Wednesday, March 16, 2016

What I Learned About the Free Speech Narrative at Donald Trump’s Rally in Chicago

Just over a week ago, I was frittering away some of my precious remaining life moments on Facebook when I happened upon one of those rare links that grabbed my attention and this time it wasn’t for another cashew cheese recipe (these look good!) or leading me down a twisty rabbit hole of Gertrude Stein recordings but something that actually changed my plans for the week ahead: I learned that Donald Trump was going to be speaking in Chicago and that I could request tickets. I clicked on the link, assuming that when I truthfully answered no and no to whether I was a Republican and if I would be interested in working on Mr. Trump's campaign that I would likely go deleted into that good night, so I was a little surprised a moment or two later when I got a confirmation text and message that I had two virtual tickets waiting for me online. It was strange that it was so easy; while it made me feel a little skin-crawl-y out to have a message from the Donald Trump campaign sitting in my very own email box, my mission was accomplished. (I will look into performing laptop exorcisms later.) I notified one of my wackier friends and in short order, she had tickets as well. We were off to the presidential races.

A lot of people asked why I would want to go to what is essentially a monster truck rally for misplaced white rage and racial anxiety. I wanted to go because I wanted to see it – particularly the whole strange spectacle around Donald Trump – with my own eyes in person. It seemed like such an obvious answer: how could I not want to see it? (Sometimes I forget that not everyone has my level of morbid curiosity and they are saner for it.) It just felt like something I just needed to bear witness to and observe. I think – or maybe just hope in a wishful thinking sort of way – that it was an historic night and the beginning of the end of his campaign’s ascendancy.

The thing that stuck out to me in the media and public comment sh*t storm that followed Chicago’s unforgettable “UM, NO” response to the Trump spectacle was a variation of a trope that as vegans, we hear all the time: You guys are suppressing someone else’s right to free speech. I’ll get to the vegan parallel in a bit.

As someone who was at the Trump rally, I can promise you that while there were moments of protesters being collared and escorted out to a thunderous chorus of chants from his supporters (“Kick him out! Kick him out!”), for the most part, it was a very boring and low-key event until the final 30 minutes or so. The police officers, security guards and assorted campaign workers were on it as soon as anything possibly rambunctious emerged, clued in first by the masses with their smartphones at the ready who responded to any little flare up hungrily. A riot was not happening. A riot of dudes in red “Make America Great” baseball caps, perhaps, or maybe a riot caused by a crowd driven to madness by the constant replaying of “Tiny Dancer” and “Mother’s Little Helper” from the sound guy. Other than that, for the first 2/3 of the night, things were uneventful to the point of tedium. In fact, by 6:15, I was nagging my friend that I wanted to go and thankfully she talked me out of it because if I had gotten my way, I would have missed everything that made this night newsworthy. (Trump was scheduled to speak at 6:00.)

When it was announced at around 6:30 that Trump would not be speaking, of course, the crowd went wild and this was what was shown in the news clips. The sleeping giant was awakened and suddenly, we could see that the arena was thick with anti-Trump protesters: they took to the stadium floor and rejoiced: jumping, whooping, shouting, arms raised, high-fiving and unabashedly savoring the moment of unexpected victory together. The tumult was deafening and a clash was imminent: one side was blatantly savoring the triumph (“We stumped Trump!”) and the other brandishing their Trump signs and chanting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A! U.S.A!,” looking like soccer fans whose favorite team just lost the most important game of the season. I couldn’t resist heading to the floor myself and seeing it up close.

I saw a lot of heated exchanges; I saw a lot of skirmishes that stopped just short of actual violence (it was more like a mosh pit); I saw a lot of enraged and frustrated Trump supporters, many of whom no doubt travelled long distances and spent many hours waiting, and a lot of thrilled protesters taking obvious delight in their victory dance but you know what I didn’t see that whole afternoon? I didn’t see any activists blocking anyone’s right to free speech. This was Trump’s rally to cancel and that’s just what he did. Like I said, things were pretty boring until the announcement of his cancellation, the announcer claiming that after consulting with the Chicago Police Department (later refuted by the CPD), Trump didn’t deem it safe to speak (suddenly he cares about safety?) and that was when the scenes people saw on CNN of inside the pavilion broke out in earnest.

After the event, I’ve seen this spin in conservative media and commentary again and again: Those violent, rude activists -- they only value their own free speech. Whether you like Donald Trump or not, he has a right to free speech. Um, okay. Nobody, and I repeat nobody, was in any way standing between that man and his microphone. As an aspiring President of the United States, if dissent is such a big threat to you that you cancel speaking at an event that your supporters spent hours and hours to be able to attend, you, sir, are not cut out for the job. But that’s not even what I want to talk about.

What I want to dispute is this notion that merely by having a presence at the Trump rally, even one that was occasionally loud, activists somehow silenced the windbag that is Donald Trump. This individual whom we have heard bloviate on and on about “Mexican rapists,” “terrorists,” “walls,” “wiping out Isis,” “deportation,” “pigs,” “dogs,” and “losers” ad nauseum was somehow silenced?

Democracy is messy. Sometimes democracy is loud. Sometimes democracy is intimidating. Sometimes in a democracy we hear things we don’t want to hear and we hear it in a way that don’t like but that is not in the same ballpark as silencing. No one violated Mr. Trump’s freedom of speech, which he enjoys amplification of due to his celebrity, while exercising their freedom of speech. If the only way Mr. Trump and his supporters feel that his freedom of speech is protected is if his opponents are silenced, he’s got bigger leadership and self-aggrandizement issues than I thought.

Because this is a blog that focuses on veganism, I can’t help but circle back and point out a parallel of what I heard about the protesters (“They’re trying to take away his free speech!”) and what I often hear about vegans (“They’re trying to take away my freedom of choice!”).

Often times, when vegans speak up for the animals and against our use of them, we are accused of being tyrants. Let’s put that in perspective: vegans are, at best, two-to-three percent of the population of the U.S., which means that 97-to-98 percent of the population is not vegan. There are between 55 to 70 billion land animals killed each year for consumption worldwide. This is just land animals, not sea-life, which is guessed to be even higher. Millions more animals suffer in laboratories, on fur farms, zoos, canned hunts, circuses and so on. Again, we are supposed to believe that the two-to-three percent of vegans are somehow suppressing the “rights” of people to continue to use animals as they wish when the law completely supports their consumption habits? Please tell me how one’s “freedom of choice” is violated by an activist saying things that person doesn’t want to hear. It isn’t. It is the presence of activists or simply vegans that make those who still consume animals feel oppressed, much as in the case of Donald Trump. In this power structure, let’s remember who really is dominant.

The next time you want to say that activists don’t believe in freedom of speech or freedom of choice, I would ask you to really examine how much you value your freedoms: Is it enough to accept dissenting views? Enough to not be so threatened by these views that you accuse others of oppressing you when they say things you don’t want to hear? Enough that you understand that speaking up against oppression and violence is not taking away anyone’s rights?  

The Trump campaign refers to their supporters as “the silent majority.” Whether they are silent – or a majority – is up for debate. Were they silenced, though, by protesters? Are people who eat animals losing their “freedom of choice” when activists speak up against violence to other animals? No and no.

To borrow a phrase, this is what democracy looks like.


  1. I understand your wanting to see it. Burying our heads in the sand about distorted thinking doesn't help.


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