Friday afternoon’s Make America Great Again rally ended up dwarfed by a counterprotest organized by the Ithaca chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Physical alterations, blocked traffic and burning Trump signs marked their dueling displays.
Both gatherings began quietly at 4 p.m., with DSA counterprotesters and supporters of President Donald Trump facing each other from opposite sides of Route 13. Members of the Trump rally carried Blue Lives Matter flags and campaign signs, as DSA counterprotesters carried anti-fascist signs and a DSA flag.
By 4:30 p.m., around 60 counterprotesters had crossed the street, intermittently blocking traffic, to confront the roughly 20 Trump supporters.
Trump supporters stood in front of the “Republican Campaign storefront,” an office on Meadow Street and Cleveland Avenue recently opened by Nancy and Jim Crawford in coordination with the Republican Party. The Crawfords sought “visibility” of conservatives “in a very liberal town,” Nancy said.
Rocco Lucente, volunteer at the rally and the former chair of the Ulysses Republican Party, said before the event that local Republicans hoped to bring attention to the city’s new Republican storefront.
But it was clear early on that the Trump rally would not be as straightforward as the organizers anticipated. “We had no idea we’d be joined by people calling us members of the KKK,” Nancy said. “We’re not here to create trouble.”
Earlier this week, the Ithaca DSA planned in response a “Trump Rally counter-demo,” to “let them know they are NOT welcome here,” the group wrote in social media posts.
“If pro-authoritarian forces are going to keep showing up in Ithaca we need to show them that they are not welcome here,” said David Foote, chair of Ithaca DSA, of the motivation behind the counterprotest.
Throughout the afternoon, the DSA members and joining protesters drew a clear line between Trump’s politics and themes of racism and fascism — maintaining that Ithaca is not a place where those themes are welcome.
“I think it’s really important in a town like Ithaca, with its liberal veneer, to actually demonstrate strong opposition to racist and reactionary politics,” said Prof. Russell Rickford, history, a member of the Ithaca DSA. “Quite often, liberalism is willing to accommodate the far right, to justify it and, by doing so, legitimize it.”
Like the rally’s organizers, Foote said that he had not expected the high intensity of the counterprotesters.
“The event made clear just how much pain and anger people have experienced this year,” Foote said. “I think that that anger and fear and pain was a little closer to the surface than I anticipated.”
In one instance, a counterprotester took a “Make America Great Again” hat and set it on fire in the middle of the street. Others threw Trump signs into the fire, running into the street, stomping on the fire and dancing to music over a loudspeaker. Some vehicle passengers threw drinks out their windows onto Trump supporters.
This display then fully blocked the one-way traffic on Route 13, and Ithaca Police Department officers arrived shortly after. Protesters took photos and videos of the officers, as they directed traffic away from the blocked road. The officers left just minutes later, driving away to chants of “cops and Klan go hand in hand,” and “no cops, no KKK.” IPD did not respond to requests for comment.
“I’ve heard everything he’s said,” Nancy said of Trump’s rhetoric, holding a Trump 2020 campaign sign. “I do not like the tone, often. But we are more about the policies than he’s been doing.”
She pointed to Trump’s trade policies, saying that prior to Trump, American leaders were “bending our knee to commie countries that sent jobs overseas.” She added that she believes that many of Trump’s policies have been good for people of color.
Nancy was frustrated at what she saw as the counterprotesters’ immoderate protest tactics: “We don’t want to belittle anyone, but how are we supposed to be one nation when people are behaving like this.”
Throughout the two hours, counterprotesters approached members of the Trump rally, yelling “fascist go home,” and “you’re racist if you support a racist.”
Mike Ande, an Ithaca resident who moved to the U.S. in 2007 from Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, said that while he believes that many individuals in government are racist, he does not believe in the concept of systemic racism. Ande recognized that Trump has used racist rhetoric, but said he believes that Trump’s actions — for instance, hiring people of color in his businesses — show that he is not, in fact, racist.
Conservatives have taken to the Ithaca streets twice in recent weeks. On Sept. 20, local residents held a “Back the Blue” protest outside IPD headquarters downtown, and on Oct. 3 protesters marched between the Staples parking lot and IPD headquarters.
Throughout Friday afternoon, protesters chanted “you’re not welcome here,” and “go inside” at the Trump supporters. Pushing and shoving among the crowd caused the ralliers to retreat inside the Republican storefront. Towards the end of the rally, several protesters tore down the “Vote Republican” banner in front of the storefront, leading to another tug-of-war over the property.
But after over two hours, the counterprotesters declared “victory” and marched to the Commons through the streets, blocking traffic and garnering cheers and waves.
There, they celebrated and discussed future plans, including the rally for Black lives on Sunday, the 21st one since this summer.
“Today was a tremendous victory for the forces of anti-racism,” Rickford said. “It was a spontaneous and almost joyful display of, not only disgust with racism and fascism, but also a positive affirmation of an alternative politics, celebrating human dignity.”