Activists who interrupted a Donald Trump rally Friday night in New Orleans with chants of “Black lives matter” appear to have achieved the most sustained and disruptive protest of the Republican presidential front-runner’s events to date.
No one expected this to happen in New Orleans. But longtime protesters point to a new generation of younger activists steeped in local history, seasoned by the recent divisive debate about Confederate monuments and energized to oppose Trump, whom they see as a successor to a long racist political tradition exemplified by former Louisiana gubernatorial candidate and Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.
Although Trump has called for preventing Muslims from entering the country and for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, he has rarely ventured into black-white relations, except for an episode last weekend in which he first rejected Duke’s support, then said he didn’t know who Duke was and finally rejected his support once again.
However, black activists in New Orleans and elsewhere in the country have seen Trump’s success as built on animosity against minorities among his supporters, and they view the billionaire’s brash and controversial rhetoric as emboldening those with racist impulses.
The activists involved in the New Orleans protest described it as less about electoral politics than a desire to show a majority-black city would not sit by in the face of a campaign they argue taps directly into racist and xenophobic sentiments.
“We came to say that you can’t do that in our city,” said Michael “Quess” Moore, one of the protesters and a founder of Take ’em Down NOLA, a group pushing for the removal of monuments in the city that its members argue were erected to support or celebrate white supremacy.
“He came to the heart and the bottom of the South, and he’s not welcome here,” Moore said.
Trump rallies often have served as a flashpoint for confrontations since the beginning of the campaign, with security personnel getting embroiled with protesters and sometimes journalists in occasionally violent clashes.
While the New Orleans Levee District Police, who aided in security inside the event, and the New Orleans Police Department, which managed traffic outside, said there were no arrests Friday night, multiple reporters who have been following Trump from city to city on the campaign trail said in articles and on Twitter that the New Orleans confrontation was the most intense and chaotic they’d seen so far.
The rally, held in a hangar full of thousands of Trump supporters at New Orleans Lakefront Airport, saw a steady stream of disruptions from individual protesters who were quickly led or dragged out. But the most sustained effort came when a group linked arms in two concentric circles and began chanting “Black lives matter,” said Kataalyst Alcindor, who was in the center ring.
The group included members of the Black Youth Project 100 NOLA, the multicultural organization VAYLA and European Dissent, a group of white anti-racist activists.
Trump supporters around them began to push them back and forth, Alcindor said, and security guards started to separate the linked arms of the activists in a process that derailed the speech for several minutes as Trump heckled the protesters and the media members who turned their attention to them.
As the activists were peeled away, only his inner circle — “this dense nucleus of blackness” — was left, Alcindor said. His group’s chant of “Black lives matter” was met by chants of “U.S.A.” led by Trump and “All lives matter” from the rest of the crowd. Some people close to him screamed “White power” at his group, he said.
Meanwhile, his group was being pushed slowly toward the exit. By this point, Trump was irate. “I can’t believe that in Louisiana, it takes this long. What’s going on here? … Louisiana, I am very surprised at this. It’s not like you. It’s not your reputation,” he told the crowd.
The protesters said they had little hope of changing minds or winning over voters at the rally. Instead, they said, the purpose was to push back against what some argued is a campaign built on white nationalist rhetoric and that draws support from perceived racial grievances.
The protest gained national attention Friday night, in contrast to past protests in New Orleans that often have been seen as anemic. And it appeared to be part of a more sustained local movement that has been galvanized by a variety of issues, including claims of police brutality, economic inequality and the recent fight over monuments to Confederate leaders.
In the 35 years that Malcolm Suber has been involved in protests in the city, he’s seen people show up in numbers “when there were outright atrocities like the Algiers Seven, Adolph Archie, Henry Glover,” he said, listing some of the most notorious cases of alleged police misconduct. “But then people got back to their everyday lives. People here didn’t have that much stick-to-it-tiveness.”
On Friday, Suber and other protesters ran into some pushback from Levee District Police. “They ran our people to the neutral ground and were trying to tell us that we couldn’t even be on the neutral ground,” he said. Shortly afterward, he said, they were approached by Secret Service agents who said they wanted to ensure that his group didn’t cause any disruption.
According to a statement from the Independent Police Monitor’s Office, Sister Alison McCrary negotiated with the Levee District Police and the Secret Service, which subsequently “changed their practice” and allowed everyone to enter any outdoor areas that had not yet reached capacity.
Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley said he believes the Secret Service overstepped its bounds Friday. “The Secret Service is assigned to physical protection of candidates, not political protection,” he said.
In an email response to questions, Secret Service spokesman Robert Hoback said, “The Secret Service does not engage in any action to address or remove any individual or group exercising First Amendment rights who may create a disruption at a secured venue.” He did not respond to specific questions about the New Orleans rally.