A Donald Trump rally shows America’s political divide ahead of N.Y. primary

BUFFALO, N.Y., Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians. Men, women, children — and even a few partisan dogs.

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On a sun-soaked spring day the political debate that’s overtaken America, and the man at the center of it, arrived at the eastern edge of Lake Erie.

There were protesters and supporters. There were police on foot and on horseback, the silent sentinels standing in between. Eagle eyes in the crowd spotted the pair of snipers on the roof. Signs, some irreverent, some earnest, some profane, made their carriers’ allegiances known. There were street vendors selling street meat and hocking T-shirts at $20 a pop.

There were the ubiquitous red ball caps, promising — pleading? — to “Make America Great Again.”

People who revere him, people who revile him, separated by a row of bike rack epitomizing America’s intense political divide.

This is what it looks like when Donald Trump comes to town.
On the inside

In the days leading up to Trump’s rally in Buffalo on Monday, organizers privately hoped they would bring thousands of protesters to downtown. In the end, it wound up being a few hundred, far smaller than some protest rallies in larger cities.

Those who were present did not lack for fervor or personality.

A diverse crowd ranged in age from teens to seniors. They came from the wide array of liberal causes, members of which have united over their shared distaste for the Republican front-runner.

A contingent of Black Lives Matter protesters shared a megaphone, leading the crowd in chants: “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go.”

There were members of the city’s LGBT community, some in drag, waving rainbow flags.

There were Bernie Sanders supporters — multiple times, the crowd burst into chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!”

There were a handful of women carrying “Hillary” and “I’m with her” signs.

Then there were the protesters who did not fit neatly into any of those groups.

Two young men stood near the front of the bike rack separating protesters from those seeking entrance to the rally, one carrying a sign with a uniquely New York taunt: “Donald Trump eats pizza with a fork.” His friend carried a sign saying “Trump hates taco Tuesday.”

The space for protesters was cramped. Police had closed the public park adjacent to the arena where the rally was being held for their own staging purposes. That left protesters to gather on the sidewalk across from the arena itself.

Unlike other rallies that have been marred by violent encounters between protesters and Trump supporters, Buffalo’s rally was largely peaceful despite the close proximity. Protesters were cordoned just a few feet from the main intersection leading to the single entry point for those walking into the arena.

Protesters focused on those attending the rally, at times chanting: “Don’t teach your children hate.”

Only a handful of the thousands entering the arena engaged protesters. Most filed past while avoiding eye contact or smiling and taking photos and videos of the crowd with their cellphones.

For much of the two hours before the rally, the throngs of people were directed by a single officer segregating those who had arrived via the subway station a block away, the officer shouting, “rally across the street, protesters behind me!”

A lone hot dog vendor was perched in the thick of it all. Trump supporters stood in line waiting for a snack, taking in the protesters only a few feet away.

Among them was a 23-year-old Trump supporter from Buffalo who asked not to be identified, who acknowledged he was in the minority in this overwhelmingly liberal city, but squarely in the majority of Monday’s crowd.

He mused: “To be honest, people don’t like to talk about politics. You can surround yourself with whoever you want.”

Outside the arena, that’s pretty much what people did. They surrounded themselves with the people they wanted.

It wasn’t until after the speech that Trump supporters and protesters found themselves at odds. Protesters marched a block west and stood on the street-level tracks leading away from the arena, preventing trains carrying Trump supporters from leaving. Police used batons to push protesters back onto the sidewalk.

Inside the hockey arena it might have been called cross-checking. Outside, it was effective crowd control. The trains wound up running mostly on time.

The Buffalo Police Department reported only a handful of arrests for minor infractions, according to The Buffalo News.

On the inside

When Trump announced a few days into his New York campaign he intended to hold a large rally in Buffalo, the state’s second-largest city, he said he would do so in the city’s second largest space — First Niagara Center, the hockey arena that houses the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. Its capacity is roughly 19,000, located on the shore of Lake Erie in the heart of a resurgent district known as Canalside, a few hundred yards from the recently restored terminus of the Erie Canal.

Trump filled the stadium’s floor and lower bowl with thousands of supporters. Police estimated the crowd at a little more than 11,000 people. In terms of political rallies, only visits by sitting presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have drawn more.

By comparison during the New York primary, Hillary Clinton spoke last week to a few hundred supporters at an antique car museum a few blocks away. Bernie Sanders drew a comparable crowd to Trump filling the basketball arena at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which seats about 8,000, and had an overflow crowd outside of another 2,000 or so.

Trump was introduced by the first member of Congress to publicly support his campaign, Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican from the state’s 26th district, which stretches from suburban Buffalo east through several rural counties.

And he had another ace in the hole. Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan, himself no stranger to media controversy, took to the podium to warm up the crowd. The brash Ryan, who like Trump made his bones in New York City, as the coach of the Jets, hailed Trump’s outspokenness.

“One thing I admire about him … he’ll say what’s on his mind,” Ryan said.

When Trump took the stage, he offered remarks aimed specifically at this Rust Belt city.

“Buffalo has been hammered by our trade policies. Fewer cities have had it worse,” he said, rattling off grim statistics dating to the collapse of the U.S. steel industry, which devastated the local economy for much of the last 40 years.

“We’ve been getting ripped off by virtually every single country we do business with.”

Trump spoke about his opponents in his trademark blunt terms.

“There’s Lyin’ Ted Cruz. He’s way, way down. Cruz is just a catastrophe.”

He brought up his favorite line of attack against Cruz, who besmirched “New York values” in a January debate.

“The values that make us love this state, if I become president it’s going to come back so fast you won’t believe it. You see it in our work ethic. We work hard. You see it in our energy. We get things done. We do great, great jobs for our community. We do great community service.”

There was Trump’s trademark bravado.

“We’re going to win so much you’re going to get tired of winning.”

Supporters greeted the speech with shouts of support and robust applause.

On Monday, the revelers and the revilers each lent their voices to the cause, roaring their approval for Trump throughout his speech and their disapproval of him on the sidewalk outside.

On Tuesday, they can give voice to those deeply held convictions at the only place where it really counts, the ballot box.

upi