A Gathering In Philadelphia
Last Saturday morning was hazy and warm — the first true day of spring, in my mind. It was also a bitch to wake up. The previous day I’d rolled out of bed in Chicago, gone to work, boarded a plane at O’Hare, flew to Philadelphia, went to a Powers show and ended the night at the Bluecoat Gin distillery. After turning in around two, I was up again with a mild hangover at nine in the morning. I wrestled with my willingness to suffer a pro-Trump rally and counter-protest over my coffee, begrudgingly packed up my cameras, and headed off into Philadelphia.
For posterity’s sake, this was my first outing with my Fuji XT-20. I put my FE 70–300mm f/4.5–5.6 G on my a7-RII body, as I anticipated a lot of reach would be useful. The XT-20 was my close-up camera, with the XF 35mm f/2 WR mounted (that’s the only lens I have for that system right now.)
I parked in Chinatown, walking the several blocks or so carrying two cameras and wearing a heavy jacket. Bad choice, me. It would end up being over 70 degrees for most of the time I was out. The jacket was a nightmare, and I wound up tying it around my waist and radiating an aura of mega uncool.
I arrived at Independence Hall, the stated location of the Trump rally, and was not surprised by what I found. A modest number of people mulled about, carrying signs with hashtags scrawled on them. They were vastly outnumbered by the police presence, which sprawled across blocks. Mounted cops, bike cops, cruisers, prison buses, ambulances, fire trucks and a helicopter circled the area. Considering how quiet it was, it was exceptionally ominous.
My nascence in the field of photojournalism was on full display. I had arrived with the goal of being completely detached and not engaging in or affecting the scene. Two pro-Trump chants in, that effort was out the window and I found myself trading jabs with Trump supporters over the fence. The entire event had a zoo-like quality to it, at first. The Trump supporters mulled about in their pen, folks outside gawking and snapping photos, occasionally trading barbs but otherwise mostly rolling their eyes at the folks on the other side.
For an hour or so, the scene was uneventful. The most heated exchange started with a member of the local Antifa collective, who let one of the pro-Trump folks know exactly what he thought of her as he stomped by. She ran her hoveround in a circle, seemingly dumbfounded, before finding her way back into the pen. The feeling of the discourse was as petty, scattered and throw-away as a YouTube comment section. Everyone slung insults and then patted themselves on the back for “getting involved,” retreating back into the groups they identified with for high fives — myself included.
Eventually, we seemed to reach the point of being fatigued with the concept of disagreeing. For a brief period I even found myself able to converse with the pro-Trump crowd despite my long shaggy hair. One individual, with whom I’d had some pretty heated discussions (I admit I leaned in close and called him an “ugly motherfucker” as I took his photo) crossed the line to clear things up between us. The motivation behind this moment? A pro-Trump demonstrator, screaming “show your face!” to some scattered Antifa folks in the crowd, who seemed to take issue with being photographed. “I’m afraid you’ll post it online and say I’m a Trump supporter,” he said.
“Aren’t you?” I replied. “You’re at a Trump rally, and you’re saying people should stand behind their convictions.”
“Well, yes. But it’s just… weird.”
“Hey, now. I like this guy,” my previous adversary shouted out, before pulling me into a Trump-like never-ending handshake and apologizing for threatening me, to which I responded that I regretted calling him ugly. He then insisted that we could find common ground in our viewpoints, a statement with which I vehemently disagreed. Eventually we parted ways, not necessarily with a newfound understanding of one another but with a renewed apathy towards engaging in petty squabbles.
It was, in a word, pathetic. For both sides. Nobody accomplished anything.
I found a few folks with cameras outside the pen to chat with, and we all snickered about the size of the rally. It seemed as if the entire thing would be a non-event. I was grumbling at myself for dragging my ass out to watch some Trump supporters engage in a public circle jerk, starting to plan lunch, when suddenly things escalated. Fast.
I don’t recall what started it, but the tensions that had been silently building finally bubbled over with a counter-protester approaching the fence and laying into the Trump rally with vitriol and anger. The Trump folks, bordering on self-parody, opted to try and drown him out with chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” and blasting Proud to be an American over a tiny speaker. There’s something to be said about my own prejudice that this is what I expected from them, but they did not disappoint.
This one little gesture emboldened everyone, both pro- and anti-Trump, and at that moment the front line was established. Counter-protesters pushed up against the fencing, yelling at the rally attendees, who argued back. “It’s scientific fact that democrats have low testosterone,” yelled a courageous individual from well within the safety of the pen. “Check your T! Check your T!” the crowd chanted.
Then Asa showed up.
Asa Khalif is a powerhouse of a human being. He is opinionated, passionate, and a fucking warrior. Arriving on the scene, megaphone in hand, he immediately walked straight to the edge of the pro-trump pen and loudly let them know what he thought. Opening with a line akin to “you racist motherfuckers,” he was the spitting image of direct action and fearlessness. When a literal giant of a man came to stare him down, Asa stood his ground. He raised his megaphone to his opponent’s face and continued shouting, fearless. If the pro-trump folks remember any one individual, they’ll remember Asa. If one seed of nagging doubt about their world view was planted, Asa was the one who tilled the soil for them.
All attention on the exchange occuring over the fence, I found myself transfixed, wandering way too close to the center of the action and shooting photos as things escalated. When I stepped away I realized that my hands were shaking. The intensity was overwhelming. As I retreated from the front lines, I heard that there was another loud voice that had joined the fray.
As if the scene needed any more chaos, a low-rent version of the Westboro Baptist Church had appeared. I took their picture, but I’m not going to post it here. They don’t deserve it. Rest assured their signs were poorly designed, their fashion sense was lacking, their attitude was exceedingly hostile and their presence was that of a deflated balloon. It was as if someone had innervated an old bowl of mashed potatoes with the spirit of stupidity in its rawest form. If there was one thing that everyone present could agree on, it was that these clowns were not welcome. If nothing else, it gives me faith that the majority has not yet hit rock bottom. These folks, however, are beyond saving.
The idiots tried their best to inject their voice into the discussion, but protesters from both sides of the fence made a valiant and successful play to keep them drowned out. The cops repeatedly forced them to move their demonstration under threat of arrest, refusing to let them anywhere near the larger, comparatively civil verbal melee. When they were eventually pushed across the street, a kind guy on a bike with a sound system rode up and cranked up some dance music, drowning out their megaphone.
Shortly after the dance music started, the dancing began. You could see the raw frustration oozing from the street preachers as they were descended upon by rainbow flags and dancing, everyone around them all smiles despite their repeated insistence that their enemies were going to hell. Girls danced with girls, boys danced with boys and people took turns mocking the loser brigade, a line actually forming at some points.
There were precious few moments to absorb this developing scene, as suddenly there was another scuffle of noise in the distance. Sirens, a rising column of smoke, and loud, aggressive chanting rapidly approached. The other photographers and I helped one another run there as fast as we could, which was not very fast at all. The police had set up a maze of checkpoints and barriers. Every turn was blocked by fencing, police with bikes, and walls of people pushing you in other directions. When we finally managed to reach a good vantage point, we discovered the final ingredient adding itself to the volatile mixture.
A lot can be said about the Antifa folks, but most of all they know how to create an imposing presence. They stormed onto the scene, a sea of nothing but black, faces covered, carrying smoke bombs and flags reminiscent of a revolutionary militia. They flew a giant banner spray painted on a pilfered Big Mac ad that simply read “Doing Being Totally Out Of Control.” Their message was one of zero tolerance for intolerance, and their presence created instant tension, as was no doubt their goal. Whereas before, pro-Trump folks were seen mingling with the protesters to “discuss” their differences of opinion, precious few dared venture into the new front. One tried repeatedly, walking in with a small megaphone, calling them cowards — it did not go well for him. Twice he returned to the fray, twice he had to be pulled out and scolded by police, continuing to jab at the protesters from safety behind the officers.
From this point forward, the scene becomes harder to follow or describe. The Antifa contingent succeeded in their stated goal: the pro-Trump march did not go on as planned, and the Antifa contingent marched it instead, victorious. The scene repeatedly descended into mayhem before calming, sometimes eerily. The chaos seemed most frequently caused by the police, who in their rush to block the movement of the Antifa group would frequently swarm and run head-on into the line. They’d throw their bikes in front of them to use as makeshift barriers, sometimes pushing them into the protesters.
The strangest point in the procession, if only for the stark contrast to its chaotic lows, was a picnic in the park with a bunch of “families against fascism.” It was a relatively peaceful moment of camaraderie, where the sun came out from behind the clouds and everyone ate snacks and traded stories from the day. The photographers gathered together, sharing shots and energy bars, chatting about heading home.
The relative peace of the picnic was followed by some of the most chaotic moments of the day. It’s hard to place what started them — whether it was the constant, aggressive police presence or the erratic movement of the protesters, but for a brief while any sense of order completely disappeared. Police chased the protesters throughout the city, who tried to evade them and make their way to where they heard the Trump rally had reconvened. The police were decidedly aggressive, and it feels as if all the escalation came from their side, though the intensity was met with force in response. The Antifa folks would not be stopped, tossing roadblocks into the street to block the police as they bolted to escape. At some point in the chaos the group splintered and I slipped out, finding my way back to the relative safety of Chinatown.
The walk brought me back along the march route, now littered with police barriers, bikes, and officers standing guard in large clusters throughout the city. The entire path of the march had been brought to its knees, the city in relative gridlock as a result.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the underlying tension of American politics so aggressively and openly in person before. Most demonstrations I’ve attended have been fairly peaceful events — this one, however, was markedly different. It was equal parts scary and cathartic, but at the very least gives me faith that there are people there willing to look out for others. At the same time, it left me wondering if I’m really doing enough in this fight — or anything at all.
At the same time, it leaves me wondering what can truly be done to fix things.