On Friday night, so many protesters descended upon a Donald Trump rally at the University of Illinois-Chicago that the Republican presidential front-runner canceled his appearance, citing security concerns. Violence broke out inside and outside the rally, with Trump quickly criticizing the “thugs who shut down our First Amendment rights.” Conservative commentators avidly defended Trump, saying that it was a shame that protesters — also making use of their First Amendment right — had shut him down.
Thousands of protesters from all over the city, led by black, Latino, and Muslim activists, spent days organizing the protest, motivated by Trump’s incendiary remarks about communities of color and religious minorities. Organizations “tapped into existing networks of pro-Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter activists,” as NBC News explained. Representatives of student groups from the Black Student Union and Fearless and Undocumented were present at a meeting and decided to protest outside, while a Facebook event page promoted the protest to get people inside. The page included links to getting tickets to Trump’s rally.
One undocumented student started a petition on MoveOn.org calling on the school to cancel the event, claiming that Trump’s visit was a “standards and safety issue” at the UIC campus. MoveOn.org chipped in money for banners as well after the student’s petition garnered 50,000 signatures. As more than 1,000 students gathered for the march, Trump’s team canceled his appearance.
Alyssa Greenberg, a graduate student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and her partner, Simon Nyi, were ready to peacefully protest Trump’s appearance. Nyi first found out about the protest when he received a Facebook event invite from a friend in the Latino activist community — one of many online organizing efforts that brought thousands of people together Friday night. He wanted to participate “to reject the hate racism and xenophobia that Trump was spewing,” and he especially appreciated that the event’s organizers “didn’t want the protesters to sink to that level.”
Nyi and Greenberg left before the clash between Trump supporters and protesters ultimately turned violent but they told ThinkProgress that the organizing efforts had emphasized peaceful protest.
“The instructions really emphasized people’s safety,” he said. “We were going to make our voices heard, but be positive and nonviolent. They specifically instructed us to avoid touching or physically interfering with Trump supporters.”
Initially, there was disagreement over tactics. Many UIC professors, students, and community members initially demanded the school cancel the rally.
“The university said it’s their policy to rent out the space to any political candidate. But Trump is not just any political candidate,” Nyi said. “It’s an issue of safety for the students. He has a history of inciting violence against people of color. His supporters are putting people in real physical danger. Last night, we saw a lot of those predictions come true.”
When the school decided to go forward with the event, some suggested protesters register for rally tickets en masse but not show up, so that Trump would be speaking to a near-empty stadium. Then organizers suggested those who wanted to enter the event could do so, understanding the risk.
Around 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon, all of the groups that made up the protest coalition met in the quad on the University of Illinois Chicago’s campus. There, local activist leaders read poems and gave speeches on a makeshift stage, before the hundreds of people gathered set off to march to the stadium where Trump was scheduled to speak.
“As protests go, it was a remarkably well organized and punctual one,” Nyi said. “You usually can’t get a group that large all on the same page at the same time.”
While Nyi and Greenberg joined the crowd chanting and holding protest signs outside the event, dozens of other protesters made their way inside with signs hidden under their clothes, planning to disrupt Trump. But before this could happen, Trump preemptively canceled the event. At first, he claimed Chicago Police had advised him to do so, but police later said this wasn’t true.
Greenberg said she wanted to allow the black and Latino organizers spearheading the protest to be the ones to go inside the rally, while she and other allies showed their support outside. She has also been working with her union, the UIC Graduate Employees Organization, to pressure the university to put the money they earned from the event toward a very anti-Trump cause.
“The student fees we pay go to the mortgage of the UIC pavilion where the rally was,” she explained. “So we’re calling for the university to be transparent about how much money they made, and to put that money toward scholarships for undocumented students.”
In all, they were proud of Chicago. “This city has a lot of problems,” Nyi said. “We’re one of the most economically unequal cities in the country, and one of most racially segregated. But I was so impressed at people coming out in force for this.”
And as Tia Oso, national coordinator for Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which works with Black Lives Matter activists, told the LA Times, it’s just the beginning.
“He’s viewed as this legitimate candidate and as people begin to see he could possibly lead this country, they’re going to push back against him and what he’s throwing out there,” Oso said. “You can’t go around saying you’re going to ban all Muslims and not think people are not going to be upset. You can’t bad mouth Mexicans and think everyone will just be all fine with it.”