by Brown, Black, Asian and LGBT youth, and are often active both on- and off-campus. Chicago is a city with a longstanding and dense social movement infrastructure that includes civic, immigrant, grassroots, labor and youth organizations, which also participated. It is an epicenter of labor activism, immigrant rights activism and the movement for Black lives. In fact, many of those attending the rally arrived there immediately after other protests occurring that day around police brutality and a state government budget crisis that is threatening public higher education.
As one University of Illinois at Chicago colleague responded when asked how Chicago shut it down: “We are not perfect but we know how to organize.” For people who know our university and the skills and capabilities of our students and the Chicago activist community, to claim that this protest was instigated by outsiders is frankly insulting. To refer to the protesters, including our students among them, as “thugs” (as Trump did on Twitter) is a slur with inexcusable racial and class undertones. For the record, no one paid or instigated us, three independent faculty members, to write a letter signed by 349 faculty and staff members who shared our concern about how this event would be handled and how our diverse student community might be affected by the rally.
We wrote our initial letter because we foresaw that security forces might not be prepared to protect individuals who had gathered to exercise their right to free assembly and free speech on the grounds that the Trump campaign has consistently called for and instigated violence against those who are not “with him” or “for him.” He has gone as far as to call for mass arrests and prosecution of protesters. We viewed his overt encouragement of violence against those who publicly disagree with him as a credible cause for either cancellation or additional security and supervision over interactions between Trump security and the public, flare-ups between opposing parties, or between the public and law enforcement. The brutality was not as widespread as we feared, in part because of the largely peaceful and civil nature of the protests and the extra preparation and restraint on the part of all law enforcement and security agencies. But acts of violence and brutality did occur, and it was people of color, as we predicted, who bore the brunt of the violence. We hope the leadership of our campus learned a great deal from our students about the nature of peaceful, effective protest. They continue to impress and astound us. Their rights and their accomplishments should be celebrated and emulated rather than denigrated by the press and the public.