What The Viral Now This Video About Black Lives Matter at the Trump Rally Actually Looked Like on the Ground
This past Saturday, downtown DC and the National Mall were pretty active. We had an anti-white-supremacy rally hosted by folks who walked all the way here from Charlottesville, the Juggalo March, and a “Mother of All Rallies” pro-Trump event on the National Mall.
I wound up going to all these events, helping out with the first rally, listening to Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope address the Juggalos, and stopping by the Mall on my way home to see the sparsely-attended Trump rally.
I was hanging out there for just a few minutes when a group from Black Lives Matter of Greater New York approached the rally. They were eventually invited up onto stage and their president, Hawk Newsome, addressed the crowd for 2 minutes.
I wish I could feel that way about this incident, but as always, activism and reality are more complicated than the narratives we see online. So here’s what it looked like from my perspective. And to be clear, I do not pretend to speak for anyone involved, especially the BLM Greater New York activists. This is simply what I saw and experienced and I guess I feel compelled to share it since it feels a bit discordant with the media depiction of events and the way in which people are sharing the Now This video. I’m sure others who were there also have different impressions, of course.
So this is what the rally looked like on the way in. As many others have noted, it was sparsely attended.
As the BLM of Greater NY group approached, several Trump supporters started heckling them. Two black Trump supporters approached the group and started saying that they were black and happy with Trump, ergo BLM’s existence is somehow invalid. A BLM member said they should be ashamed of their support for Trump.
From the stage, organizers started urging people to ignore the BLM group, but that wasn’t happening since this was clearly the most exciting thing to happen at an otherwise pretty boring rally. Park Police and III Percenter militia members lined up between the Trump supporters and the BLM group, facing the Trump supporters. I lined my bike up between the Park Police and BLM group, also facing the Trump supporters. There’s no correct way to be at a rally or protest, but this felt like the right thing to do in the moment since 1) white allies standing with black activists generally makes it less likely that violence will break out and 2) also makes it clear that BLM’s goals and values aren’t just shared by black people.
The Trump supporters were jockeying for pictures and video and occasionally yelling things like “this is our rally.” The BLM group stood with their fists raised. One Trump supporter repeatedly yelled at the BLM group, “Segregation is over!” I joked with one of the BLM members that we’d be sure to let everyone know and we shook our heads at her in a bit of disbelief. There were also competing chants of “all lives matter” and “black lives matter.”
After a few minutes, a group of what I assume were rally organizers approached the BLM group and invited them on stage to speak. After a little deliberation the BLM group accepted and moved to the stage along with some of the militia members and Park Police. After they got on stage, a rally organizer indicated they actually wouldn’t be allowed to speak and then the organizers started blasting the National Anthem, I’m guessing to cover up the noise of the ensuing on-stage dispute. After a few moments, Hawk Newsome, the groups’ president, was allowed to speak.
The Trump supporters clapped at the parts they liked and grumbled at the parts they didn't like. For instance, when Newsome said that all lives do matter, they cheered. When he said that not all lives are actually treated like they matter, they were a little muddled in their response.
After Newsome was done, a black Trump supporter told the crowd that BLM doesn’t do any work to prevent violence in Chicago, which is, of course, wrong and silly, but it’s the kind of lie people who support Trump have to tell themselves. It’s simply easier to claim someone else is a hypocrite than to deal with actual policies that hurt or harm people, such as redlining, environmental injustice, racist sentencing laws, and multi-state efforts aimed at making it harder for black people to vote, which Rev. Dr. Barber of the North Carolina NAACP has likened to a Third Reconstruction.
For their part, the Trump rally organizers seemed to relish having invited the BLM group up on stage, treating it as evidence for why their own views should be treated respectfully and as a contrast to the intolerant cartoon version of the left they promote.
The III Percenters formed two lines leading away from the stage for the BLM group to walk between and get back to the north side of The Mall. The BLM folks did some interviews behind the stage and then walked over to a few tables and chairs near one of the cafes on the Mall. Newsome received treatment for an injury to his hand. (I’m not sure what the origin of that injury was.)
A Trump supporter came up and started talking about how his daughter has been suffering from some sort of disease, indicating that that was just as important as black lives. The BLM folks talked to him for a few rounds, but it became apparent the guy was a little disturbed and fixated on his daughter’s medical care and wasn’t really processing what anyone was saying to him. One of the other Trump rallygoers ushered him away.
I asked a BLM member why they came to DC and she said they had been in Richmond earlier that day and wanted to be at this rally. She said they were unaware of other activities in town that day, including the anti-white-supremacy rally.
Later, I checked the Twitter feed for our local BLM chapter for the DC region and saw they were having some back-and-forth with the BLM Greater New York group. According to our local BLM chapter, BLM of Greater NY is not part of the official BLM network and they appeared to be critical of the lack of coordination with local groups. For what it’s worth, the Greater NY’s side of the conversation is now deleted.
This is an important point since movements simply aren’t monolithic, but in a lot of reporting, you’ll see the actions and statements of a single BLM group or chapter as a stand in for the whole.
So overall, this didn’t really feel like unity or dialogue to me. And the warm feelings I think people are getting from the Now This video were unjustified by what I saw on the ground. We want to believe so desperately that Trump supporters will be open to persuasion and reason or even ethical and emotional arguments, but the overwhelming majority are just not.
So that said, maybe I’m wrong. I’ve always got my own opinions, but I’m not here to judge anyone else’s activism. Like I said to one of the BLM members, they made the best out of a very fraught and difficult situation, especially after they were initially misled about speaking. If they’re brave enough to stand on a stage full of Trump supporters and walk through a line of militia members, we can all be brave enough to make our own contributions to fighting systemic racism and making this world a better place.