Pennsylvania Democratic and liberal protest groups turned out for an opposition rally and march in Harrisburg on Saturday to protest Trump, who chose to host his event in the very same city he referred to as “a war zone” during the campaign.
“This rally and march is to send a message to the president that he needs to be more moderate and more inclusive,” said Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse (D). “I hope he will look around and understand that he needs to do more than rally his supporters. He needs to listen to and speak with those who didn’t vote for him.”
Anti-Trump protests and events were planned in other cities across the country as well, including Utica and Syracuse, N.Y., Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. In Washington, crowds gathered for the Peoples Climate March in support of environmental protection efforts, some of which have been rolled back during Trump's first 100 days.
Papenfuse spoke at a rally organized by the state Democratic Party across the street from the Trump event at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg. Democratic and liberal activists and grass-roots groups held a march from the center of the city to the rally site, bringing together the two protest events and yielding a combined crowd of hundreds of people.
The president announced last week that he would host a campaign rally to celebrate his 100th day in office. The event — scheduled for 7:30 p.m. — coincided with the annual correspondents' dinner, which Trump elected not to attend in a break from tradition.
“I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington's swamp, spending my evening with all of you, and with a much, much larger crowd and much better people, right?” Trump said at his event, not mentioning that he attended the dinner in 2011 while a reality television star and was repeatedly roasted by then-President Barack Obama.
Trump vowed that he would make “a big decision” on the historic Paris climate agreement in the next two weeks. Top Trump officials are divided about whether the United States should stay in or exit that agreement.
The president went on to touch on why he abandoned a campaign pledge to label China a currency manipulator, the possible threat posed by North Korea and the confirmation of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He vowed that his long-promised wall separating the United States and Mexico would be built. But before getting to that, Trump repeatedly needled the media, touching on familiar themes and picking on his standard targets.
He dismissed CNN and MSNBC as “fake news” before proudly noting that the term is now used widely. Trump decried what he again called “the totally failing New York Times,” falsely claiming that the organization was “forced to apologize” for its coverage of the 2016 election, a claim he has made before. He also took a shot at the newspaper’s headquarters, which he called an “ugly office building in a crummy location.”
Trump made clear that he was trying to draw a direct contrast with the news media, saying that they deserved “a very, very big fat failing grade” for their coverage, before shifting to a discussion of his administration's actions.
Trump later returned to his media criticism, decrying how journalists pointed out that Trump broke his pledge to label China a currency manipulator. In a recent interview, Trump told the Wall Street Journal he had reversed course because he felt the country was no longer manipulating its currency and said he hoped the country could help deal with a nuclear threat from North Korea.
Saying that he hopes China is going to assist with North Korea — where he said “we have somebody there who's causing a lot of trouble for the world” — the president added that it was not “exactly the right time to call China a currency manipulator right now.”
About two hours before Trump was scheduled to start speaking, more than 100 Democratic and liberal activists gathered in a field across the street to express their opposition — in tones that quickly veered from jubilant to vehement and back again.
Chants included cries of “Hey hey, ho ho! Donald Trump has got to go!” and “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” The chanting was mostly good-natured, until a small group of hecklers showed up.
“The media has lied to you!” yelled one, Derrick Glenn, 43, who wore an Infowars jersey and soon found himself defending the truthfulness of Infowars host Alex Jones when a half-dozen of the Trump protesters surrounded him and started insulting Jones for “pushing conspiracy theories.”
“How about facts?” one woman shouted.
Within a few minutes, however, Glenn had shaken hands with a few activists — he thought the line was too long to get in to see Trump and decided to walk around — and then departed.
A separate group of a half-dozen young men in white polo shirts and close-cropped haircuts heckled the roster of Democratic speakers, making off-color jokes. They identified themselves as members of Identity Europa, a white identity movement. But after accusing one speaker of being “into cows,” they, too, seemed to relax and leaned against a fence to take in the scene, saying they are “disappointed” in Trump's performance so far, citing his adherence to “pro-war, neocon policies.”
“This is what democracy looks like!” the crowd chanted, drawing smiles all around.
Denise Wilmarth, 65, stood in a field across from the Trump rally site, holding a sign that read “100 Days Of Lies, Hypocrisy, Rambling Ignorance.”
“I am afraid for the children,” said the Harrisburg resident, a retired district manager for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. “No one wants to say it, but bullying has gone up, harassment has gone up. I get responses on my Facebook page — people aren't afraid to say the worst things they think anymore. And it's scary.”
A volunteer with Suits to Careers, an agency that gives free clothes to poor people for job interviews, then outfits them when they're hired, she's seen the level of discourse and political thought sink for years. “My ex-husband, I left him two years ago. He voted for Sarah Palin because he thought she was hot.”
Josh McNeil, executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, joined the growing crowd early, saying he'd decided to come to “make a statement that President Trump did not earn a mandate to destroy the environment. No one voted for him to dismantle the EPA, but that has been a priority of his first 100 days.”
Kirsten Moe, 74, also of Harrisburg and a retired accountant, said she “had to be here because he is in my town, and I need to represent my family.”
She said she is most concerned about the anti-scientific stand of the Trump administration. “He has turned his back on science and the environment,” she said.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach (D) drew cheers when he spoke, referring to Trump as the “orange plutocrat,” and rattling through the president’s entire Cabinet as being put in place to dismantle the government, including appointing “a secretary of education who has lived an entire lifetime of hostility toward public education.”
Papenfuse, Harrisburg's mayor, told the crowd that Trump had succeeded in one area — “inspiring the grass roots!” — to wild cheers from the people who stood in a wide semicircle to hear him.
For Papenfuse, the sense that there is distance — between Democratic activists and Trump supporters, between the president and his city — is the problem. As a candidate, Trump said the city “looked like a war zone” at a Virginia rally in August.
“You look at these big, beautiful plants that are just rotting. They’re just rotting. I flew into Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, yesterday and I looked down, and it looked like a war zone where you these massive plants,” Trump told the crowd at that rally.
The city is coming off hard times, certainly, including a failed 2011 bankruptcy filing, and lists more than $400 million in debt — a big tab for a city with a population of just 49,000. The city went into a court-ordered state receivership but has since emerged from that order with a balanced budget and a rebounding housing market, with increased sales in 2016. Selling off a debt-ridden incinerator facility was key to the city’s overall recovery.
Moe said she was also bothered by what then-candidate Trump said about her city.
“When I heard he called it a war zone, I just thought it was crazy. This is my home, and I live in a lovely neighborhood.”
The rally and march Saturday included labor, women’s rights and environmental groups, among others, with state chapters of Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club listed among participants. Papenfuse said he has been hearing about many issues from constituents concerned about the policies Trump has pursued in his first 100 days — chiefly the possible elimination of block grants that help impoverished citizens with concerns such as heating, as well as broader concerns such as possible cuts in funding for education and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I think in general, citizens here believe it’s time for a serious discussion around these issues, on both sides,” said Papenfuse, “not continued polarization.”
By the time a representative from Planned Parenthood took the microphone, the crowd had swelled to almost 150 people. “We could lose our ambulatory care, maternity and newborn care … rehabilitative services, pediatric services,” said Carrie Fowler, a representative of the group. “Planned Parenthood serves a critical role in Pennsylvania, and losing access to care would be a health-care disaster,” she said, drawing a round of dispirited cheers.
There were perhaps 200 people on hand by the time Michael Blake, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, closed out an hour of speakers.
“Are you ready to fight?” he shouted. “Let's be clear. We cannot just talk about the White House. We have to talk about the State House! And the school board!”
After the speakers finished, people drifted slowly away, to meet the march coming from a mile away. The hecklers had departed. And as the protesters began their trek through the city, still holding signs, numerous cars, passing on Cameron Street directly in front of the site of Trump’s rally, greeted them with cheers and honks, far outnumbering the people who leaned out their windows to jeer.
For the people in the march, the interaction between themselves and uniformly supportive motorists seemed restorative. Papenfuse had been told by city employees that Trump was visiting Ames True Temper, a manufacturing facility that makes shovels and wheelbarrows. The nearby farm show was already filled with Trump supporters, but those people, Harrisburg residents seemed to be saying, were all from out of town, from nearby suburbs and rural communities.
“Our solution to pollution,” they shouted, “is the people's revolution. This is what democracy looks like!”
Janell Ross contributed to this report.