In the end, of course, it didn’t happen. In hindsight, it couldn’t have happened; it was a disaster waiting to happen. And still, when it was announced that the thing that wasn’t happening was actually not happening, nobody inside the UIC Pavilion Friday was prepared for the thunderclap that would reverberate outward.
I was there on the arena floor. You could feel the bass notes travel through bones. “Loud” doesn't do it justice. It was as if a visiting team had scored a full-court buzzer-beater to beat the UIC Flames: Three-quarters of the home crowd bellowed moans of stunned disappointment. The remaining quarter went bananas, jumping over barricades and not believing they had just witnessed an upset victory.
If what happened—or didn’t happen—at Donald Trump’s Chicago rally could be assigned a winner and loser, the anti-Trump camp that came to disrupt the proceedings might have claimed victory when, 34 minutes past Trump’s scheduled 6 p.m. speech, a spokesman stepped to the lectern and called off the rally, citing safety concerns.
What happened next would dominate the weekend news cycle: Fingers jabbed into faces. Chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” countered by “U-S-A! U-S-A!” countered by “We stopped Trump!” A photograph of an elderly Trump supporter raising her right arm in what appeared to be Nazi salute. A picture of a bloodied cop.
These images of hell broken loose, the Trump campaign asserts, were why it called off the rally. As news choppers broadcast live shots overhead, Trump himself called into cable networks and blamed thuggish protesters for ruining a peaceful assembly. And here, the Trump camp tried and snatch victory back from defeat’s jaws by as much as saying: “You see? Thugs!”
But here's the thing: for most of the day leading up to the 6:34 p.m. thunderclap, the rally was boring as hell.
Whether engaging anti- or pro-Trump attendees, simple pleasantries—even when introducing myself as a member of the evil media—yielded cordial conversations. In a small sample size, most folks in line were respectful and nice in our two-minute chats.
I sought out young rally-goers, the ones who still might be malleable in their positions.
At the front of the line were 15-year-olds Jacob and Braden. They had hitched a ride with Wesley, 17, and droven three hours from East Peoria. (Because they are minors, Chicago is not publishing their last names.) When asked about skipping school, Wesley said their parents approved. “We’re not gonna be missing much. It’s only Common Core.”
One of them pulled out an iPhone to show a photo of a complex trigonometric equation he had snapped in his math class. “I’m never going to use this. I’m not gonna remember it, either,” said Braden, who was wearing an “Obama, You’re Fired” shirt a la The Apprentice. “I should be learning how to write a check or how to fix a car.”
They seemed like the kind of kids to play videogames Friday, hang out at the movies Saturday, and watch the Bears on Sunday—which is to say, nice, normal teenagers. Except they’re more politically involved than most high schoolers their age. Jacob said he sensed apathy amongst his peers, and thought many at his school were Bernie Sanders supporters. On what basis and issues, I asked?
“Most kids our age want legal marijuana, $15-an-hour minimum wage,” Jacob said.
A half-dozen Chicago police officers walked by. The three kids from East Peoria joined everyone around us in applause. “Support the blue!” someone yelled out.
Farther down the line, after it had snaked down Racine Avenue and turned onto Congress Parkway, I met three other students. They stood in white T-shirts, rubbing hands and shivering in the afternoon chill. Scrawled on the front of their shirts was “Say No To Hate.” On the back: “Muslims United Against Trump.” They were enjoying their newfound celebrity. Every few minutes a passerby would request a photograph.
Many questions came to mind, but mostly: Are they just asking for trouble?
“We’re trying to set a good example,” said Mohammad Qarut, a 19-year-old studying auto body repair at Kennedy-King College. His fellow white shirt, 20-year-old Jordan Vestal, added: “We’ve never seen such hate. We just want to represent Islam as peace.”
The third member of the trio was Ibro Krizevac, a 19-year-old UIC student studying business administration. (He goes by @ibrotherapper on Twitter). Krizevac said they had received some cold stares, and one rally-goer had said in passing, “Did you bring your suicide vest?” But he said he didn’t respond in anger, because doing so would mean letting the other side win.
Krizevac acknowledged chances were high they would be asked to leave before they could make it inside, and if it happened, their plan was to stand firm, lock hands, and look straight ahead in defiance.
“Ice in my veins,” he said.
And this was exactly what happened. Fifty yards before the entrance, an official-looking muckety-muck in a navy jacket and blue tie asked the three to leave the line. They had tickets to the event, the trio argued. The official would hear none of it. But the three promised to find a way back in, and we exchanged phone numbers in the event they re-entered.
In these one-on-one conversations, both groups of young men made cogent, non-emotional, perhaps overly simplistic arguments for their causes. And yet, I don't suspect the East Peoria high schoolers and Muslim white shirts will ever willingly cross paths. Their confirmation bias means they’ll accumulate views validating their beliefs and reject anything opposed.
In this tribal mindset, it’s easy to paint the other side as comic book villains.
The detente held as rally-goers filed into UIC Pavilion. Inside, people did what people do at a college basketball arena. They stopped by the chicken finger stand and spent $6.50 for awful non-alcoholic piña colada. Once seated, they stared into their phones, looking up infrequently. “Tiny Dancer” played three times in a row for some reason.
Around 4:30 p.m. the thought entered that the rally might not happen.
In Section 114, I noticed many hijabs and headscarves in the crowd. Sections 110 and 111 featured a large contingent of young black students. A “Donald Drumpf” shirt had somehow snuck its way inside. All wore their poker faces, but it doesn’t take Nate Silver to deduce that their allegiances probably weren’t on the side of the Donald. The conversations I overheard had moved beyond whether there’d be interruptions during the speech. Whispered now was how to space out the disruption so it happened in waves. As one group got kicked out, another chant would pop up elsewhere, like a game of progressive Whac-A-Mole.
Given the demographic diversity and politics of the University of Illinois at Chicago, a reasonable question is why the Trump campaign chose this venue. Did it Google “Chicago + economy + conservative,” click on Milton Friedman’s bio, and get U. of C. confused with UIC? What made it more confounding was the ease to obtain tickets for this rally. The screening process was one question: “Are you a Republican?” Either answer got you in. It's almost like it didn’t even want the home-team advantage. (By Monday, Trump would fire his Illinois campaign director.)
The chance I gave of the rally not happening shot up the moment I received a text from Ibro the Rapper.
“We’re coming thru security right now.”
The three white T-shirts—now concealed under street clothes—had returned. For half an hour they hung out on the arena floor, minding their own business, until 5 p.m., when a group of burly suit jackets came over and ordered them to leave. Only then did the three whip off their out layers to reveal their messages of “Muslims United Against Trump.”
A cacophony of boos rained over Section 116 and grew in intensity. There were sarcastic good-bye waves, applause for the security guards, and cries of “Get out of here!” and “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”
A scrum of photographers and TV cameramen appeared, which only poured gasoline on the fire. It was a pro-wrestling show come to life. But as soon as the three students were ushered up the stairs and away, Section 116 went back to their chicken fingers and virgin coladas and Facebook updates. “Tiny Dancer” segued into “Rocket Man.”
If the anti-Trump protesters wanted to hold off revealing themselves until the Donald was speaking, it was clear that some just couldn’t resist jumping the gun. A few more disturbances popped up as the scheduled 6 p.m. speech approached. Each time, murmurs would grow into boos, and reporters would race to that corner of the arena. Yet it never felt dangerous, because fires quickly subsided and the expectation was still that Trump would make an appearance, interlopers be damned.
There were shouting matches. Like-minded individuals sat together, separated from their foes by a 10-foot DMZ zone. Security guarded the middle. That was enough physical distance to create the discourse you don’t see in everyday interactions. It became a tennis match of barbs and vulgarities: “Communists!” “Fuck Trump!” “Get a job!” “Shame on you!” “Culero!” (Spanish slang for asshole, I would learn). A group of black students chided a black Trump supporter for being a traitor.
Still, there were no violent outbreaks inside the arena. It was an ugly situation of people yelling horrible things at one another, but comparisons to the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots are far-fetched.
Any images of mayhem were almost entirely post-6:34 p.m. thunderclap. Trump supporters were livid that liberal ne’er-do-wells had somehow “won,” and it didn’t help that protesters, both inside and outside the arena, were gleefully shoving the victory in their faces. That’s when level-seven volume dialed up to nine, F-bombs hailed down with shock-and-awe fury, and Vine videos of “Fuck Immigrants!” and “Go back to Mexico!” and Nazi salutes made their predictable viral spread. But the truth is that it never escalated beyond macho pushing and shoving. Maybe 90 percent of the crowd left the event without incident.
As non-events go, this one sure was eventful. Traffic away from the UIC Pavilion was a nightmare, so I walked home and reflected in the cold Chicago night. The notion that some political savior will swoop in and unite our country, objectively speaking, is a chimera stuffed in a pipe dream wrapped in a bullshit sandwich. It will never happen in our lifetime. America is all-in with the us-versus-them way of life. One side will win and cram it down the losers' throats. Then we’ll go back to our respective corners, seething and shooting icy stares, until the bell rings again and, oh, God, off we go again.