My fingers are still numb from standing outside the Tsongas Center tonight, and I can’t feel the keys under my fingers. They were exposed to the 15-degree-weather because I was photographing the attendees and protesters at the Donald Trump rally. I’m not going to talk about the politics, although Paul Marion has an interesting piece over at richardhowe.com. Instead, I’ll just describe the scene for those who weren’t there.
The entry line to the arena stretched all the way around the corner to the post office, starting before 5:00 pm. We heard from a police officer that officials expected 9,000 for the venue of about 6,500 seats. A wide variety of people were in line—although not quite reflecting Lowell’s diversity, there were nevertheless young and old, men and women. Along the sidewalk to Cox circle, bundled-up gentlemen sold Trump scarves and buttons.
Many seemed interested only to see the spectacle—one even said to the protesters “I agree with most of you, I just am curious!” Others wore full Trump regalia, with “Make America Great Again” hats decked in rhinestones. Where did they come from? A member of the Lowell Live Feed Facebook group examined Roy Garage, and found a mix of bumper stickers and several plates from other states.
The police were extraordinarily friendly, directing traffic and wishing everyone a good evening, whether they were heading into the arena or into the “Free Speech Area,” which had been blocked off with police tape. The idea of limiting protesters to a cordoned-off area—away from the sidewalk, behind the Tsongas sign, and on frozen snowy ground—was debated both in the protest and on Facebook. However, all protesters I saw respected the police tape, as organizers started chants with megaphones and reporters took video from the sidewalk.
Like the attendees, protesters were a mix of locals and organizers from Boston and Cambridge. The protest was organized by the local group Community Advocates for Justice and Equality and the Cambridge-based Black Lives Matter and Boston-based ANSWER Coalition. Based on the faces I recognized and UMass Lowell accessories, most protesters were from Lowell—community members, activists, faculty, and students. Paul Marion counted 150 and growing toward 200 at 5:30 pm—by the time I came back with a camera at 6:30 pm, the group had shrunk to about 75, but they were an almost entirely new set of people who came in to relieve others who dropped out because of the cold.
Two organizers with medical crosses on their jackets handed out hand warmers and cough drops, and told protesters that Subway was open with bathrooms and a warm space. Many took the advice and ducked into local establishments to warm up before braving the cold again.
Organizers also handed out signs that read “Lowell welcomes refugees,” “Lowell is an immigrant community,” and “Trump is not welcome.” Others had hand-made signs: “Lowell: No Room for Hate,” “Dump Trump” and many, many others. The protesters chanted, “How do you spell racism? T-R-U-M-P,” “Trump is a cancer, the people are the answer,” “Say no to racist fear, refugees are welcome here,” along with classic “This is what democracy looks like!” They also sang “Black Lives Matter,” to show solidarity with those Trump attacks in his rhetoric by adding “Muslim Lives Matter” and “Mexican” and “Women’s Rights.”
Things were largely respectful and peaceful between both groups. However, it was shocking to see a couple of folks who shouted “White Power” and “Death to Muslims” at the group—frightening, as there were many Muslim and non white people in the crowd. We also heard a strange counter-chant from a rally-goer: “If refugees look like me, they should come here legally.” (We have a series of posts about refugees here). However, only one counter-protester appeared to stick around with an “All Lives Matter” sign.
Our night ended with listening to one non white protester describe how she was turned away because of what she looked like and assumed a trouble-maker. Reportedly, several folks interrupted throughout the rally inside the arena with protest. Those wanting to hear more should check out the above-linked Facebook forum or the Lowell Sun, whose reporters supposedly were not allowed to leave until well after the event was over! It may be because of the crowd I follow, but almost everyone I heard describe it on social media called it one of the most bizarre nights they’d experienced in Lowell.