A Trump rally, a counter protest, an inflatable baby, a civil rights icon, and over 10,000 supporters and protestors squeezed into several blocks along the Wildwood Boardwalk and yet still, somehow, we’re all still here.
By David Todd McCarty | Thursday, January 30, 2020
This is Part Two in a series of articles on the Trump rally in Wildwood, NJ on Jan 28, 2020. Part Three will cover the Congressional Candidates running for Jeff Van Drew’s CD-2 seat.
The day after the rally, it was all was quiet again in the seaside, resort town of Wildwood, New Jersey. By noon that day, Public Works crews had removed all the barricades and cleaned up the flotsam and jetsam that 10,000 revelers had left behind. What had been a raucous, cloudy and chilly day before, was now sunny, quiet and still. But what was left in the wake of this event, beyond the discarded chairs, sleeping bags and blankets, remained to be seen.
The City of Wildwood is used to large crowds, lively events, wild parties and outrageous carousing, just not usually in the middle of winter, when this part of the world is half asleep, and locals roam the quiet streets, largely undisturbed.
In the weeks leading up to Donald Trump’s planned visit to the Wildwood Convention Center, to hold a campaign rally and reward the newly-minted Republican Jeff Van Drew for switching parties, with the President’s endorsement and presence, it was unclear how this would all play out. How would Wildwood handle the crowds and additional security needs of a Presidential visit, especially at a time of year when the population is closer to 5,000 as opposed to the 250,000 we see in the summer? Would there be problems? Would there be violence? Would it rain? Would it flood? Would there be locusts? Would the seas turn to blood? It remained to be seen.
Fans of the President began arriving as early as 2pm on Sunday afternoon for a Tuesday evening rally, and many slept outside in the parking lot, hoping for their chance to see the President in person. In a moment when the local police were calling a Code Blue (when the temperate drops below freezing) for numerous consecutive nights, and local charities worked tirelessly to give our county’s homeless population proper overnight shelter, these people were choosing to sleep outside, to experience what they believed was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
By the morning of the rally, there were already 5,000 people in line for a venue with a capacity of no more than 7,400 and more were coming in by the hundreds every hour. The lines snaked through a maze of barricades, down streets, through a park, and past blocks of homes and businesses. Two Large video screens posted safety and security information, and classic rock blared from a sound system near the Convention Center. Hotels, bars, retail stores and restaurants, many of which would normally be shuttered for the season, were buzzing with activity and welcoming guests with signs and banners of their own.
On the Boardwalk, vendors sold every type of Trump merchandise imaginable. From your basic trucker hats to knit caps and scarves, tee-shirts and flags, adorned with campaign logos and an assortment of artfully-rendered images of the President, looking like Rambo or Putin, shirtless and ripped. In the middle of it all, was a large, inflatable Baby Trump that a protestor had brought in. In one of the few aspects of violence that was reported, an angry man lunged at the installation and attempted to cut it with a knife. He was tackled by the owner of the display with the help of a nearby protestor, and was promptly arrested by police. According to the Wildwood Police Department, he was the only arrest of the day.
Several blocks away, in a far parking lot, adjacent to the Boardwalk, a small gathering of protestors was assembling for their own demonstration. Organized by Cape May County Indivisible, co-chairs Shayla Woolfort, Kaylin Lydia and Cassandra Gatelein, were getting set up to welcome nearly thirty grassroots groups who were expected to arrive from all over New Jersey and beyond. They came in buses and carpools, on bicycles and on foot, to protest Trump and voice their displeasure with Congressman Jeff Van Drew for his defection from the Democratic Party.
Van Drew had recently pledged his “undying support” for the President in a televised press conference in the Oval Office, betraying the Democratic Party in order to join the Republican one, a measure many viewed as a calculated and unprincipled move to save his own political career once his stance on impeachment no longer became tenable with voters in his district, and re-election seemed dubious.
According to the Indivisible organizers, the protest was designed to be a political and social justice rally, in opposition of the moral failures of the President and the betrayal of Congressman Jeff Van Drew. The speakers were a combination of political, social justice, and religious leaders, grassroots organizers, and Congressional candidates for the Democratic primary for New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional House Seat that Jeff Van Drew now occupies.
“This was a grassroots protest in response to the Trump/Van Drew rally,” said Cassandra Gatelein, co-chair of Cape May County Indivisible. “The purpose was to stand strong in solidarity with the marginalized communities that Trump is hurting; to reject the blatant racism, bigotry, misogyny, violence, and corruption of this administration; and to reject Jeff Van Drew as our Congressman, who has pledged his “undying support” to all of this.”
But the organizers also say they were clear with the campaigns of the Congressional candidates, that they wanted this to be about unity within the Democratic Party, and not a campaign rally for their individual campaigns. They didn’t want any showboating and no attacks. They didn’t want any endorsements or traditional campaigning. They wanted them to come together to inspire voters and protest President Trump’s rally.
Indivisible explained that they had previously met with Chief Robert Regalbuto of the Wildwood Police Department to coordinate with the protestors. They were told they could set up their podium on the Boardwalk, and would have a cordoned off area below, but the police on the scene explained that this was not in keeping with their orders, and the protestors were forced to set up elsewhere. In addition, the area of the Boardwalk above the protest area, was supposed to have been cordoned off, but was left completely open, with access to anyone who wanted to walk up, with no security and no screening. The protestors felt rather exposed.
“We had been very intentional about coordinating this event with the Chief, who had been really great,” said Shayla Woolfort, one of the Indivisible organizers. “Unfortunately, the officers who were on duty that day with us were not nearly as accommodating. In fact, they changed the logistics on us, and were unresponsive to the point of creating a security concern. They were also seen laughing and cracking jokes – not only were they enabling the bad behavior of the Trump supporters; they seemed entertained by it. This was truly disappointing.”
Chief Regalbuto did not respond to our request for comment.
Starting at 3:30pm a small group gathered to hear music, and an array of speakers who were there to protest the policies of Donald Trump and call for change. The protest grew as the day went on culminating in the keynote speech by Martin Luther King, III, a civil rights activist, and the eldest son of the late civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr to a group of more than 450.
The first of the scheduled speakers was the Rev. Dawn Fortune, a self-described genderqueer minister from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Galloway Township, NJ. Originally from New England, they grew up in Maine and Massachusetts and attended seminary at Andover-Newton Theological School in the Boston area. They have served congregations in California and Missouri before coming to New Jersey.
“I want to start by speaking to the LGBTQ people here today,” Fortune began. “Especially the young people. I want you to know that I see you and I know that you’re under attack, and I know that you’re afraid and in danger, and that things are rough. I also know that hate crimes are real….”
At this point a crowd of Trump supporters who had gathered to heckle the group from the Boardwalk began chanting, “USA. USA. USA” as well as shouting insults and derogatory slurs. The protestors shouted back at them for a bit and finally everyone settled down and Fortune began again.
“Every time there is a rally like this, hate crimes go up 230%, and they will rise here,” Fortune continued. “So what I want to tell the young people is that what you think you feel, and what you think you’re experiencing, is real. You’re not imagining it, you’re not being overly sensitive, it’s real. Do what you need to do to keep yourself safe. Do what you need to do to make yourself survive. Because I need you to survive.”
The irony of the situation hung in the air as Rev. Fortune went on to talk about the Holocaust and the danger of not fighting real evil in the world, and as Trump supporters continued to heckle them, often breaking into calls for “four more years” it was hard to reconcile the vile being rained down from the Boardwalk, seemingly for no other value than sheer entertainment on their part. It was a mob, and mob mentality had taken over.
“The fact that there was no attempt by authorities to keep trump supporters away from the part of the boardwalk overlooking our area was inexcusable,” said Sam Costa. “They could have roped off half the width of the boardwalk along our area to keep them further back if they need to keep part open so folks on the boardwalk could get to the restrooms nearby.”
Marie Blistan, President of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), and a high school special education resource center teacher in Washington Township public schools, also spoke to the crowd saying, “I am proud to be the President of the NJEA, representing 200,000 school employees ranging from aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, child study teams, librarians, nurses, security, secretaries and teachers. And because of our work, New Jersey’s schools are number one!”
“I want to thank all who have come out today and with whom we share the values of racial, social, economic and environmental justice,” she said. “Our union, NJEA, has joined with these groups in our commitment to those justices because it is the only way our children will have a better tomorrow.”
“I am a teacher by trade,” Blistan continued, “and so I will use today as what we call a teachable moment—an opportunity for our students, to see that standing against something is not good enough, you must identify what it is you stand for. The irony of this event, being held here in beautiful Cape May County, is not lost on any of us. But it is lost on the leaders who chose this place for their event. It is ironic, because this very place was home for a time, to the legendary Harriet Tubman, a true leader and a humanitarian by trade, and by action. The timing of this event, is also ironic—January, the month when we spotlight the work and teachings of the great Martin Luther King, a scholar and a humanitarian by trade, and by action. Those are the two leaders I want my students to know about.”
“Our children deserve a better world than what is being offered to them now. A world where they see elected officials promoting hate, bigotry, racism, sexism, and classism. It is nothing less than a disgrace. Our children deserve leaders that they can look up to for inspiration. Our union is dedicated to teaching our children that every child can dream and that they can achieve that dream, and it is public education that is the conduit to that dream. Yet it is the educational policies of this President that threatens the very quality of our education, even here in the great state of New Jersey. We must teach our children they must be the change they wish to see in the world. We show them here today what it means to stand up for what you believe in.”
“I close my lesson today, with something I saw inscribed on a school wall in Atlantic City, ‘Dream like Martin, challenge like Rosa, fight like Malcolm, lead like Harriet, and write like Maya,” she ended.
As the night went on, those Trump supporters who hadn’t been able to gain entry into the Convention Center had apparently become disenchanted with watching the speeches on the Jumbotrons, and had made their way down the boardwalk, a full three blocks away, in order to find new entertainment. If they couldn’t be inside to hear their fearful leader call people names, they would do it themselves on his behalf. A sort of “what would Donald do?” social experiment for angry white men.
“I’ve been to my share of rallies,” Kelly Salasin, “and I’ve never encountered citizens like this. It’s always felt safe to bring my kids. To wear what I wanted to wear. To hold a sign that said how I felt. But they even screamed at two ten-year-old children, telling them they should have been aborted.”
“In addition to being called cunts,” said Allison Morgan, “and giving us the finger, there was a lot of crotch grabbing aimed in our direction.”
Gary Melton Sr., who is an associate director at NJEA and was an Atlantic City public school teacher for over twenty years, spoke next.
Melton addressed the entire crowd saying, “Very simply put, when you were brought up and raised, you were taught that lying is wrong. When you were brought up and raised, you were taught that foul language is wrong. When you were brought up and raised, you were taught that disparaging your brother or your sister or your neighbor or your fellow citizen, was wrong. And now we are dealing with a man who should be the pillar of our community and yet has disrespected more people than all the other Presidents put together.”
“Someone asked me, ‘why would you be against someone, who they feel is doing well?’” He said. “And I answered them by asking back, ‘by what gauge are you measuring what well is?’ Because to me, well is not disparaging another human being. Well is, not putting children in cages. Well is, being accepting of all regardless of race or gender. Well is, standing up for what is right. But we have a President that stands only, for what is Trump.”
“I had a sister, who was murdered in Atlantic City,” he said and was met with jeers from the Boardwalk. But he continued saying, “The gun laws are so weak in this country than it’s easier to get a gun in Atlantic City than it is, sometimes, to get an education. We have to make sure that we stand up for the children of this nation. Too many children are dying. Too many are afraid to walk to school. Too many are afraid to sit in a classroom. We must, as a nation, stand up for what is right, and there’s only one way to do it, and we’re doing it tonight. Organize. Organize. Organize. As we organize, we drown out the voices of hate. As we organize, we turn into the mighty strand that cannot be broken. So continue to fight, continue to stand, continue to believe, and we will change this country back to the greatness, it used to be.”
As the day wore on, what had merely been disruptive chants and harmless heckles from a growing crowd on the boardwalk overlooking the designated protest area, had turned into racial epithets and homophobic slurs. What had merely been enthusiastic chants, became angry shouting. And what had merely been an expression of one’s First Amendment rights, became assault, as the mob began to spit on protestors below them, and throw garbage into the crowd. When organizers asked the police to step in and do something, they refused.
“In our training as Peacekeepers we were told that if a Trump person came into our permitted space we should ask him to leave,” explained Ann Quinlan McCabe, one of the Peacekeepers the protesters deployed to deescalate things. “If they refused, we were to seek assistance from the police. The first time this happened I did just that. I approached a group of about five police officers and asked for their assistance to escort this fairly large guy out. I told them I wanted to keep everyone safe and that he was in the crowd taunting our people. They told me he was free to be there and without a crime they couldn’t intervene. I told them we were instructed that the police’s message to our leadership was the police would be available in situations like this. They repeated the guy was free to be in our space and they wouldn’t assist without a crime taking place. Others in our group reported that some of the officers were helpful but I did not have this experience. Throughout the day I managed to escort several of these guy out of the area. I’m in my 60s and should not have had to take this on without police support.”
“A large group of Trump supporters lined the railing on the boardwalk above us, chanting and shouting curses and indecent remarks, for hours,” said Elizabeth Thompson. “The news called it heckling—I don’t think that quite describes what I saw and heard. We were cautioned not to go up to the boardwalk restrooms alone.”
One woman, Debra Donahue, who was there to sing with her band, The Squares, as entertainment, reported that she was spit on by the hecklers who stood just yards away and above her, leaning out against the railing above the protest area.
Sefi Schiller from Refuse Fascism Philly, part of national, grassroots, nonviolent organization dedicated to ousting the Trump/Pence Regime, believing that they pose a catastrophic threat to humanity and the planet, spoke next.
“I am not here to preach to the choir about Trump’s crimes,” she said. “We all know them. What I come with today is a call to action. A call for mass, sustained, nonviolent protests until this situation forces the entire fascist Trump/Pence regime out. This is possible. Countries around the world are showing us the way. France. Egypt. Hong Kong. Bolivia. Ecuador. Haiti.”
“Some of these mass protests were fought for economic issues, others were political. But what they all have in common is that didn’t believe that their government had their best interests at heart. So they hit the streets, demanding real change. South Korea, Puerto Rico and Lebanon have been successful in removing their fascist leaders. This wasn’t accomplished after a handful of protests, they showed up in a big way. Now is the time to organize and impeachment can be the spark that lights up the masses.”
“Don’t tell me it can’t happen here, because it already has. Women’s suffrage. Civil Rights. LGBTQ rights. Those fights weren’t easy and this one won’t be either. Don’t tell me fascism can’t happen here. Countries that were ravaged by fascism didn’t see it coming until it was too late.”
“People have asked me, ‘Do you really think the Trump/Pence regime is fascist?’ Let’s talk about the characteristics of fascism and see if they resonate. Attempting to have control over the economy and the media. Using propaganda to keep people believing what the leaders want. Fascists promote nationalism, discourage immigration, dislike foreigners, and are racist. So, does that sound familiar?”
“The ideals of democracy are a stumbling block to the dictator’s plans and goals. As we know, the election will be rigged, so calling senators and voting, is not enough. Gerrymandering and voter suppression, gives Trump a big window to win. We have to break out, hitting the streets in a big way. It is a must. I’m not saying don’t vote. I vote. But now is not the time to wait for an election that is going to be unfair. Now is the time to use those organizational skills to get people on the streets.”
Sue Altman, Director of New Jersey’s Working Families Alliance, a political organization and part of the Working Families movement that’s been a growing force in progressive politics around the country, has been a fierce critic of the Democratic establishment in New Jersey.
Altman began by leading the crowd in a few quick chants before getting into her speech saying, “This is what democracy looks like because democracy means getting out on a cold January night, to come to the Jersey shore of all places…let’s hear it for the Jersey shore….We come because we believe that this country, that this state, that this planet, deserves better. We deserve to be represented by people who reflect our values as Democrats. We believe in the planet. We believe in clean water. We believe in clean air. These are basic things. What kind of planet are we leaving our children? What kind of education are we giving our children? Who are we funding? Are we funding corporations? Are we funding special interests? Or are we investing in our people? That is a democratic value. That is the type of thing that this fascist empire that’s in the White House right now has no room for, and that is why we fight.”
“Coming here. Driving here. Walking through all that we saw getting to this spot here on Bennett Avenue, that struggle, that is what democracy is. We are not gifted with democracy, we have to work for it. We have to get up every morning. We have to read the news, even when it makes us sick to our stomachs. We have to get out and canvas even when our feet are freezing like I know yours are, and mine are right now. We make calls. We phone bank. We make signs. When Trump got elected, we formed groups, like Indivisible, like Working Families, like all the other thirty groups that are represented here today. And we made friends, and we work together. Since then we’ve become seasoned, we’ve become strong. In that first Women’s March, we wore pink hats, and some of us still have those pink hats today! Some of us wear those pink hats as helmets because we know that we are in the fight of our lives.”
By the time Martin Luther King, III came to the lectern to speak, the organizers were getting concerned for everyone’s safety. The mob had begun to break up as it got increasingly cold and dark, but there was seemingly no-one vetting or screening the people on the boardwalk, no way to know if anyone was carrying weapons or had violence in their hearts. The entire parking lot lay in the shadow of the Ocean Towers Condominiums, a ten-story high-rise overlooking the entire protest area. Throughout the day, multiple people stood on multiple balconies and shouted down using a bullhorn, and one man had been using a tripod with what appeared to be a spotting scope on it.
“Our security concerns became so great, with the Trump supporters harassing us, not only from the boardwalk, but from balconies of the high rise next door,” said Kaylin Lydia, another Indivisible organizer, “that we had to move up MLK’s speaking time, so that his security could get him out of the area.”
Mr. King came up soon after, to the microphone, and began to speak.
“I am certainly honored to be here today, for what should be a unity rally,” Mr. King began. “It is about bringing people together, and I was invited here by my dear friends Patrick and Amy Kennedy. My family has had the distinction to work with the Kennedy family for many, many years. To bring America together and to move America forward. And this evening, we need to look at the soul of America, to determine what direction are going to go in, in the future. A lot things have happened. Some good, and some bad, but our objective is not to focus on the negative, but to focus on the positive. How do we bring the best, our of Americans? To make America what it ought to be? That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr talked about. Making America what it ought to be.”
“And so maybe for some, it’s alright, but the reality is, it should be great for all Americans. We live in a country with unlimited resources, and yet we have millions of people who have no healthcare. Millions of people who are homeless. Millions of people who are not getting properly educated. And you know, that’s not the America that we should be.”
“So in this election season, it is about electing candidates, who are going force that agenda, to really bring America together, not divide us. It’s alright for us to disagree, but we can disagree in a civil manner, not in a disrespectful manner, not in a manner where we denigrate others, not in a manner where we promote hate, because we have to find a way to promote love. That is the America that ought to be, and what we should be working on. And that is really the reason that I’m here this evening.”
It’s not about telling anyone who to vote for. We have to vote our consciences—all of us have to vote our consciences, whatever they are. But what we do know, is that we have to also ask ourselves, are we moving in the right direction? Are we moving together, or are we moving apart? I want to see us move together and I hope that’s what you want to see. Because we do have a nation with so much potential. We have an environment that is not quite right because, if I was in this town, in another time, it would be cold…I mean it’s cold for me, but for y’all it’s not even cold. So, what’s going on with our weather? What’s going on with our water? Water systems that are becoming contaminated because some of our elected officials are not stepping up to the plate. I’m saying, we must have clean water for everyone.”
“And while they claim that we have a good economy, and maybe it’s okay, the economy can be even better and more and more jobs can be created. Because where I live in the ages of 18-30 years old, the unemployment rate starts at 25%, particularly in communities of color and poor communities where it goes up to 60%. We could create an America where everyone who wanted a job, could have a job.”
“We can create an America, a different kind of America. What I mean by that is everybody in this nation should have a decent job. Everybody in this nation should be able to have a decent home. Everybody in this nation should be able to have healthcare. And everyone in this nation should be able to have justice. So this year, if you want an assignment, I want you to go home and get on the phone and encourage ten people to vote, and encourage those ten to encourage ten more. And in November of this year, we will have the right kind of elected officials. The struggle continues. Keep up the work. God bless you.”
The rally ended without any serious incident of violence, but the undercurrent of it was felt throughout the day by many of the protestors. Everyone dispersed, protestors and counter-protestors alike. It was dark and cold, everyone was tired, both mentally and physically.
The feelings were definitely mixed in the aftermath of the rally. Many were glad they attended the protest and proud to stand up for things they believe in, but disturbed by the vitriol coming from the Trump supporters. The messages of resisting evil, fighting the good fight, standing together and resisting the desire to return hate with hate, resonated with them.
But parents also complained about local teachers promoting the rally and telling their kids that they should be proud that Trump had come to their little town. Others spoke about kids being bullied for not attending the rally to support Trump in the first place.
As one woman put it, “I’ve lived here my whole life, and I always felt safe. But after witnessing that, I’m not sure if I can look at it, or my neighbors, the same way ever again.”
We are left with a choice therefore, to make America great again, as the President suggests, or to make American what it was meant to be, as Martin Luther King suggests. One path looks backwards and the other forwards. There is very little evidence of anyone ever achieving real progress by moving backwards.
“I am still shaken and overwhelmed by my experience on Tuesday and appalled of the behavior that the police allowed on the railing above the protesters,” said Elizabeth Thompson. “I was genuinely afraid I would be stabbed by the time I left that evening. Eighteen hours after leaving Wildwood, I am still feeling greatly disturbed by my experience. I don’t think I will ever again easily walk among or be able to view with a truly open-mind my fellow citizens of the United States of America.”
Right Wing Watch reported that members of both Patriot Front, which the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as an “image-obsessed” white nationalist hate group, as well as members of New Jersey European Heritage Association, which the Anti-Defamation League considers a white supremacist group, were both in attendance at the rally, openly attempting to recruit new members.
It should not be lost on anyone that the vast majority of the Trump supporters, especially ones who had ventured down to antagonize the protestors were white men, and that the vast majority of the protestors were women. The threat of physical and sexual violence against women by men, is not only very real, but you can’t wait until something happens you can’t recover from, to do something about it. In addition to the women in the crowd, there were also a significant a mix of minorities and LGBTQ groups, groups that are also a target for violence, especially from white men.
To go back to what Rev. Francois and Mr. King had to say, this does not seem to be what the founding fathers believed America was meant to be. Not if we are to take seriously the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
“Thanks a lot, Jeff,” said one man as they were leaving to go home.
CORRECTION: We originally attributed the speech and photo of Gary Melton Sr., Associate Director for NJEA, to Rev. Willie Francois, another speaker at the protest. We apologize to both men for the error.