It took nearly three days for President Donald Trump to name and denounce the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Friday and Saturday, violently clashing with counter-protestors and leaving one woman, Heather Heyer, dead. This weekend’s bloodshed and Trump’s limp response to it happened to coincide with the President’s first visit to his hometown since his poorly attended inauguration in January, and last night thousands of New Yorkers gathered to give him an unfriendly welcome.
Crowds began gathering at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street around 5pm last night to protest Trump’s international warmongering and domestic negligence. The mood was somber, with many participants wearing all-black in mourning for Heyer, while others held signs lamenting the death of democracy. Like at previous anti-Trump protests, there was plenty of quippy signage, too. One man wore a placard around his neck that read, “A NYC Salute to Trump,” with a hole through the left side of it through which he stuck his hand to flip the bird. A young blonde woman raised a poster bearing photos of Heyer’s accused killer, James Alex Fields, white supremacist Richard Spencer, and Friday night’s tiki-torch-toting mob with the words “Vanilla ISIS” in bold letters below. Eventually, a united front of protesters positioned itself across the street from Trump Tower’s main entrance.
“The First Amendment isn’t only the right to speak out against government suppression, it’s also the right to be within sight and sound of the location of that which you’re protesting,” said Sunsara Taylor, a spokesperson for Refuse Fascism, one of the organizations that helped lead the protest. “We have a right — even a responsibility to be there.”
Rising with the chants of “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!” and “March to the tower, drive them from power!” was artist Jeffrey Beebe’s Kickstarter-funded Trumpy the Rat, stationed at the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. The funny yet sinister 15-foot inflatable, modeled on the popular “Scabby the Rat” construction site protest props, has the unmistakable orange hue and flaxen combover of the president and wears a suit emblazoned with Confederate flag cufflinks and a Russian flag lapel pin. John Lee of Chelsea gallery BravinLee programs, who commissioned the piece, said on Monday evening that political caricature has been around — and a crucial form of political discourse — since Ancient Greece. Trumpy will stay up as long as possible, Lee said, and its latest whereabouts will be broadcast on the gallery’s Twitter page.
Despite the comic relief of an inflatable rodent caricature of Trump, yesterday’s peaceful protest was permeated by a sense of anxiety. Around 6:30pm — well before Trump was due to arrive — NYPD officers threatened protesters with arrest and forcibly shepherded them away from their preferred location directly across Fifth Avenue from Trump Tower’s main entrance resulting in at least one woman being pushed to ground (she didn’t sustain any injuries).
“At the beginning of the protest, they were trying to keep us from the tower entirely,” said Taylor. “They kept dispersing us, they had pens everywhere; we couldn’t gather. A lot of people that came here for this were looking around trying to figure out what was happening, but they couldn’t cohere.” Attendees were largely confined to the southeast and southwest corners of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, and the northeast and northwest corners of Fifth and 56th Street, despite the fact that pedestrian crosswalks remained open.
“Our government is not defending equal rights for all,” said Caleigh Scott, co-founder of the activist comedy sketch duo Girlcrush Comedy, who came straight to Trump Tower from her Union Square office after she finished work. “It shouldn’t take a president of the United States days to denounce things this country considers to be enemies, like the KKK and Nazis. If Trump is going to come to New York, we need to make sure he hears the voice of the people of his hometown.”
Several Trump supporters turned out as nightfall approached and Trump’s motorcade — arriving just after 9 pm by a route that kept him out of most protesters’ sight — neared. One older man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat held a sign that said “Daddy’s Home.” A handful of Orthodox Jewish men carrying signs stating that they had voted for Trump appeared around 8:30 pm, eliciting angry shouts of “Shame!” from the gathered crowd. Upon seeing the Trump supporters walk by — and the ensuing verbal sparring between them and protesters — a middle-aged woman behind me caught my eye and said, “I feel like we’re living a total nightmare.”
Things were fairly calm and quiet when I left the scene an hour later, long after the President’s anticlimactic arrival. I passed a weary queue of protesters and police officers waiting together in line for snacks at a hot dog stand across the street from Grand Army Plaza. Just behind them, Trumpy the Rat’s dark silhouette still ominously loomed.