What happens when Donald Trump visits a Black Neighbourhood

The only black people at Donald Trump's rally at Chester in Pennsylvania were a group of men and women manning the stalls that sold Trump merchandise Niha Masih
30 September, 2016

On 22 September 2016, in a movie studio near the city of Chester in Pennsylvania, at the far end of a small stage with a campaign poster in the backdrop, stood a statue of Rocky, made in the likeness of Donald Trump, the Republican Presidential nominee. Rocky, the titular character that the actor Sylvester Stallone played in the eponymous movie series, is a boy from the working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia who goes on to conquer the world of professional boxing. Clad in a white T-shirt that said, “Trump-Pence 2016”, the statue struck a victorious pose with its hands in the air. Later that day, Trump would walk on stage to the film’s theme song, ‘Gonna Fly Now.’  The use of this trope was a nod to the location of the rally, just 22 miles away from Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania. The state of Pennsylvania is a battleground this election—both Hillary Clinton, the Democrat nominee, and Trump are tied in the polls here, making it crucial in determining the final outcome.

Nearly 75 percent of Chester’s population is black, and about 33 percent of the town lives in poverty. Over the last few weeks, Trump’s campaign has evolved its messaging to black voters—an attempt to varnish the virulent rhetoric that had underlined the campaign until recently. Some of this rhetoric is on blatant display in a video that was compiled by The New York Timesin August. It features unfiltered voices from Trump rallies, which include racial, sexist and violent slurs.

The support for Trump amongst the black community remains dismal. The average of four national polls put it at 2 percent, behind not just Clinton, but also the two minor party candidates. In early September, the Republican nominee made a bid to mend fences and addressed a black congregation at a church in Detroit, in Michigan, and gave a sit-down interview to the pastor. But as I witnessed during the Trump rally I attended, his supporters and him have a long way to go to bridge the racial divide.

That afternoon, I took a 30-minute train ride from Philadelphia to get to the small station in Chester, about 15 minutes away from the venue. A young black woman picked me up in a slick blue BMW sedan, which stood out in stark contrast to the dozens of shuttered shops and boarded-up houses we crossed on our way to the movie studio at which the rally was being held. Outside the venue, a frail 70-year-old white man stood with a sign that read: “I Love Walls” and “Democrat for Trump.” I watched as another man passing by in an SUV, slowed down, gave the old man a thumbs-up sign, and said, “Thank you, buddy.”

I reached the venue at about 3.45pm, by which time long queues of people had already formed despite the sweltering heat. Trump was scheduled to arrive only by 7 pm. For all of the candidate’s recent nods to black voters, the crowd was almost entirely white. Most of them had come from neighbouring counties that have a predominantly white population. I saw several people wearing campaign gear with messages of varying levels of offensiveness—from “Trump that Bitch,” to “Build the Wall,” to “Les Deplorables.”

The only black people around were a group of men and women manning the stalls that sold Trump merchandise. I asked Rick, an affable-looking man, about what brought him there. Rick was selling at least six different kinds of T-shirts; caps that read “Make America Great Again”—Trump’s famous campaign slogan; mugs; and badges. “What do you think? I’m a businessman, just like him,” he told me, “So it’s an opportunity. Who I’m voting for, who I support is personal. This is business.” The best-selling item incidentally, Rick said, was not one with Trump’s name on it, but anti-Clinton badges, priced at $5 apiece, that read: “Hillary for Prison.”

Inside the large hall at which the rally was being held, the mood was festive: as the crowd waited for Trump, people lined up to purchase campaign signs, several elderly women re-did their make-up, and young boys moved about noisily in groups.

By about 6 pm, the hall was packed even as more people continued to trickle in. Though I stood out in this racially uniform crowd, I did not get the hostile stares I had expected. I did, however, feel acutely out of place when the crowd erupted into aggressive chants of “USA, USA”—which I did not join. Trump’s supporters appeared to have internalised some of his own hostility towards the media, getting quotes from them proved to be harder than I had fathomed. They displayed none of the ease with which crowds flock to speak to the press at an Indian political event.

I had some luck with four Trump fans from Temple University, a liberal college in Philadelphia. One of the students, Austin Borden, a 21-year-old majoring in Biology, and I discussed the Black Lives Matter movement. “The whole movement is based on lies,” he said. “Was it Michael Brown? Hands up, don’t shoot—complete lie. He didn’t put his hands up you know, he attacked the cops.” Borden was referring to the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. After Brown’s death, #BlackLivesMatter became the rallying cry for a movement to draw attention to police brutality against black Americans. The police officer who shot Brown alleged that the teenager had tried to assault him. Many witnesses contested this claim. There was also evidence to suggest that when he was shot, Brown’s hands were up in the air.  Although it snowballed after Brown’s death,Black Lives Matterhad started as a hashtag on social media a year earlier, after George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watchman in Florida was acquitted for the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black teenager. In 2013, the jury trying the case decided that Zimmerman had fired at the teen in self-defense.

In 2015, nearly 350black people were killed by the police, 30 percent of whom were unarmed. In 2016, the toll has already climbed to 217.  On 20 September, another black man was shot dead by the police in Charlotte, North Carolina, resulting in several nights of violent protests.

After speaking to Borden, I spotted a young man of South Asian origin. Kevin Sam, originally from Kerala, is a nursing student about to receive his green card—which grants its recipient a permanent-residence status in the United States. Sam told me that he had never faced any racial discrimination in the country and did not think that Trump was a racist. “Basically we need a change. For the last years, Obama-Clinton have destroyed the country. So I believe he is a great voice for the American people,” he said. Although the Indian-American community has largely voted for the Democratic Party in the past, in this election cycle, several prosperous entrepreneurs have formed the Republican Hindu Coalition pledging support to Donald Trump.

At about quarter to seven, Trump’s warm-up guy, a well-known basketball coach named Bobby Knight, came on stage to rev up the crowd. During his speech, I ran into an unlikely duo—Adam Bruckner and Angel Williams. Bruckner, 41-years-old, is a youth director at Helping Hand Rescue Mission, a Philadelphia-based charity that works with the homeless and runs after-school programs for children.  Over six feet tall, Williams, Bruckner’s student, seemed older than his 14 years. A tall, gangly, black teenager, he instantly stood out in the crowd. Barely reacting to anything that was being said, he kept his gaze fixed on the stage. I asked Bruckner if I could ride back to Philadelphia with them once the event was over so that I could to talk to Williams. He agreed.

Moments later, Trump walked out onto the stage. The crowd went wild and surged forward. In the melee, I ended up next to a tall bald man dressed in a black T-shirt with the American flag and an enthusiastic young East Asian boy. Both booed and jeered aggressively every time Trump chastised the media or Clinton. When Trump accused the media of not showing the large crowds that attended his events, the man in the black T-shirt shouted loudly, “media sucks.” “CNN sucks,” he screamed later.

Despite the mostly-white audience, Trump spent the first ten minutes speaking about the black community and the issues facing them. But his outreach has been ambiguous. Many commentators have called it an attempt aimed at assuaging moderate white voters who may be concerned about his racist impulses, and not the black community itself. He referred to the ongoing protest in Charlotte as “rioting”, noting that it was “a threat to all peaceful citizens and it must be ended and ended now.”

“For every one violent disrupter there are thousands of moms and dads in those same communities who just want their kids to be able to walk home safely from school,” Trump continued. “To all citizens, in all of our inner cities and all across the country I say these words to you tonight. I am with you and I will fight for you I promise,” he said. There was no mention of the problem of police shootings of unarmed black men. Instead, Trump blamed Clinton for “peddling the narrative of cops as a racist force in our society.” This line was similar to the one he took in the presidential debate, held four days later, on 26 September. During the debate, he advocated the use of harsher policing methods, such as the controversial stop and frisk policy. He also refused to apologise for repeatedly denying that Barack Obama, the president of the United States, was born there.

Painting a bleak picture of inner-city neighbourhoods, Trump added: “These are communities that have tremendous levels of poverty, bad education, horrible jobs and no jobs. It doesn’t get worse and the cities are so unsafe. You walk your child to a store and you end up getting shot.” Then, in a low, serious-sounding voice, he asked, “I say what do you have to lose?” Trump repeated the question thrice. During a similar address in August, his tone had been more arrogant: “What the hell do you to have to lose?” he had asked.

“I will fix it, we’re going to fix it together. We’re going to make it safe,” he continued. As is often the case with the Republican candidate, what he did not say was more telling—an explanation on how he intended to fix everything was not forthcoming. But the crowd didn’t seem to care.

Trump also brought up Clinton’s remark that half of his supporters were a basket of deplorables.” The crowd booed loudly. He stopped mid-sentence, for effect. Frenzied chants of “Lock her up” filled the hall. He thanked the crowd, and moved on to the next topic.

Dissenters, vocal in earlier Trump rallies, had dwindled. In the middle of his speech, a lone protestor shouted “Show us your tax returns!”—a reference to Trump’s dogged refusal to follow the convention of Presidential candidates releasing their tax returns. Security guards immediately took hold of the man and escorted him out. “Asshole, asshole,” the crowd roared.

But compared to several of his earlier rallies—which had seen violence, the candidate’s characteristic rudeness and his routine decisions to throw out attendees, including a crying baby—Trump appeared to be subdued. The Trump at the rally knew that the course of his re-galvanised campaign needed to stay on track as it entered the home stretch. At the end of his speech, he urged the voters to cast their vote on 8 November, even if they were sick. “I don’t care. Get up and vote,” he instructed.

After the rally, I rode with Bruckner and Williams to Philadelphia. Williams told me that he had grown up in a government-subsidised housing project in North Philadelphia, where, he said, shootings are a common occurrence. As a young black teenager, Williams said that he too feared for his safety. “I feel safe in Philly—where I am from is majority black. But if I go outside of Philly, I’m just scared that I’m going to get hurt,” he told me.

I asked him what it felt like to be one of the five-or-so-odd black people among the hundreds of white people in the room. “To be honest, I was very scared. Because when I saw somebody getting thrown out, like five minutes after he started talking, I was scared. I wasn’t just going to do anything. But at the rally a bunch of white people were happy and saying thank-you to me because I actually went there,” Williams said. Haltingly, he added that his opinion of Trump had improved a notch after the rally, because “he didn’t seem like he was rotten.”

Trump may have had a mellow night, but his legacy of race-baiting was being kept alive by his staff. On the day of the rally, Kathy Miller, part of his campaign team in the state of Ohio, told The Guardian, “I don’t think there was any racism until Obama got elected. We never had problems like this… Now the people with guns and shootings in the neighborhoods and not being responsible citizens – that’s a big change—that’s a philosophy that Obama has perpetuated in America.” “If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, it’s your own fault,” Miller said.

Following a media outcry, Miller was forced to resign. The sentiment that Trump has tapped into, however, will likely be harder to drive out.