Burlington dumps Trump

John Godfrey and Paul Fleckenstein report from Vermont on a huge protest against billionaire bigot Donald Trump at his presidential primary campaign stop.

Burlington turns out in big numbers to protest Donald Trump's appearance  (Karen Pike)Burlington turns out in big numbers to protest Donald Trump's appearance (Karen Pike)

WHEN DONALD Trump brought his road show of bigotry to Burlington, Vermont--a city known for its progressive politics and as the hometown of Bernie Sanders--he got the reception he deserved, as hundreds of people turned out to protest the bigot billionaire on January 7.

During his speech, Trump announced a new policy position, eliminating gun-free zones in schools, as he dished out his usual hate and racism. A thousand fans of the Republican candidate filled the Flynn Center, where Trump engaged the crowd in a call-and-response about his proposal to build a 2,000-mile wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. "Who's going to pay for it?" asked Trump. "Mexico!" answered the crowd.

But there were anti-Trump protesters inside the event--and some disrupted his speech before being ejected by the candidate's security personnel, who were directed to throw them out and "confiscate" their coats.

Outside, more than 700 people turned out to oppose Trump and his message of hate. The atmosphere was like a political festival, as protesters chanted, jeered and cheered for four hours. At the end, a popular local brass band joined the anti-Trump celebration.

Among the favorite chants were: "We know what's under that wig, a racist and a sexist pig!" "From Mexico to Palestine--border walls are a crime" and "Donald Trump go away--racist, sexist, anti-gay!" The crowd was made up overwhelmingly of Bernie Sanders supporters, so his name rang in the air as well.

As they stood in line to get into the Flynn Center--a line made artificially long because the Trump campaign issued 20,000 online tickets for a 1,400-seat venue--Trump supporters responded to protesters' chants with "USA, USA, USA," or "Build the wall, build the wall, build the wall!"

Trump fans showed up as early as 4 a.m. to secure seats. By 5 p.m., the line to get in was five blocks long. But it wasn't made up only of all-out Trump supporters. First, there was a number of Trump opponents waiting in the hopes of disrupting the event. They responded positively to flyers inviting people to an upcoming meeting titled "Refugees are Welcome Here."

Others in line were prepared to hear another perspective on Trump. As another flyer was passed out with the headline "Don't Fall for Trump," which made the case that the billionaire isn't an alternative to the crisis facing working-class people, I overheard a woman tell her partner, "Honey, I think I agree with them."

"I don't really have an opinion on Trump," said an air traffic controller from South Burlington who was in line. "I want to hear what he says." Meanwhile, one high school student seemed eager to distance himself right-wingers. "I'm actually super liberal," he said. "My teacher sent me here to write an article."

Later, protesters who tried to speak out inside the event were ejected every couple of minutes by security. Two University of Vermont students described the atmosphere inside:

First of all, we had to lie to get in. Even if you said you were undecided, they kicked you out. When we got in, right away, as soon as Trump started talking, about a third of the people in the balcony turned their backs and left. After that, there was a protest every couple of minutes. Someone would stand up and yell "Racist!" or "Bernie," and security would take them out. The Trump supporters were mean. They hit people with their signs. It was not welcoming in there.

Protesters kicked out of the Flynn Center joined the demonstration outside. When Trump was finally done speaking, the ralliers booed his supporters, while the candidate skulked out the back door.

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IN THE week leading up to Trump's rally, activists in Burlington took part in a debate, largely over social media, about how best to respond. Proposals ranged from plans for direct action to shut Trump down; to a mass picket; a festival at a nearby park promoting positive alternatives to Trump; a silent vigil; coordinated actions by ticket holders inside the rally; and ignoring the event entirely.

In discussions about whether and how to shut Trump down, activists weighed the question of whether such an action would draw the large numbers of people who are disgusted by his rhetoric, but might be wary of a direct confrontation with police--particularly the marginalized groups who are Trump's targets, like Muslims, undocumented immigrants and the disabled.

In the end, the large security force of cops, troopers, Secret Service and Trump's personal security force, which imposed a tight security zone on the streets surrounding the Flynn Center, made a symbolic shutdown of the event impractical.

Plans for an offsite event or silent vigils were promoted most of all by individuals and groups tied closely to the Sanders campaign, or lobbying and campaigning for the Democratic Party. It wasn't a conclusion that hundreds of anti-Trump protesters were satisfied with.

"I'm impressed with the people here," said one young demonstrator, after hearing the chanting. "We are refugees, but we are also Muslim. Trump is like Adolf Hitler. He makes bigots less fearful. They lean to his mentality. But I think the community is with us."

Anna, a local pre-school teacher, said, "You just can't meet hate with silence. If you do that, they win."

Some left-wing activists mobilized to protect protesters from any right-wing thugs who were trolling the crowd. Members of the Workers Defense Guard, associated with the left-leaning union, United Electrical Workers (UE), dressed in black with red kerchiefs. They patrolled the protest area to make sure everyone was safe, and more than once stepped in to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation.

This rally showed the potential for building opposition to Trump's reactionary politics. Organizing protests that loudly stand up to the right is also part of building a left-wing alternative that fights for workers rights, against racism, for climate justice and for a political alternative to the establishment parties.