The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After months of playing protesters to his advantage, Donald Trump is overpowered in Chicago

Amid growing security concerns, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign canceled a Chicago rally on March 11. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

CHICAGO — Donald Trump has had to learn how to fill the awkward minutes it takes for security guards to locate, confront and remove protesters from his rallies.

Sometimes he uses that time to mock the conflict-obsessed media. Or he will comment on how gingerly the police treat protesters, unlike in the good old days. Or he will mention how this country has become racially divided under President Obama. Or he will tell the story of how Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders once lost his microphone to two female Black Lives Matter protesters, sometimes even acting out how Sanders wandered around the stage, unsure of how to react.

“That will never happen with me,” Trump has repeatedly said, often adding another “never” to emphasize his point.

For months, Trump has been able to control — and often use to his advantage — the hundreds of protesters who show up to his rallies to oppose rhetoric they consider divisive, racist and hateful. In the past two weeks, these interruptions have increasingly eaten away at Trump’s speaking time and have often become violent, with police in North Carolina charging a Trump supporter who punched a protester at a rally on Wednesday. Trump often says that he loves having protesters at his rallies, that they make his rallies fun. Plus, the interruptions are an opportunity to show him bossing around and mocking liberals, often bellowing: “Get ’em out!”

Racial tensions explode at Donald Trump's rallies

But Trump could not control the protesters who showed up by the thousands to his rally Friday night at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Upon arriving in the city and consulting with security, Trump indefinitely postponed the event — disappointing his fans who had waited hours to see him and delighting protesters who believed they had silenced the Republican front-runner, taking away his microphone for one night.

“We stopped Trump!” the protesters at the rally chanted after the event was canceled, pumping their fists into the air. “We stopped Trump! We stopped Trump!”

Trump didn’t stay silenced for long, quickly calling into MSNBC and explaining the scene in this way: “You have so much anger in the country. I mean, it’s just anger in the country … I don’t think it’s directed at me or anybody. It’s directed at what’s going on for years, and it’s on both sides.”

With the Illinois GOP primary on Tuesday, Trump could have held a rally in one of the more conservative suburbs or a deep-red rural town. Instead, he opted for a giant arena at a richly diverse university in the heart of deeply blue Chicago, guaranteeing he would have protesters and heavy media coverage.

Trump has selected settings similar to this before, turning out massive — and mostly white — crowds in richly diverse and Democratic towns, revealing the pent-up anger and frustrations of conservatives who often don’t identify with either political party.

UIC has a long history of activism, and the university was a finalist for hosting Obama’s presidential library. Inner-city Chicago has been on the front lines in the Black Lives Matter movement, as activists protest the 2014 death of Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old who was shot 16 times by a white Chicago police officer.

Trump has been a critic of the president, who he says has racially divided the country and done nothing for African Americans, and of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that “all lives matter” and that the police are not properly supported and are afraid to do their jobs. He blamed Obama for what happened Thursday in Chicago, saying the president and his economic policies are what is causing the divisiveness.

“It’s a divided country,” he told the Associated Press. “It’s been that way for a long time. It’s very sad to see. It’s divided among many different groups.”

Trump's Republican rivals, however, blame him. Ohio Gov. John Kasich on Saturday morning condemned Trump for creating a “toxic environment” that has led supporters and protesters to “come together in violence.” And Sen. Marco Rubio called on Trump to denounce the violence and questioned whether if he could support Trump as the GOP nominee if his rhetoric did not change.

Obama, speaking at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Dallas on Saturday, did not directly address what happened in Chicago, but he said politicians running for office should be focused on is how to make the nation even better. "Not insults and schoolyard taunts, and manufacturing facts," he said. "Not divisiveness along the lines of race or faith. Certainly not violence against other Americans or excluding them. We’re a better country than that."

President Obama’s brutal assessment of the rise of Donald Trump

Social video captured a man charging through a security barricade at a rally in Dayton, Ohio, for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Video: Joel Menken)

In the hours leading up to the rally start time, heavy tension hung over the 9,500-seat arena, where entire sections were packed with protesters. Earlier in the week, UIC faculty and staff petitioned administrators to cancel the rally because it would create a “hostile and physically dangerous environment” for students.

The audience was the most diverse to ever gather for a Trump rally, a rainbow of skin tones with at least a dozen young women wearing hijabs and a few men in turbans. The crowd was mostly high school and college students from the area, along with a number of local activists and a number of different organization efforts.

Trump cancels Chicago rally over security concerns

Trump has campaigned as a uniter, a political outsider who can unite not only the Republican Party but Americans of all backgrounds. That promise seemed unattainable on Friday night, as the rally became too dangerous for Trump to attend.

“I think we’re too divided to become united at this point, and it may someday lead to real revolution, the way things are going,” said Mark Falkingham, 52, an engineer from the suburbs who immigrated from Canada and plans to vote for Trump on Tuesday. “I'm really upset that he postponed, and I’m embarrassed that this school is in the city of Chicago and that the students are acting like this tonight. I think it’s disgraceful, personally. Everybody should be allowed to practice their trade, to have their speech, to support whoever they want to support. I really don’t think there’s any need for this.”

As the crowd waited for Trump to arrive, a black man dramatically ripped a Trump campaign poster in half and then silently held up the pieces for all to see. A young Latino man got into a heated argument about illegal immigrants that ended with him flashing his two middle fingers. A sign in the crowd said “Trump is a racist.” A small group of women repeatedly shouted “F--- Trump!” There were chants of “Black lives matter” and “16 shots,” a reference to the number of times McDonald was shot in 2014. Some Trump fans responded by chanting “All lives matter!”

A middle-aged white man sitting near a clump of young protesters began to challenge their foul language, asking, “What did you say?”

“He said make America white again,” someone responded. But that wasn’t the comment that had angered him. He continued to press a small group of young black men to repeat what they had said. A white woman sitting a few rows back started her own chant: "Trump! Trump! Trump!" Another woman ate french fries as she watched the drama unfold.

“I didn’t say nothing,” one young man said. “That wasn’t me.”

Those around the young man backed up him: “That wasn’t him. That wasn’t him.”

“That was you,” the white man said. “I saw you.”

As they continued to bicker, someone told the man: “Be careful, you’re acting scared.”

“Oh, I’m far from scared,” the man said. “Actually, you guys are the ones that are scared.”

Soon, protesters began yelling: “Kick him out! Kick him out!” Security guards escorted the white man, his fiancee and a few of the black protesters out of the arena. When protesters were removed, their compatriots shouted: “Let them stay! Let them stay!” The campaign played a recorded announcement warning protesters to not interrupt the rally.

[Inside Trump’s inner circle, his staffers are willing to fight for him. Literally.]

“In about 10 minutes, it’s going to be a race war,” said Mike McKee, 37, who lives in the Chicago suburbs, works in animal control and took the day off work so that he could see Trump. “They’re trying to group together and stir up more things that shouldn’t be stirred up.”

It was clear that if Trump showed up, this protester-heavy crowd would not allow him to speak, and several local students said they planned to get a huge group to rush the stage, which is guarded by Secret Service agents.

“We were planning on storming the stage and just taking the mic. We hadn’t figured out what exactly to do because there's so many different groups with the same idea — but it was always going to be peaceful,” said Cameron Miller, 18, a Chicago high school senior and Sanders supporter who frequently protests and was a designated “marshal” who helped defuse confrontations before anyone got hurt or arrested. “But people were saying some messed up stuff, so that’s why it was canceled.”

About 6:35 p.m., an announcer told the crowd that Trump had arrived in Chicago but that after consulting with security, decided to postpone the event. The tension hanging over the arena exploded, as university police officers braced themselves. Celebration crashed into disappointment, anger into anger, chants of “We stopped Trump” into chants of “We want Trump.” There was shoving and pushing, shouting and snatching of signs. Cellphones popped up on both sides of disagreements to record the back-and-forth.

“Chicago shut this s--- down, baby!” one guy yelled to his friends. Meanwhile, a 65-year-old Trump supporter from the suburbs — decked out in blue pants, red blazer, blue headband and red feather earrings — teared up because she had been so excited to see Trump and now could not. People streamed onto the floor of the arena, where physical altercations started, mostly shoving and pushing that was egged on by bystanders shouting profanities. Television cameras and reporters tried to capture what was happening.

An white man rushed up to a young minority protester and wrestled away a cloth sign containing an anti-Trump message, causing a scuffle that bounced through the tightly packed crowd, knocking over one young woman.

“Hey! Knock it off! Knock it off,” a police officer screamed.

“I did not do anything,” the man said, holding the sign in his hand. “I’m trying to save my country.”

Soon came a loud announcement telling the crowd that the event was over, and they must leave. Outside, the confrontations continued, and police made at least five arrests. Two hundred Chicago police officers were on hand, along with 100 more from other jurisdictions. More than a dozen were on horseback and formed a protective line, while a line of ambulances waited down the street. Two Chicago police officers were injured, including one who was hit in the head with a bottle and will need stitches.

Outside were a number of protesters with signs with drawings depicting Trump as Hitler and denouncing his controversial positions on immigration and the treatment of Muslims. On one side of the arena, protesters and Trump supporters engaged in discussions about why they were angry. On the other side of the arena, near a parking garage, the protests were more intense, with protesters confronting Trump supporters headed to their cars and blocking vehicles trying to leave the garage. Protesters filled the garage’s open staircase and high floors to get a bird’s-eye view of what was happening below.

Chaos postpones Trump rally

Trump supporter Birgitt Peterson (CQ), center, of Yorkville, argues with protesters outside the UIC Pavilion after the cancelled Trump rally Friday, March 11, 2016. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

Four days ahead of the Illinois Republican primary, along with primaries in a number of other key states, these were the images of Trump’s campaign that were broadcast on local and national networks. On Saturday morning, Trump tweeted: “The organized group of people, many of them thugs, who shut down our First Amendment rights in Chicago, have totally energized America!”

But Trump’s Republican rivals pushed back, saying this is not the sort of energy that the Republican Party wants. Ohio Gov. John Kasich said that the protests are the result of “the seeds of division that Donald Trump has been sowing this whole campaign.” Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) said that Trump is learning that “words have real consequences.” And Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) said that “any candidate is responsible for the culture of a campaign.”

About two hours after the rally was canceled, the streets near the arena were starting to clear up. Suzanne Monk, a 44-year-old music shop owner, continued to stand watch near the arena, holding a large blue Trump flag.

“It is important that if the other side believes they can quash our free speech, that we don’t let them win,” said Monk, who arrived at the rally three and a half hours early. “So, I’m going to stand out here until they actually make us all go home … We’re just trying to hear our candidate speak and engage in the political process peacefully.”

Memorable moments on the campaign trail with Donald Trump

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump shows off the size of his hands as Fox News Channel moderators Brett Baier (L) and Megyn Kelly (R) look on at the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (REBECCA COOK/REUTERS)

Juliet Eilperin, Ed O'Keefe, Dave Weigel, Jim Tankersley, Mark Berman, Katie Zezima and Phil Rucker and contributed to this report.