The weather outside vacillated between rain and sunshine, alternately filling the church’s sanctuary with gloom and light as a number of speakers representing various progressive organizations advocating for immigrants, Cincinnati’s Muslim community and beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act urged hope and action.
“For the next four years, we’re going to have to look behind our backs because our president might take that freedom away from us,” said Jose Cabrera, an immigrant advocate at the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, which helped put on the event.
The group convened at nonprofit Community Matters for an event called “We the People: United in Diversity, Pursuing Peace and Justice,” one of a number of gatherings put together in Cincinnati in response to Trump’s nascent presidency. Many progressives here and across the country see the Trump administration as a grave, even unprecedented, threat to their values.
Protests and discussions critical of Trump’s presidency here ran that gamut from small gatherings like the one at Community Matters to the Cincinnati Women’s March, a sister event to a protest in Washington, D.C. and many other cities across the country that drew more than 3 million. Cincinnati’s event saw several thousand protesters fill Washington Park and march onto streets downtown in one of the city’s largest rallies in recent memory.
Trump’s campaign was characterized by revelations he had bragged about sexually assaulting women during the taping of a reality TV show, statements he made equating Mexican immigrants with rapists, him calling for a registry for Muslims due to concerns about terrorism, promises to appoint judges who would roll back abortion’s legality and pledges to strip away President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. As he officially took office and supporters celebrated his victory, a question hovered over the diverse local events organized in protest: What now?
The answer to that question depends on who you asked. Even at individual events, ideas for how best to resist the proposed policies of the forthcoming Trump administration varied.
At the Women’s March the day after the inauguration, Cincinnati and Hamilton County Democrats underlined local politics and voting as the best way to push back. The city and the county have become specks of blue in a deep red state, and election results here cut against the grain of national outcomes. Fifty-three percent of Hamilton County voters chose Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton, and voters also installed a Democratic majority on the county’s board of commissioners, electing former State Rep. Denise Driehaus and re-electing incumbent Democrat Todd Portune. They also elected the first Democrat, Aftab Pureval, to the county clerk’s office for the first time in more than 100 years.
That’s a big contrast to the national political scene. Trump has taken office with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress and with a number of governors’ seats and state houses under the control of the GOP.
The message to progressives delivered by city, county and state elected officials like Pureval and newly minted State Rep. Brigid Kelly: Get involved in local politics and keep voting Democrat.
“Yesterday we witnessed what happened when people don’t show up and don’t turn out,” Portune told the surging crowd at Washington Park about the inauguration. “But that didn’t happen in Hamilton County. And today, we’re here to stand with you, because today, we tell the rest of America what it means when you’re fired up and ready to go.”
The rally featured speakers representing groups Trump has singled out, including the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati’s Roula Allouch.
“I stand before you as a proud, American-born Muslim woman,” she said. “We must collectively embrace the freedom of choice that is at the heart of American democracy. I promise you I will fight for that right because my rights are interconnected with your rights.”
Other speakers stressed a more grassroots approach focused on coalition-building outside traditional electoral politics. Black Lives Matter’s Ashley Harrington tied women’s issues to struggles for justice in black and native communities and encouraged those at the rally interested in one issue to get involved in others.
“We must stand together on all these issues, because they are all women’s issues,” she said. “We fight sexism with solidarity. This can’t be the last time we come together; we need each other to build a movement for women’s liberation. Because we must remember that presidents never have and never will set the people free; the people set ourselves free by rising up.”
City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson threaded a middle ground between calls for populist, grassroots action and more formal political involvement, echoing calls for solidarity many speakers touched on. She’s running for mayor against incumbent and fellow Democrat John Cranley. It was easy to read Simpson’s speech as a reiteration of her campaign themes, but also as a larger call to action.
“Far too many women and children in our city are living in poverty,” she yelled to the crowd. “We have to deal with the issue of family homelessness. Forty percent are unemployed in some of our neighborhoods. We have to do something about that. I look at this sea of strength and I know together we can. And we won’t let anyone — not Mr. Trump and not anyone else — stop us.”
The enormous Jan. 21 rally and march was a big-tent, coalitional kind of event where traditional political operatives shared a microphone with grassroots activists and nonprofit leaders. Other inaugural response events were more targeted, however.
On Jan. 19, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers held a rally outside Cincinnati Public Schools’ headquarters in Corryville to protest Trump’s nominee for secretary of education Betsy DeVos. A litany of speakers at that event, which drew about 200 people, zeroed in on DeVos’ history privatizing public schools, her lack of experience in public education and ways to resist a DeVos-led Department of Education.
“She’s anti-public school,” CFT President Julie Sellers said of DeVos. “When they were interviewing her, she didn’t understand anything about how the entire department works. On the other hand, we have people here in Cincinnati who fully support public schools. We’re not going to let the department of education come in and tell us we have to undercut our schools and privatize education in Cincinnati.”
Other attendees at local events came to satisfy curiosity, to find catharsis after Trump’s inauguration, or conversely, to stand behind the new president.
At a Jan. 20 Trump protest on the University of Cincinnati’s campus organized by groups like the UC Socialist Alternative, speakers struck a chord similar to ones Black Lives Matter’s Harrington would the next day: Local grassroots organizing and radical solidarity are the keys to resisting the Trump administration. The event also drew a few hundred, but saw some vocal Trump supporters waving signs that read “Build the Wall” and debating the president’s critics.
UC alumnus Jeffry Smith stood quietly among the fray in the hour after Trump’s inaugural address, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and other Trump paraphernalia. Slung over his shoulder was an FN PS-90 submachine gun. Smith also had two Glock handguns holstered on his waist. As he spoke to student Trump supporters, he said he’d come to counter-protest the president’s detractors and to advocate for open carry on UC’s campus. Smith is a well-known open carry activist in Cincinnati. Last year, he attempted to organize an open carry rally at the Cincinnati Pride Parade following the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.
“I like his positions and his willingness to challenge the status quo,” Smith said about Trump. “I’m thrilled. I was thrilled on election night. I haven’t seen the address because I’ve been here, but I’m recording it.”
In Lower Price Hill earlier that day, attendees at the “We the People” gathering talked about ways to bridge divides while standing up for the immigrants, Muslims, women and other groups feeling threatened by Trump’s administration.
“There’s no easy way to get to a more just and peaceful America,” said Allie Wilson, one of the event’s organizers. “But acknowledging our differences and accepting them is a good place to start. Most importantly, we need to protect each others’ rights and freedoms, despite each others’ ideological and theological differences. If this time inspires even one of us to act, to pursue or protect justice, it’s not wasted.” ©