JANESVILLE, Wis. — Fifteen years of community organizing had led Z! Haukeness to the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express here. Haukeness, who is 34 and transgender and prefers the “them/they” pronoun, wore red sneakers, white jeans and a white T-shirt printed with the phrase “First They Came for Queer & Trans People.”
It was a reference to the famous anti-Nazi poem about how not enough people had tried to stop Adolf Hitler when he persecuted one minority group after the next. Donald Trump was scheduled to rally in Janesville the next day. Haukeness wanted to stop him.
The “locked sit-in” at the Holiday Inn was aimed at forcing the cancellation of Trump’s speech. The next day’s seven hours of marches near the rally site were aimed at making Trump supporters confront what they claimed to hate. Three hundred sixty police officers were on hand to monitor the scene.
Trump would speak and take questions in Janesville for little more than an hour. The protests around that speech lasted for 24 hours and took days of planning across several cities.
This was the post-Chicago reality of a Trump rally.
“The goal of shutting down Trump and making sure his hate speech is not aired is still the goal today,” Haukeness said. “This is a good example of hate speech, not free speech, and you can see that from the crimes that have been born out of this.”
It began at 6:30 p.m., when Haukeness and five fellow activists with Groundwork Madison, an organizing group based in the state capital and college town 30 miles northwest of Janesville, sat in a circle in the middle of the Holiday Inn lobby. They linked arms through PVC pipes that had been smothered in white tape then decorated with the slogan “NO TRUMP.”
For the next four hours, no one could enter the hotel without hearing or seeing protesters chanting, “No hate in our state” or “Cancel, cancel,” or going around the circle with paraphrases from the poem by Martin Niemöller, the anti-Nazi theologian.
“First they came for the working class!”
“First they came for immigrants!”
“First they came for Muslims!”
“First they came for trans and LGBT people!”
It was a surprise to hotel attendees, some of whom had been enjoying free popcorn and happy hour beers when the protest began. It was a surprise to the media, too, which had arrived to cover a separate, smaller and somewhat meek protest outside the hotel. About 50 activists, from rabbis to high- schoolers, had moved farther from the Holiday Inn whenever management asked it — though they eventually scrambled inside to join Haukeness’s group.
The protest ended after police gently sliced off the PVC and put everyone under arrest. After posting bail, the group reconvened at a nearby Perkins restaurant. It was unclear what they had achieved.
Other protesters said they had come for conversation. Ariela Steele, a 25-year-old native of Janesville, skipped the sit-in but arrived early for the March 29 rally. At 10:30 a.m., more than four hours before doors would open at the Janesville Conference Center, she grabbed one of the rally signs — “Love Trumps Hate” — and mingled with the hundreds of Trump voters already in line.
“It’s my birthday, and this is my home town,” Steele said. “When I first heard about this rally, I realized: I had a mental wall that shouldn’t have been there. I was shocked to see Trump coming here, but then I remembered I had a right to be here, too.”
For the optimistic protester, the Trump rally and its counter-protest is a meeting place between the two Americas. It is not as dark — not yet — as the online conversation that Trump seemed to have laced with hemlock sometime last summer. After Nichole Mittness set up a Facebook page to organize protests, she watched it grow to more than 1,000 invites. She then watched as trolls churned the comments into a fever swamp, warning activists to keep their children away, promising that pro-Trump motorcycle gangs would roll in and start swinging.
“There were a lot of threats against me,” said Mittness, 33. “But we’ve gotten a lot of support from these outside groups, and they planned logistics; they made sure we had peacekeepers and people on hand in case of emergency.”
The outside groups were represented by people such as Haukeness, whose group is affiliated with the national Showing Up for Racial Justice. Little-known nationally, SURJ had tried to learn from and build on the disruption of Trump’s March 11 rally at the University of Illinois in Chicago. On Saturday, it had held training sessions for a few dozen activists, going over the ways to bring protest materials into the rally (under clothes) and to avoid detection (do not be a person of color).
Many of the activists had already gained experience, either in the Black Lives Matter movement or in the pro-labor protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) dating back to 2010.
On Tuesday, SURJ played outside and inside games, and neither was particularly successful. The main protest, tightly organized and amplified by a generator-powered megaphone, was kept away from the Trump rally lines by two plastic fences and two concrete barriers. SURJ organizers worked the crowd of about 250 people, signing up potential activists with clipboards and teaching them a series of anti-Trump chants.
Yet they were outnumbered by Trump’s fans. They lined up for hours, more than 4,000 — all ticketed — for space in a room that might fit 1,000 people. Sometimes they asked someone to save their place, then wandered over to the protests for a conversation. One of them, 53-year old Randall Thom, saw a 23-year-old named April Lara and tried to explain to her that “Mr. Trump” held no animus toward Latinos.
“Don’t you want to be a legal citizen?” Thom asked.
“I am legal,” said Lara.
“Boom!” said a woman wearing a hijab and pushing a stroller.
“Why does he condone violence at his rallies?” Lara asked.
“He doesn’t,” said Thom, raspy but not rattled. “You need to be inside the rally to understand the whole story of what’s going on. I just want us to get along.”
“He doesn’t want us to get along!” Lara said.
The activists who had hoped to infiltrate the event were sniffed out and ejected — often before reaching the duo of metal detectors at the conference center.
There was a strategy here, and it defeated the strategies of the activists. After Chicago, even though the scenes of chaos had apparently bolstered Trump’s support, the Trump campaign had begun to rethink its scale. It held no rallies between Trump’s Arizona primary victory and the Wisconsin campaign launch. In Janesville, and in events planned for the following days, the campaign had downsized to venues that fit only 1,000 or so people — bigger than any other Republican candidate’s crowds, but making it harder for rebels to hide.
Still, the ejectors took no risks. Steele, who had clutched her anti-Trump sign during conversation after conversation with his supporters, was “literally 10 feet away from the door” when some Trump supporter pointed her out.
“He was mocking me and degrading me,” Steele said, tears running down her cheeks, her voice breaking. “He said, ‘You’re getting off this property right now.’ I said, ‘I’m coming to hear him speak.’ He said, ‘No you’re not.’ They turned me into a joke. They were cheering when I was pushed away.”
Steele rejoined the protest, which was gathering a sort of momentum. A group of anarchists and communists from Rockford, Ill., had driven to Janesville with no extraordinary training. For a while they contented themselves with conversation; Scotty Thompson, 25, recalled how he had accepted a ride from a Trump supporter once, and they had found a common humanity.
Suddenly, one of the Rockford activists yelled “cowabunga” — the code for “new idea” — and a line formed at the start of the strip of road between the highway and the conference center. Fourteen people, mostly the activists from Rockford, started walking in a long oval pattern, hoisting their signs. Men held hands with men. Women linked arms with women. They all walked silently, unless provoked.
There was not much in the way of provocation. The Trump supporters in line, and a hundred or so who had shown up just to buy T-shirts, including a popular one taking aim at Hillary Clinton with the vulgarity “Trump That B----,” mostly watched the protesters walk by. With each lap, there were more protesters, and eventually some swapped insults, even as a Rockford organizer told the marchers to stay positive.
“I love you!” she yelled at Trump voters. “I support you! Use your power!”
The endless, looping march drew the attention of some police, but it never turned violent. Instead, shortly before Trump began speaking, there was a loud mingling of voices in the Trump line, and then a 15-year-old girl named Alex Drake was guided away. Her face was stained orange; Tia Soto, a 16-year-old holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign, informed reporters and gawkers that Drake had been pepper-sprayed after a scuffle.
By this point, the professional organizers had left or started to focus on punching new names into a database. The stragglers and marchers had already started to disperse.
But over the next 24 hours, the only story about the protests, the events that had put people in jail and demanded days of planning, was that an anti-Trump protester had been pepper-sprayed. It made the New York Daily News. It was illustrated at the progressive site ThinkProgress with a photo of protesters conducting a friendly conversation with Trump voters, across the double fence.
And the entire incident had occurred outside the venue. Inside, Trump was conducting a lively town hall meeting, interrupted just once. The tumult outside wouldn’t be noticed until hours later. With no organization to speak of, the remaining protesters filtered between Trump voters, the mogul-candidate’s voice being beamed at them from speakers.
Tryston Schultz, an 18-year old from Monroe, Wis., got deeper into the crowd than anyone. He quietly held up a sign that read “Bridges Not Walls,” one of the less combative slogans. Yet every few minutes he had to move, after his sign was blocked by Trump supporters holding up the yard sign being distributed as consolation prizes for not getting inside.
“Gimme half of your sign,” one Trump voter said. “It’s what Bernie would want.”
“Ha-ha,” Schultz said sarcastically. “I saw that joke on Facebook last week. It’s getting kind of old.”
He moved closer to the venue. More Trump voters blocked his sign, though there were no cameras watching him. Finally, after he was circled by angry Trump voters, police officers ushered him out of the crowd and off the premises, where he united with his friends and made plans to volunteer as security at the next day’s Bernie Sanders rally in Madison.