The summit — held at a basketball arena on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s campus — was co-hosted by the DEA 360 Campaign and the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation. And as the boos were still ringing out, before the first lady spoke, Jim Wahlberg (brother of Mark) asked members of the audience to stand up if they or someone they knew had been affected by the opioid epidemic. At least a third of the audience stood up. Wahlberg asked the audience to have respect for the people standing and for the families there who had to bury their children.
Then he introduced Trump, and the boos began again.
Students who booed said later that they did so because they believe the president is racist and were offended by his comments about Baltimore. Robert Johnson III, an eighth-grader at Mount Royal School, pointed out that Melania Trump had been accused of plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s convention speech and said he found that bothersome. “I started to dislike her,” he said, adding that her husband’s comments about Baltimore were irritating, too. “How you going to be a president, with Baltimore being in the United States, and you talk trash about a place that’s in the United States? He’s a coward, and he don’t really care about us.”
Some students, however, were happy to see her and said the fact that she came to Baltimore was meaningful.
The first lady did not acknowledge the reaction and carried on with her remarks, as the logo for her “Be Best” initiative was shown on the screen behind her. One of the initiative’s three pillars is combating opioid abuse.
“Thank you to all of the students who are here,” she told the crowd. “I am so proud of you for the bravery it takes to share that you have been strongly affected by the opioid epidemic in some way.”
She continued with Be Best talking points she’d talked about in other speeches but also got more personal than she has in the past. Trump also talked about addiction being indiscriminate across economic and racial lines.
“Promoting education and awareness on these issues will always be one of my top priorities,” she said. “I am in this fight with you, and I am fighting for you. I encourage you, if you are struggling with addiction right now, reach out for support. . . . It is never too late to ask for help.”
This is the third time in a little over a month that Trump has endured boos or protests while in Democrat-friendly territory.
In late October, loud boos erupted in Nationals Park as she and her husband were shown on the Jumbotron. Internet memes zoomed in on her changing facial expressions to try to interpret how she was feeling at that moment.
In early November, she was greeted by protesters during her visit to Boston Medical Center to bring attention to a program to cuddle babies born with opioid dependency. Many of them were hospital employees who were upset about President Trump’s anti-immigration stance and who argued that the first lady’s visit might signal to the hospital’s many immigrant patients that the institution was aligned with the Trump administration.
The first lady did not engage with the protesters in Boston, and her event took place without her ever being in a position to see them.
President Trump’s remarks about Baltimore this summer turned into a feud with the city’s beloved congressman, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D), whose death in October left the city reeling.
When the president last visited Baltimore in September, after his disparaging remarks but before Cummings’s death, for a closed-door retreat for House Republicans, he was greeted with protests and a giant inflatable rat with his face attached.
No protesters gathered for the first lady’s visit to this city; the students, according to organizers and teachers present, found out only today that she was coming.
Former professional skateboarder, Baltimore native and recovery advocate Brandon Novak said he was just glad his city was getting media coverage.
“Although I don’t agree with what her husband said about Baltimore, I’m a big fan of it attracting the attention that it got, and now eyes are on Baltimore,” said Novak. “Even if she got booed, it brought attention that this probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I look at it as an asset. I look at it as a necessity. What are we trying to do here? We’re trying to start the conversation. And what better way to start the conversation than getting the wife of the president who said Baltimore is a rat-infested [hole] to come here.”
He also said he’d seen a difference in trash pickup, at least since the president’s comments. “Nobody wants to look bad, whether it’s in the government, the state, so people started being like maybe we need to tighten up.”
Bridget Smith, who goes by “Mamma B” and runs the Angela Davis Leadership Academy, found herself impressed. “I didn’t have mixed emotions about her being here because, you know, I don’t judge her based on him. But I never knew about the work she did with opioid abuse, and I think it’s good.”
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” said Danielle Whitmore, a parole and probation worker. “She kept going, and she kept a straight face, and she kept talking. She didn’t stop one time. It was a brave act, very brave.”
“She came in front of the shooting gallery and stuck her head out. I like that,” said the event’s emcee, Levardis “Lil Black” McLaughlin. “Regardless of whether you like her politics or policy, she came for the cause. And that’s what she addressed. She did what she was supposed to do, and I respect it.”
They liked that they could see Melania Trump in person rather than the caricature they’d seen on the news, and they liked seeing her separate from her husband, forging her own path.
“I saw a woman onstage giving her heart about what’s going on,” said McLaughlin. “I think people could separate the politics from what she’s actually trying to do as a human. ”
“She can make her own light instead of it being dimmed by him,” said Whitmore.
What didn’t surprise them was the booing.
“Young kids are politically astute. They heard the dialogue between her husband and Elijah E. Cummings, and that booing was how they felt. I wasn’t surprised,” said Sabrina Sutton, director of neighborhood and community relations for Baltimore city schools.
Smith, the leader of the Angela Davis Leadership Academy, said: “When someone said, ‘President Trump’s wife is coming,’ the children, it was like their whole demeanor changed. They was like, ‘Aw, man.’ They were disappointed.”
But by the end of the speech, all of the adults agreed, the kids were booing less.
“They listened, and they even clapped,” said Whitmore.