‘Send her back’ chants at Trump rally open wounds in Greenville, NC

'Send her back' chants at Trump rally open wounds in Greenville, NC

GREENVILLE, N.C. – “Welcome to Greenville,” the Rev. Bob Hudak wrote in an open letter to Donald Trump ahead of the president’s visit this month to his North Carolina home. The reverend extolled Greenville as a “growing city with an extraordinarily diverse population of citizens.”

He pointed to East Carolina University, where Trump was to hold his July 17 campaign rally, and to Vidant Medical Center, which serves a 29-county region. Both institutions, he wanted the president to know, were among the reasons the community of nearly 100,000 has attracted so many immigrants.

So Hudak, who has been working with interfaith leaders to build a sense of  inclusiveness, was distraught when Trump used his rally to continue his attacks on four congresswomen of color who, the president has said, should return to the countries “from which they came.”

Chants of “Send her back!” erupted in the arena of East Carolina University after Trump singled out Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.

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Recounting the events that put Greenville in the national spotlight, Hudak placed his hand over his chest during an interview with USA TODAY last week.

“It’s breaking my heart,” the 71-year-old retired Episcopalian priest said. “Things not only don’t seem to be getting better, but people are more entrenched, and racism is a card that’s being played whether people want to admit it or not.”

More than a week after the rally, the chants continued to reverberate throughout Greenville.

City leaders were eager to show that the sentiments are not reflective of the community. Although the university did not sponsor the event, officials have been responding to angry alumni threatening to withhold donations and are reassuring parents that a hijab-wearing daughter or dark-skinned son will be safe on campus.

Stunned by the backlash

And while the city’s mayor is among the Trump supporters who have denounced the chants, others who attended the rally are stunned by the backlash.

“I thought it was ridiculous,” said Diane Rufino, a founder of the local tea party organization. “They see racism where it doesn’t exist.”

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Trump ignited a fresh controversy with a tweet Saturday criticizing Baltimore – a majority black city – as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess ” where “no human being would want to live.” The comments were part of a tirade against the city’s black congressman, Elijah Cummings. 

As Trump’s words roil Baltimore and as Greenville wrestles with the aftermath of his rally, the president plans to hold his next campaign event Thursday in Cincinnati, a city that exploded in riots in 2001 after an unarmed African American man was shot by a police officer.

Greenville, once a leading tobacco marketing and warehouse center, is just over half white, 38% black and 5% Hispanic. Unemployment is under 5%.

On the grounds of the Pitt County Courthouse is a monument to “our Confederate dead.” A petition to remove the statue was circulated in 2017, sparking a counter petition to protect the monument. 

But at the first stoplight in Greenville, visitors are greeted by a welcome sign that boasts: “We are building an inclusive community.”

The city has grown 50 percent since 2000 and signs of the expansion are everywhere. There’s a new transportation hub, a new cancer center and a $30 million new road connecting the Vidant Medical Center and the university, two of the area’s major employers – along with companies that make boats, forklifts, pharmaceuticals and hammocks. 

A billboard marks the future site of a $90 million life sciences and biotechnology building that ECU is constructing. The school’s new student center opened earlier this year. ECU also owns a swath of old tobacco warehouses waiting to be repurposed.

“If we want to continue to grow, we want to have a great image,” Mayor P. J. Connelly said when expressing concern about how the rally may have damaged that effort, while also promoting what the city has to offer.

On the banks of the Tar River in the Town Common is a new “inclusive playground” where wheelchair-bound children can roll into a swing. At the park’s other end, a memorial is being constructed to the former Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church. A plaza area will tell the story of the former tight-knit African American community which was moved out of the 20-acre public space through an urban renewal program decades ago for which there are still lingering hard feelings.

Local drag show

The nearby uptown has a budding arts area, brew pubs, and The Scullery, a coffee house that hosts a monthly drag brunch to raise money for a local organization that helps people living with HIV/AIDS.

“If you see Greenville on the map, or you hear about it, you might imagine it to be a small town in North Carolina, and you might imagine it to be full of conservative people who wouldn’t support a drag show,” said owner Matt Scully. “It always sells out.”

He and his wife chose a different charity to support on the day of Trump’s rally, announcing that all the proceeds the restaurant earned would be donated to the American Immigration Council.

“I didn’t want to do anything that would offend or further divide people,” said Scully, 38. “I really wanted to do something to celebrate our community, to bring people together.”

Samar Badwan, the head of Greenville’s Human Relations Council, has never had a problem walking around the city she’s lived in for 30 years wearing her hijab. But not wanting to provoke a reaction if she joined friends protesting the rally, Badwan decided to stay home.

“I knew that it wasn’t going to be pretty,” the 45-year-old teacher and Arabic interpreter said. “I do a lot of praying. I was praying that maybe a miracle would happen and he would only stick to issues facing this country.”

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The events represented a major turning point in the 2020 campaign for president, injecting race and racism as issues candidates will have to confront along with the economy, health care and foreign policy. The aftershocks have also affected the Democratic field, where those hoping to unseat Trump have embraced subtly different approaches to racial inequality.

“I would like to see the standard bearer of the Democratic Party take on the issue of race very, very aggressively,” said Keith Cooper, 53, a recent past president of the Pitt County Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “What we are going to need when President Trump leaves is healing.”

Because some of the Democratic contenders’ different approaches to racial inequality came to light during the last debate, and because of the uproar following Trump’s criticism of the congresswomen, political operatives in North Carolina and elsewhere almost universally predict the issue will be front and center when the Democrats take the stage in Detroit Tuesday and Wednesday for their second series of debates.

“You’re going to see candidates be very vocal, be very aggressive about attacking the president in that they’ll call it racist and divisive,” predicted Morgan Jackson, a veteran Democratic strategist who is based in Raleigh. “It gins up the Democratic base and, I think, it sends a signal to a lot of Republicans.”

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But Jackson stressed that Democrats need to be careful, particularly as they look toward the general election, to not let Trump dictate the direction of the race.

This is the fight that Trump wants to have. He wants to divide people. He wants it to be about race,” Jackson said. “Democrats have to be careful.”

Trump, who has repeatedly said that if the four lawmakers “hate” the U.S. so much, they should leave, initially said he didn’t support the rally crowd’s comments – and then called the chanters “incredible patriots.”

The mayor, who had greeted Trump at the airport before attending the rally that drew participants from beyond Greenville, said there was “so much energy” in the arena that “I do not remember even hearing that chant.”

By the next day, however, it was quite clear that the nation had.

As the former professional baseball player fielded calls and emails from around the country – including from those who said they would never visit his city – Connelly issued a statement saying he was “extremely disappointed and disheartened” and “hate will never have a place in our community.”

‘Tell the whole story’

“It’s incumbent upon us as city leaders to tell the whole story of our city, not let it be narrated that the city is something that it’s not. We’ll continue to do that,” Connelly, a Republican elected to a nonpartisan position, told USA TODAY.  “At the end of the day, this is our home. This is where we raise our families.”

But Rufino, the local tea party leader, dismissed the mayor’s comments as pandering for the fall election.

She said the chants were not a response to Omar’s origins, but to the Somali-born lawmaker’s criticisms of the U.S. The chants were meant to suggest that if Omar didn’t like the U.S., she should go elsewhere.

“You can’t say if we oppose her it’s because of her color when it’s really about what she’s saying. And we’re not able to separate that anymore in this country,” the 59-year-old lawyer said. “It just so happens that the most vile-speaking members of Congress these days are people of color or people of different origins.”

Trump narrowly won North Carolina in 2016, but Barack Obama’s 2008 victory there  underscored that it’s one of the southern states that is winnable for Democrats. Greenville itself backed Hillary Clinton and she beat Trump by eight points in Pitt County.

Still, the Trump supporters in Greenville include Shonda Edwards, a 46-year-old African American, likewise said she was not bothered by the chants

“I saw how she felt about America,” Edwards said of Omar. “She hates America.”

Edwards, who works at a rehabilitation center while studying for degrees in nursing and business administration, didn’t attend the rally but voted for Trump in 2016 – for “a change” – and expects to vote for him again.

But Calvin Henderson, the 81-year leader of the local NAACP chapter, called Trump’s visit devastating. Henderson, who grew up in the suburbs of Greenville where he saw “white only” signs and calls himself  “a product of Jim Crow,” said he thought the nation had gotten a step above that.

“Are we beginning the fight all over again that we thought we had overcome?” Henderson asked.

The city’s ongoing efforts to repair past divisions and fulfill its trademarked tagline – “Find yourself in good company” – include the work of the Human Relations Council that Badwan chairs. After the terrorist attacks at mosques in New Zealand in March, Badwan quickly pulled together a vigil at which the mayor, chief of police, a local rabbi and others spoke.

The Trump rally chants had extra resonance for Badwan because, like Omar, she’s a Muslim American.

“But that’s not a reflection of what our community is about,” Badwan said of the remarks. “This community is portrayed as a racist community. From my experience here, that is not true.”

The morning after the rally, the city manager reached out to her to make sure there had been no threats against the local mosque where Badwan worships, or against community members.

There hadn’t been.

But Dan Gerlach, interim chancellor of East Carolina University, was taking calls from parents concerned that the campus would continue to be a safe place for their minority children.

The school has been criticized for renting its arena to the Trump campaign – which Gerlach said he would have done for any presidential candidate. 

Engulfed in controversy after only a few months on the job, Gerlach has been whiplashed between responding to those who wanted the university to issue a stronger condemnation of the rally, while also dealing with Trump supporters accusing him of wimping out for not personally welcoming the president to the campus and handing him a purple ECU Pirates shirt.

What struck Gerlach most was the reaction of some faculty members, natives of other countries, who wondered if they’re considered part of the community.

“I’m like “Y’all! Y’all!” an exasperated Gerlach, a native of Ohio, said. “Some of you have been here a decade. This fleeting moment does not define this community, this university or anything else.”

‘Fleeting moment’ or lasting damage?

But Emma Arndt, a 21-year-old rising senior and head of ECU’s College Republicans, ruefully said the chants are “always going to come up in conversations about this rally” – even though many attendees like herself declined to participate in the taunts.

Arndt said she found the chants disturbing. 

“For me, as soon as I heard it, I was disappointed,” she said. “It touched a lot of people in a bad way.”

When students return, the school will hold a town hall-style meeting to discuss the event. Similar “Cupola Conversations” – named after a free-standing dome in the middle of campus that’s a symbol of the school – were held after the 2016 mass shooting inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and after the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Last Wednesday, a week after the Trump rally, Gerlach had one of his better moments on his new job. He attended a naturalization ceremony that the school’s Office of Global Affairs hosted for 39 people from 21 countries.

Gerlach told the new citizens that while he counts among his ancestors a Revolutionary War soldier, they’re now equals.

“Today, you have the same rights and responsibilities that I have, even though my people have lived in America for hundreds of years,” he said he told them. “We’re glad you’re here because you make us better.”

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