Signs of the times

With Trump in Portsmouth, locals protest divisive language in politics

Donald Trump brings families together. Sort of.

The Republican presidential candidate was in Portsmouth on Thursday, Dec. 10, for a brief appearance at a meeting of the New England Police Benevolent Association at the Sheraton Harborside Hotel. There, Trump received the NEPBA’s official endorsement.

But, before Trump arrived in town, a few hundred protestors gathered on the sidewalks around the intersection of Deer and Russell streets to protest the candidate, his recently announced plan for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and inflammatory political rhetoric in general.

The protest outside the Sheraton was something of a family event. A handful of parents brought their children to the protest, and some of the kids even made their own signs. There were plenty of signs supporting Muslims, refugees, and people of color, along with messages of love, warnings against hate speech, and more than a few signs comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler.

Portsmouth resident Andrea Ardito and her son, Henry, were among those in the crowd. “We had to protest against this horrific individual,” Ardito said. “I was telling Henry how in Germany in World War II, this is how it started.” She added that speaking out is “a kind of history lesson.”

“There’s been such a growth of hateful speech in political discourse. I felt we had to stand up and say this is not acceptable,” — Eric Zulaski of the American Friends Service Committee

In a small cluster of Trump supporters on the other side of the street was Mike Lees, who drove out from western Massachusetts to attend the rally. “I grew up in southern New Hampshire. It’s like home to me. We’re lucky to have Trump in our own neighborhood.”

Why Trump? For Lees, the candidate “speaks to you plainly” and doesn’t dodge questions.

“When you ask Trump a question, he answers the question you asked him,” Lees said. “He tells you what he thinks.”

Regarding Trump’s policies, Lees said the country is wracked with “financial problems” and that Trump is part of a “limited amount of people” who can work with huge sums of money and solve those problems. He’s “glad to see” a candidate who’s strongly opposed to immigration, too.

Eric Zulaski, a member of the American Friends Service Committee-New Hampshire who helped organize the protest, carried on a backpack a tall sign attached to a lighted pole that read, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” Zulaski said the turnout was encouraging, considering that there was less than 48 hours notice that Trump was coming to Portsmouth.

“There’s been such a growth of hateful speech in political discourse. I felt we had to stand up and say this is not acceptable,” Zulaski said. “It seems like everyone has been called a terrorist at this point … and it’s acceptable to rough somebody up” at Trump’s campaign events. “We cannot allow him to come without seeing a response.”

Zulaski said the rest of the Republican candidates are similarly guilty of using inflammatory speech to fuel their campaigns. Trump is the most visible, though, and has a significant lead on the other candidates in national polls.

“He’s not getting repudiated by leaders of the party. You’re seeing other candidates say the same things,” Zulaski said. “We’re not here to protest Donald Trump (specifically), we’re protesting against hateful rhetoric.”

Talking and listening

Over in the pro-Trump section, a 20-something woman and two men walked by. “Is this the group of cool people that like Trump?” she asked before walking on.

The protest started at 4:30 p.m. After about an hour, a small group of protestors broke off from the anti-Trump majority and stood alongside the Trump supporters to engage in some peaceful debating. The Leftist Marching Band was on hand in support of the protestors, and the small group of Trump supporters had their own musical support: Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” blared on repeat from a large white pickup truck parked on the street, towing a massive Trump sign.

There was some common ground to be found, though. A deep conversation about politics developed between two men, Robert Wright, who held a Trump campaign sign, and Michael Verney, who held a small, handmade cardboard sign that said, “We support our Muslim countrymen.”

The conversation started after Verney asked Wright what he likes about Trump. “We proceeded to have a nice, normal conversation,” Wright said.

Wright thinks some of Trump’s statements are exaggerations and said he would not support a total ban on Muslims entering the country.

“He’s a very confident man,” Wright said of Trump. “What comes out of his mouth may be a little boisterous.”

Wright and Verney talked for about half an hour. “It’s all about an understanding of two people’s opinions. Whether or not you agree, you just have to show you’re listening to what the other person has to say,” Wright said. “(Verney) did bring up some valid points.”

Verney, a Bernie Sanders supporter, said he had a “very, very good discussion” with Wright. “He seems like a great guy. I’m looking forward to having other discussions like that.”

Erin Tuveson of Durham held a sign that said “Deport Fascism.” She and Sofie Larsen, of North Berwick, Maine, were both wearing headscarves, in solidarity with the Muslim people who Trump has verbally attacked, they said.

“Shame on America for having let it come to this,” said Larsen, who is originally from Denmark. “Not only is there nothing (to Trump) politically, it’s just hate speech, incendiary, divisive rhetoric.”


Trump speaks

Inside the Sheraton, NEPBA members, guests, and media crowded into the meeting room where Trump was slated to speak. About an hour before the candidate arrived, Secret Service agents closed off the meeting and wouldn’t admit anyone else, including credentialed media members and ticketed guests.

Trump’s speech was brief and hit many of his familiar points. He railed against “political correctness” (“I could be politically correct better than anybody. I went to Ivy League schools. I know everything. I could talk that way, but you would be bored. Am I right?” he said) and voiced his support for building a wall between the United States and Mexico. He also told NEPBA members that, as president, he’d institute a mandatory death penalty for anyone who kills a law enforcement officer.

The NEPBA represents some 200 police unions throughout the region. The group would only offer its endorsement to a candidate who attended the meeting, and Trump was the only candidate to appear. Executive director Jerry Flynn told reporters that Trump’s policies would support police officers.

The event, and the ongoing controversies surrounding Trump, caused some local police departments to clarify that they don’t support the candidate. The Portsmouth Police Department is a member of the NEPBA, but acting deputy chief Frank Warchol issued a statement on Dec. 11 clarifying that the department and its union do not endorse any candidates, locally or nationally.

“Donald Trump was invited to speak in Portsmouth by the New England Police Benevolent Association (NEPBA) and was subsequently endorsed by that association and not by the Portsmouth Police Department or its unions,” Warchol said.

Jasmin Hunter contributed to this report.