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This is how Donald Trump protests became so violent

Going into the convention in Cleveland, both pro- and anti-Trumpers have only gotten more concerned that the other side poses a threat to America.

A fight between supporters and protesters at Donald Trump's cancelled rally in Chicago. Jabin Botsford/Getty

Where Donald Trump goes, all too often, violence follows.

America has seen increased civil unrest over the past few months — inspiring comparisons to the widespread rioting and police violence of 1968.

Trump himself has encouraged his supporters to be violent at times. But increasingly over the past few months, he hasn’t even had to: His rallies have become a magnet for people (on both left and right) who are quick to violence.

The key to understanding pro- and anti-Trump violence is that both Trump supporters and Trump protesters feel, on some level, that the other is an existential threat to their existence. It’s easy to see how that mindset justifies violence — even if neither the mindset nor the violence is justified.

So it’s perhaps not surprising, given the slow escalation of violence between Trump supporters and Trump protesters since the beginning of 2016, that many are worried the Republican National Convention in Cleveland will descend into absolute chaos.

The atmosphere leading up to the conventions is tense enough that many activist groups are already planning to tone down their protests in Cleveland because they want to keep their members safe. But that’s not likely to deter the elements on both sides that are spoiling for a fight.

Violence at Trump rallies was initially instigated by Trump supporters

For as long as Donald Trump has been running for president, there have been protests inside and outside his rallies.

Initially, those protests were largely the purview of Latino and immigrant rights activists, upset with Trump’s characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers during his campaign launch and his subsequent proposal to build a wall on the US/Mexico border. Trump supporters did not always react well to such protests: Those who showed up to protest Trump reported that they’d had their hair pulled and their signs ripped at Trump rallies.

As it became increasingly clear that Trump would be the Republican candidate for president, his protesters became more diverse as well: Black Lives Matter supporters, white anti-racists, and other stripes of progressives. The protests also got more frequent.

In response, Trump supporters were increasingly likely to resort to violence — and Trump started egging them on.

  • In November, a Trump supporter "punched and attempted to choke" a protester at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama (according to the Washington Post); Trump said afterward that "maybe he deserved to get roughed up."
  • On March 3, two protesters at a Kentucky rally were assaulted by members of a white supremacist group.
  • On March 9, John McGraw, who is white, punched Rakeem Jones, who is black, in the face while cops pulled Jones from a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Trump told the crowd that "in the good old days this didn’t use to happen, because they used to treat them very rough."
  • On March 19, Air Force service member Tony Pettway, who is black, punched and kicked protester Bryan Sanders, who is white, at a rally in Tucson, Arizona.

On a couple of occasions, Trump promised to pay supporters’ legal fees if they ended up in court after clashes with protesters. After McGraw was charged with assaulting Jones in Fayetteville, Trump’s bluff was called. He attempted to deny he’d ever offered to pay anyone’s court fees — but, more to the point, he stopped using that line at rallies.

Without the blank check, unprovoked assaults on Trump protesters got a little less common. But protesters themselves were beginning to get more coordinated — moving beyond individual interruptions of Trump protests to bigger displays of strength.

Trump’s canceled rally in Chicago in March showcased tensions between supporters and protesters

The first big flashpoint during the primaries came in early March — the Friday night before the Illinois primary. Donald Trump had scheduled a campaign rally in Chicago. For protesters, this was a huge opportunity: Local activists attempted to shut down a street corner outside the venue to protest both Trump and local District Attorney Anita Alvarez, while students at the University of Illinois Chicago started a Facebook page to try to shut down the event itself.

Then suddenly — after the rally was supposed to start, and after supporters and protesters alike had filled the venue — Trump canceled the event entirely.

He claimed he’d been advised to cancel the rally due to safety concerns. But law enforcement officials said Trump’s "abrupt announcement of the cancellation of the event" actually exacerbated the tensions already brewing in the auditorium.

Jabin Botsford/Washington Post

The next few hours were terrifying. Writer Keith O'Brien, who attended the rally with the UIC student protesters, recounts in Politico Magazine:

They (Trump supporters) kept coming, surging forward. I got struck in the head with a thrown object, something hard, metal perhaps. Protesters, unaffiliated with the UIC movement, lashed out, pushing back, fighting in skirmishes with willing Trump participants, baiting the violence. And the UIC students, angry to the point of tears, had to be held back from making similar mistakes, until finally the protesters, facing the crowd, linked arms as they had planned, coming together in a circle.

For the most part, the tensions didn’t spill over into outright physical violence: Much of the violence appears to have happened outside the venue, where there's evidence to suggest that the Chicago Police Department made things worse than they otherwise would have been. But over the weekend following the abortive Chicago rally, television news talked about "clashes" between Trump supporters and Trump protesters — implying that violence had been more widespread.

Trump ended up winning the Illinois primary handily; many analysts believe that many conservatives were galvanized by fear after what happened in Chicago. Many anti-Trump activists, for their part, saw the successful "shutdown" of the Chicago rally as a victory — just as many Trump supporters saw it as confirmation that protesters were the real instigators.

In the Southwest, clashes outside rallies have seen both protesters and supporters using violence as a first resort

In the last months of Trump’s campaign for the nomination — especially in the final month, leading up to the primary in California — violence at Trump rallies took an entirely different form. Confrontations between protesters and supporters (and between protesters and police) outside the venue became much more tense, with Trump protesters often responsible for escalating toward violence.

In late May, protesters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, threw rocks and a burning Trump T-shirt at police officers and broke the windshield of a police car. In early June, in San Jose, California, protesters reportedly chased down and beat up supporters, threw bottles at them, and shook one supporter’s car.

A protester faces off with police outside a Donald Trump rally in San Jose, June 2, 2016. Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty

These protesters weren’t necessarily the same people who were chanting and marching peacefully inside and outside Trump rallies; in Albuquerque, in particular, one reporter characterized them as "a very different crowd from those who spent most of the day waving signs and chanting slogans behind barriers." But that isn’t necessarily encouraging — it indicated that Trump rallies were beginning to attract people who were coming for the purpose of confrontation — and potentially violence.

The violence seemed to be escalating on the supporter side as well. In San Diego, Trump supporters responded to a peaceful protest by pepper-spraying the protesters in the face.

A Sacramento white supremacist protest that resulted in stabbings: a preview of what people are afraid Cleveland will be

The most alarming clash between left and right during the Trump era didn’t technically involve Trump at all. In Sacramento in late June, a white supremacist group called the Traditionalist Worker Party held a rally (for which they had a permit) outside the California State Capitol. Anti-racist activists planned a counterprotest — which ended up being several times larger than the rally itself.

The scene quickly descended into chaos. Up to 10 people were stabbed in fights both on and off the Capitol grounds.

It’s still not clear which side instigated the violence — no charges appear to have been filed yet, and some of the stabbing victims are refusing to cooperate with police. The evidence out there suggests that many of the counterprotesters came with the intention of beating up some white supremacists, or at the very least intimidating them. (Some came armed with baseball bats.) Indeed, a Ku Klux Klan rally in Anaheim, California, in March resulted in several protesters being charged with stabbing KKK members.

To many, though, the mere presence of white supremacists constituted a violent threat. So the Sacramento melee seemed like a miniature preview of what might be in store in Cleveland, especially when the white supremacist group responded to the clash by declaring it would protect Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention.

Even activists are trying to pull back from Cleveland. Will it be enough?

Jonathan Bachman via Reuters

Arguably, temperatures are running even higher on both left and right now than they were in late June. Progressives and nonwhite activists are incensed by the recent police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile; many conservatives blame those same activists for the massacre of five Dallas police officers outside an anti-police brutality rally, by a man who claimed he wanted to kill white people and specifically white officers.

And anyone who was already worried about violence in Cleveland is getting even more so. That includes many of the activist groups that had been planning to hold peaceful anti-Trump protests — some of whom are now scaling back their plans for the safety of their members. BuzzFeed’s Adrian Carrasquillo reports that one planned march has been canceled due to safety concerns.

This might be a good sign. It might mean that there will be fewer opportunities for Trump supporters and Trump protesters to confront each other — which means fewer chances for violence to break out.

A Trump supporter yells and shoves during the cancelled Donald Trump rally in Chicago. Tasos Katapodis/AFP via Getty

But it might not be. After all, the groups planning marches aren’t the ones that are instigating violence. If the only people on the streets of Cleveland are those looking for a fight, there may only be fewer opportunities to deescalate brewing confrontations.

Ultimately, though, regardless of what happens in Cleveland, the threat of violent clashes between left and right isn’t going to go away. This is bigger than the Republican National Convention — it is even bigger than Donald Trump. Many racial conservatives feel that their country is being taken from them by "reverse racist" ethnic nationalists; many nonwhites feel that racial conservatives put their lives in danger.

Who gets nominated in Cleveland and who gets elected in November won’t change that. The RNC is just the biggest, most prominent national stage for a tension we’ll be seeing in American life for some time.


Why did violence break out at Trump rallies?