by Rabbi Brant Rosen
TWO WEEKS AGO, my congregation, Tzedek Chicago, cancelled its regularly scheduled Shabbat service in order to allow members to attend the Trump protest that was being held outside the UIC Pavilion. It just felt as if this was just too critical a moment to let pass by, particularly for a congregation committed to social justice and anti-racism. As I wrote in an email: “Clearly this is not the most conventional way to greet Shabbat. Nevertheless, I do believe — and trust you will agree — that this is where we need to be.”
In the end, about twenty Tzedek members attended the event — and I think all who were there would agree with me that I say it was one of the most powerful Shabbat moments we have ever experienced.
When we arrived, there was still a very long line of people waiting to get into the arena. We couldn’t help but notice that the attendees were exceedingly diverse: there were people wearing Trump swag along with women in hijabs, men and women cheering for Trump alongside African Americans wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts. While it was clearly a tense and uncomfortable atmosphere, there was no physical violence we could see among those waiting in line.
When we crossed the street to where the protest was being held, we were swept into a huge sea of people that was quickly being cordoned off by a massive police presence. As the crowd grew, it grew more difficult to keep our contingent together — and eventually we were separated into groups. A variety of different speakers took the microphone and led chants as those attending the rally continued to file into the pavilion.
While the majority of protestors seemed to be of college age, it was clearly an ethnically diverse crowd. It also quickly became evident that this protest was not just about Donald Trump. As Tzedek member Liz Rose subsequently wrote in her post for the blog Mondoweiss:
People came primarily to protest Trump, of course. But they were trying to draw attention to other pertinent issues as well (issues which might only worsen if Trump is elected). The diverse crowd was a convergence of these frustrations. Some protesters carried signs calling for Anita Alvarez to leave Chicago with Trump (Alvarez is the District Attorney who waited a year before bringing murder charges against the officer in the Laquan McDonald case). Many Chicago public school teachers were at the rally, wearing the red t-shirts that marked the 2012 strike (the Chicago Teachers’ Union is currently prepared to strike again if an agreement cannot be reached regarding their contract). Black Lives Matter signs and t-shirts were seen throughout the crowds as well, joined by chanting of the now-famous phrase… A scattering of signs showing solidarity with Palestine could be seen throughout the rally.
When word spread through the crowd that Trump had cancelled his event, we were, quite simply, dumbstruck. None of us expected this to happen, nor did we ever believe it to be the goal of the protest. At any rate, our shock soon turned to joy and celebration when we realized that together, we had managed to keep the world’s most public purveyor of hate speech from speaking in Chicago.
After celebrating the moment, a group of us walked over to a nearby park and made kiddush and motzi together. It was, as I has suspected it would be, a Shabbat like no other.
MANY OF US had friends who were on the inside of the pavilion, who told us later that there was no real violence in the arena, either. Contrary to news reports, the attendees waited together fairly quietly until it was officially announced that the rally was being cancelled. At that point, anti-Trump protestors started cheering and celebrating. This precipitated some scuffling, pushing, and shoving in some parts of the arena. But as my friends all reported to me, there was nothing they would describe as “violence.”
In fact, considering that this protest had no clear leaders or organizers, the level of restraint we witnessed outside was quite remarkable — which is why I was truly dismayed to see our protest portrayed as a violent melee in news reports. That is, alas, the power of our 24-hour media. (I couldn’t help but notice that TV reports on the protest repeated the same one or two clips of pushing and shoving over and over.)
I do believe that the media’s characterization of these events follows a common narrative, one that repeatedly portrays street protesters disruptive troublemakers who are only interested in shutting down freedom of speech. (Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement surely know this media narrative all too well.) In fact, as any who have attended such protests in Chicago will attest, the overwhelming majority of these protests are nonviolent actions organized to raise a collective voice against racism and injustice.
I’m also struck by those who claim that these kinds of protest infringe on “freedom of speech.” It’s a curious use of the term. The First Amendment of the Constitution, in fact, is intended to be a restriction on the government’s ability to prohibit the public from exercising their freedom of speech. That certainly does not apply in this case. If Freedom of Speech has any relevance to this particular situation at all, it is that “we the people” had exercised our right to freely assemble and protest. (There are, however, laws that prohibit hate speech — laws that might certainly apply to one such as Trump.)
I can’t vouch for what might have happened at rallies in other cities, but I suspect they were nowhere near as violent as the media (and Trump) would have us believe. As a result, some on the left are counseling passivity and quiet is the best course of action in response to a “bigot and bully” such as Trump.
I disagree. Generations from now, we will be asked where we were during Trump’s toxic Presidential campaign. I’m proud to say I was among those who stood up and kept him from spreading his hate in our city.
Rabbi Brant Rosen is Midwest regional director for the American Friends Service Committee. He blogs regularly at Shalom Rav, where this post originally appeared.