By Jenna Johnson, Danielle Paquette and Lourdes Medrano,
PHOENIX — Just before 4 p.m. on Tuesday, at an intersection near the convention center where President Trump was scheduled to hold a campaign rally, two vendors hawked products with competing messages.
On one side of the street, two men sold “Make America Great Again” caps for $20 and T-shirts featuring Trump’s beloved red-splattered electoral map, along with this message: “Better coverage than Verizon. Can you hear us now?”
On the other side of the street, volunteers collected donations for stickers, buttons and signs with messages such as: “Make racists afraid again,” “White silence is compliance,” “Goodnight alt-right,” “No border wall,” “Punch your local Nazi” and “Resist!”
The event would not start for another three hours, but thousands of rallygoers and protesters had already arrived downtown and made clear on which side they stood.
They swapped accusations of being ignorant or brainwashed, of being paid to be there, of being on the wrong side of history, of being hateful. Some tried to engage in discussions, but those often devolved into screaming positions over and over again as both sides recorded video of the exchange. Local police officers in casual polo shirts served as a buffer.
Under the hot August sun that afternoon, the political and racial divisions that have deepened across the country in recent weeks played out on this city’s downtown streets.
As the temperature hovered near 106 degrees, volunteers on both sides handed out bottles of water.
Nearby, the Rev. Michael Weldon sat on the steps of St. Mary’s Basilica in a brown robe and quietly prayed: Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
“I hear anger in people’s voices,” he said.
On the other side of the convention center, rallygoers stood in line along a street protected by trash and recycling trucks. A protester in a floppy hat held a neon pink sign reading “Trump the Ignoramus” and loudly mocked the president for avoiding the draft and for not following through on many of his campaign promises, such as building a wall and locking up his political rival, Hillary Clinton.
“He’s a chicken! Chicken!” the man shouted.
“I don’t even know what he’s saying,” Robyn Elam, 28, said to a friend as the line inched forward. “I can’t understand him at all.”
Elam said she’s glad Trump ignored the pleas from Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton (D) to delay the event because the country is so divided following a rally in Charlottesville earlier this month that attracted hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis and ended in violence.
Elam, who works in the health-care industry and lives in Tempe, Ariz., said she’s alarmed to see cities remove monuments to Confederate leaders, an action she compared theoretically to conservatives removing the statues of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.
“Personally, I like the statues being up. To me, it’s not celebrating racism; it’s remembering the past,” she said. “If you try to erase history, how do you remember the past?” “To me, he loves America — and you can’t fake that,” she said of Trump, as others in line voiced their agreement. “Am I right? You can’t fake it.”
She struggled to list what Trump has done as president that she likes. For her, success is more of a feeling than a laundry list of actions.
To Betsy Sweeney, a 70-year-old East Coast transplant living in Phoenix, the president’s behavior since taking office has been un-American. She believes the president is an embarrassment who is disrespectfully holding a rally so soon after the clashes in Charlottesville that left a counterprotester dead.
She can’t even bring herself to say his name, instead referring to him as “45.”
“No other president would behave in the manner that he’s been behaving in,” said Sweeney, a health-care worker who said her elderly patients would suffer under the health care changes Trump has proposed.
Police in helmets and bulletproof vests were now on the scene, and black-clad and masked protesters associated with the far-left antifa movement — short for anti-fascist — began to file into the crowd of protesters.
Trump supporters booed and hissed.
A supporter with a .357 Magnum holstered around his waist told his companion: “They’re bad people.”
Austin Knaust, a 24-year-old self-employed trucker, had finally made his way past the screaming protesters and into the rally hall. He’s surprised by the backlash following what happened in Charlottesville — he thought the president’s comments “nailed it right on the head.”
“I think there’s blame on both sides,” he said, as a song from the musical “Cats” blared in the rally hall. “Just because someone wants to protest doesn’t mean that someone should antagonize them.”
But what if those people protesting are yelling anti-Semitic things?
“It’s ridiculous, because they can sit there and call [Trump] a Nazi and call him all this stuff because he didn’t call them white supremacists?” Knaust said. “Well, what did Obama do for eight years? Obama didn’t call Muslim terrorists Muslim terrorists, so does that make him a Muslim terrorist? It doesn’t make sense.”
Minutes later, a local GOP official took the stage and announced: “Welcome to the president’s rally.”
The president took the stage as the crowd cheered and parents put their young children on their shoulders. He spent the next three minutes marveling at his crowd size, claiming “there aren’t too many people outside protesting,” attacking the media and reminiscing about the debates.
Meanwhile, Diana Bunyard, a 52-year-old real estate agent from Phoenix, continued to stand in a line that snaked two blocks, fanning herself with a Make American Great Again hat. Her mission for the day: “I want him to know we still love him.”
Outside the rally, antifa member Samad Agwani, 25, stood behind barricades that separated protesters from supporters. Dressed head to toe in black, he was there “to make sure that white nationalists and Nazis and white supremacists are uncomfortable.”
Following Charlottesville, he said antifa has become misunderstood and that the violence seen earlier this month doesn’t “reflect the group’s cause.” That includes letting the president know that many people oppose how his actions perpetuated racism and prejudice that polarize the country, he said.
“The political atmosphere right now just makes me a little uncomfortable to be a minority,” said Agwani, a social-media content moderator who lives in Phoenix and is of Indian descent. “I feel like I have to be a little more careful in public because — as was demonstrated in Charlottesville — there are a lot of people coming out as openly white supremacists, openly Nazi, openly white nationalists, and I feel that they do pose an actual threat to minorities, including myself.”
Inside the rally, Trump declared that “this entire arena stands united in forceful condemnation of the thugs who perpetrate hatred and violence” and that the media fabricates information and invents sources.
The crowd booed the reporters in its midst, and a few people shouted: “Fake news!”
Desire Ontiveros, a 50-year-old Phoenix native, joined the protest with her daughters, 11-year-old Evangelia and Kavina Sai Pen, 9, who are of Cambodian, Mexican, Thai and Native American descent.
She believes Trump has helped foster intolerance, which has changed aspects of her life. “I have friends that are Republicans, and of course, I’m a Democrat, and it’s almost like you’re on egg shells,” she said. “You have to be careful about what you say.”
Inside the arena, Trump launched into a 16-minute defense of his response to Charlottesville that included reading snippets of the statements he made over several days. He also denounced the removal of Confederate statues underway in many communities.
“They’re trying to take away our culture. They are trying to take away our history,” Trump said. “And our weak leaders, they do it overnight . . . Weak, weak people.”
Eric Wilson, a 42-year-old Army veteran who now runs a mobile mechanic service, nodded his head in agreement and often shouted encouraging things to the president. At one point, he rolled up his “Veterans for Trump” sign into a megaphone to yell “good riddance” at the media.
“I believe that racism is still strong in this country, but you’re erasing history,” he said after the rally. “I feel so bad for the minorities who have to deal with that in their past or who feel that way, but it wasn’t our generation. It was a generation a hundred years ago.”
He said that while he doesn’t agree with the statues coming down, he understands why it’s happening.
“Oppression, suffering — I’ve never suffered from oppression,” he said. “But they feel in their hearts that they have suffered or that their family has suffered. It’s a tough one.”
Outside the convention center, many people thought the rally had ended because hundreds of Trump supporters had left early and were streaming into the streets.
Jaclyn Boyes, a nonprofit employee with dark braids, held a sign with a photo of Heather Heyer, the woman who died while demonstrating against bigotry in Charlottesville. Boyes, 35, wanted Trump to refer to the violence as she saw it: terrorism.
“He’ll speak out against terrorists within hours if it happens in Barcelona,” she said.
Dejan Knezevic, a 44-year-old Phoenix resident who supports Trump, pointed his phone at Boyes — he was live-streaming the evening — and asked if she would say the same of antifa.
Knezevic, an IT specialist, said he stood against neo-Nazis and the KKK but that Democrats need to condemn protesters on the left sparking mayhem.
“They have the communist flag, but none of you guys will denounce them,” Knezevic told Boyes.
“Why isn’t the president standing up against domestic terrorism?” she shot back.
“We agree with you there! We agree!” yelled a man in an American flag bandanna behind Knezevic’s shoulder. “But it’s got to be even across the board.”
The rally ended with Trump declaring he would “make America great again.” Although many media outlets characterized Trump’s appearance and speech as being politically and racially divisive, many of his supporters said they heard a message of unity.
“He wants to unite us,” said George Kinley as he left the rally with his wife, Debbie. “And I think he’s calling out those who are purposely being roadblocks to him.”
A police officer’s voice floated through the crowd from a loudspeaker: “If you don’t leave the area, you are subject to arrest.”
Many protesters had already left the area, but others stood defiant, and officers blasted them with gas that made their eyes sting. Those who lacked goggles and bandannas dashed away. A woman smoking a cigarette doused her face with milk of magnesia, an over-the-counter stomach medicine that also washes out eye irritants.
Gabriel Hernandez, a 33-year-old Web designer from the area, backed away from a row of officers with riot shields as smoke filled the air. He pulled a black bandanna over his nose.
To his left was a parking garage, cloudy now with what looked like tear gas. Moments ago, the structure had provided a perch for people decked out in American flag gear, dropping empty water bottles on the crowd below.
Now men and women stood outside, wiping their eyes.
Hernandez, who said he came to protest because he sees Trump as needlessly divisive, decided to head home, saying: “I don’t know how it got this bad.”
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