Saturday, June 18, 2016

Stuck In The Middle With You: Observing Arizona's Trump Rally & Protests

Right now, we’re living in the middle of a story.  It began with Donald Trump announcing his run for the Presidency of the United States, and it’s destined to end in November.  Until then, we don’t know what the next day will bring.  Sometimes, being in the middle is a frustrating place to be.

Donald Trump KKK inflatable inflatible protest Phoenix Arizona

In the spirit of being in the middle, on the cusp of the unexpected, I loitered around today’s pre-rally Trump protest, and outside of the Trump rally itself.  The pre-rally protest was at Encanto Park in Central Phoenix.  When I arrived around 1 p.m., thirty to forty protesters were listening to the last of several special speakers.  I heard a Mexican gentleman, via interpreter, describe his unfair treatment from the Phoenix Police Department and a lawyer discuss immigrant rights.  When the sound system started crackling, perhaps as its own protest for having to work in the sweltering sun, the rally ended.

Fortunately, I had enough time to meet and talk to Rob McElwain.  His art hung around the perimeter of the event.  If you’ve driven through downtown Phoenix recently, you may be familiar with his work.  Rob told me he sets up everyday outside of the Wells Fargo building, and hears stories about folks’ experiences with the police and sheriff’s departments.  His protest murals feature caricatures of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Donald Trump on cardboard canvases, and considering the quantity in his portfolio, I presume his humble resources speak both to budget and portability.  

While Rob and I were chatting, a woman approached and also wanted pictures of him and his work.  She offered us water and said she drove from Chandler just to make sure protesters remembered something to drink in the heat.  Ironically, as we all shook hands and parted from a surprisingly delightful conversation, a friend was commenting on my Instagram picture of the scene that I should be careful.  “They’re known to be dangerous.”  I completely understand his commentary and concern, considering recent stories of protestors’ violence against rally attendees and police.  In this case, my experience was exactly the opposite -- and quite eye-opening.

I’ve long enjoyed protest art and once self-published a zine featuring pictures I’d taken in Hollywood between 2002 and 2006 of anti-war signs, during George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.”  Talking to Rob reminded me, whether you love or hate these works of protest art, the amount of time they spend in the spotlight pales to the hours spent crafting them.  Today, they make a current, significant statement; tomorrow, whether or not their agenda comes to pass, they become pieces of nostalgia at best, or at worst, considering their often hasty construction, just plain trash.  This century has a rich history of beautifully rendered propaganda, from the World War II poster to the tie-dyed peace-stuffs of the ‘70s.  For Rob’s work, and others’ work like his, it’s best to be stuck in the middle.  This is where it thrives.

Donald Trump KKK protest Phoenix Arizona "Dump Trump" "protest art"
After the pre-rally protest and a Sonic raspberry limeade (hey, it was happy hour), I found free parking near the Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum, where Trump was scheduled to speak at 4 p.m.  The area was already tagged with anti-Trump art and lined with “Trump Shops” of pro-Donald tees, pins, and stickers.  At 2:45 p.m., traffic was flowing freely and a small cluster of protestors occupied the corner closest to the venue, in the shade of the Fairground’s marquee.  Considering we were only 75 minutes to showtime, I expected more of a to-do.

Standing at the crosswalk across from the protest, a father held his son, all of four-years-old.  The round-cheeked boy had a Trump hat on, and the father looked visibly nervous at the necessity of walking through the chanting crowd.  He was breathing heavily. I aroused small talk until the green man beckoned us forward.  At the curb we parted ways and shared a sigh of relief at the respectful ruckus.  

Donald Trump horns protest Phoenix Arizona "Dump Trump" "protest art"
I will say this about that moment and the entirety of my time among the protestors: They were loud, and in some cases crude, but they never, ever, touched anyone with force or violence.  Trump supporters dwelt and debated among them for the two hours I loitered, and no one from either side crossed the line of confrontation.  I was impressed and relieved -- and somewhat embarrassed that I was impressed and relieved.

Now, what proceeded has left me baffled and is the core reason I’ve decided to document these events.  I self-publish a comic book about uncanny conflict in Arizona, so I dropped myself into the middle of today’s protest to experience, yes, uncanny conflict.  Within the protest, a Trump supporter and a Trump denouncer would loudly debate, with a schoolyard-like crowd circling around them.  Cell phones, news cameras, and voice recorders tentacled the scene, until the argument would end and the combatants would separate, rejoining their clans until the next rabble was roused.  It looked like a rap battle.  Topics were skimmed but the surface was rarely pierced, and if combatants rematched, they didn’t pick up where they left off but remained above the meniscus of truly meaningful debate.

This happened several times every hour, perhaps every ten minutes or so.  The regularity created a rhythm that, without meaning, lacked momentum.  At one point, someone offered to mediate the arguments.  

Donald Trump protest Phoenix Arizona "Dump Trump" "protest art"“Which side are you on?” an anti-Trump protester asked.

“I’m neutral,” the would-be mediator replied.

To paraphrase, the protester responded, “To be clear, nobody hates anybody here.  There are people using Trump’s name to promote hate and racism, which results in people getting killed, and there are people that want that to stop.  If you’re neutral, you’re doing nothing to stop the killing.”  

The villain of the piece, the guy evoking Trump’s name in these frequent face-offs, was wearing a “Fuck Islam” T-shirt.  Apparently, he had been removed from the Coliseum shortly after the doors had opened and was now in enemy territory.  He was the shining example of why we should ignore a book’s cover -- or, perhaps, the danger of putting one book’s cover on another tome.  His arguments were articulate and even-tempered.  He offered the guy dressed as the Democratic donkey (or an in-effigy jackass) water, since the costume undoubtedly amplified the heat.  

Donald Trump protest Phoenix Arizona "Dump Trump" "protest art"
At one point, he said to someone wearing a burqa, who identified as a transgendered Muslim, “I don’t care who you worship!  I don’t care if you’re transgendered!  Why should I care what you do with your life?”

Someone pointed at his shirt and shouted, “We think you care because your shirt says Fuck Islam!”

He pointed to the text and replied, “Yeah, because people are using this to kill us!”

That particular round robin ended with the agreement that every religion has extremists.  A few minutes later, the guy hugged one of his opponents. He may have worn an aggressive shirt and I don’t defend it, but, if actions speak louder, he was as peaceful as protesters come. The news won’t report this.  It doesn’t fit their narrative that two parties with such dramatically different opinions could come that close to camaraderie -- that they might, I dare say, meet in the middle.

So, yes, this baffles me.  I’m baffled because, for months, we’ve watched Republicans and Democrats first in Civil War, now on the brink of political battle, with roller-coaster polls rendering all prediction impossible.  I’m baffled because the art I beheld today was evocative without inspiring violence, as we're told it does.  I’m baffled because the arguments I overheard ended on the middle ground of agreeing to disagree, which is more agreement than I ever expected.  I wanted to witness the uncanny.  I ended up feeling hopeful.

In the spirit of being in the middle, on the cusp of the unexpected, I loitered around today’s pre-rally Trump protest, and outside of the Trump rally itself.  Sometimes, being in the middle is an exciting place to be.