BY CODY BENJAMIN | AUG. 17, 2020
MANKATO, Minn. — Hours before the start of the virtual Democratic National Convention, President Donald Trump paid an in-person visit to Mankato Regional Airport on Monday, kicking off a multi-stop effort to paint the Midwest red in November’s election. While his hour-long speech received only cheers from a crowd restricted to local backers and fans outfitted with “Trump” face masks, his welcome around town was far more mixed.
Earlier in the day, while Trump addressed another private crowd in Minneapolis, some 600 community members lined Veterans Memorial Bridge, in the heart of the downtown district, to proclaim their opposition to the president’s outreach.
Various state officials had already commented on Trump’s visit. (Gov. Tim Walz said he spent the preceding days “trying to tell the White House why it was a really bad idea” for the president to use Minneapolis and the surrounding communities “as a backdrop for his campaign,” especially in the wake of George Floyd’s Memorial Day killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, which also sparked a march on Mankato’s Memorial Bridge. Lt. Gov Peggy Flanagan, meanwhile, called Trump’s Mankato stop simply another chance “to stoke fear and division,” with an “emphasis, both over and unspoken … to divide this country along the lines of race and class.”)
But Mankatoans ensured their own voices were also heard with Monday’s demonstration. Organized by Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato, a progressive community group, the peaceful gathering included just about every age demographic.
Almost everyone had homemade signs. Children advocated for respect: Be Kind. Older women poked fun at Trump’s name-calling while endorsing his Democratic rivals: Nasty Women 4 Biden and Harris. Plenty recycled slogans from prior protests of racial injustice: Hate Has Never Made A Nation Great. Black Lives Matter. Stop Pretending Your Racism Is Patriotism.
“Trump wants to make it sound like rural America is behind him 100 percent on every level,” says Jim Dimock, who helped Indivisible lead the protest. “And this is rural America. This is what rural America really looks like … I think that what he wants to do is send this message that, ‘Oh, up there in Minneapolis, up there in Saint Paul, they don’t like me there, but out here, in Trump Country, they stand up for my agenda.'”
Some locals do stand for Trump’s agenda. More than 100 Trump supporters decorated trucks, buses and motorcycles with campaign flags — Keep America Great! — Monday morning, then rode the caravan on Highway 169 and onto Veterans Memorial Bridge, in front of the protesters. Most were quiet, allowing the revving of truck engines to do their talking, and most exchanges were not hostile. (At one point, a “Trump 2020” flag fell off a car while crossing the bridge, and an anti-Trump protester helped the driver retrieve their banner.) Others, however, carried a different tone, if not a middle finger or two: “You guys are terrorists!” one young lady hollered from the passenger seat of a pickup; “All lives matter, not just black!” yelled another.
Dimock was among those who tried to quell the tensions, taking a megaphone into the crosswalks to encourage his allies: “They are division! We are democracy! They want you to hate your neighbor. They want you to fear your neighbor. They want you to be afraid. But we are not afraid!”
The more fiery remarks from the anti-protest caravan were reminiscent of Trump’s own words, which came later at the airport. Calling the 2020 election the key to the “survival of our nation,” the president took opportunities to disparage everyone from his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton (“She’s a loser, but not a gracious loser”) to Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar (“She’s a horrible woman who hates our country”). Mostly, though, he promised how destructive it would be not to re-elect him: “Joe Biden is the puppet of left-wing extremists trying to erase our borders, eliminate our police, indoctrinate our children, vilify our heroes, take away our energy, destroy our Second Amendment, attack the right to life and replace American freedom with left-wing fascism … They are fascists.”
“But the proud people of Minnesota will not let this happen,” Trump continued. “We’ll save our cities and our suburbs from the future of crime and chaos … In Joe Biden’s America, your community will be left at the mercy of the mob.”
Mankato’s Trump-supporting caravan would likely agree, with some participants telling the Mankato Free Press that “we need law and order” to fix “ruined” Democrat-run states, and others sporting “QAnon” signs to endorse the growing conspiracy theory about a “Deep State” plot to take down Trump and his supporters.
But the hundreds of others who took to the streets on Monday had a different stance, acknowledging the importance of November’s election but rather as a way to vote for change over fear.
“Most older white men are Trump supporters, but that doesn’t mean they all are,” says Bill Durbahn, a retired Mankato West High School teacher. “We won’t change those guys (in the Trump caravan), and they might not change us, but their behavior, our behavior, might affect people that are on the fence … We’re hoping people realize and look around and see there is a movement against this president. And we couldn’t let this visit go unnoticed. If you have 1,000 people that show up and are enthusiastic, and people see that in little Mankato, it might affect somebody else.”
Jason Mack, a Mankato resident who comes from a family of German immigrants, feels the same way.
“It’s important for people to show up and represent that we don’t stand for that … (Trump) knows that there’s energy here that has a lot of momentum,” he says, referencing the nationwide protests that stemmed from what occurred in Minneapolis earlier this summer. “It sparked change all across the country. He’s created such a divisive politic that it’s hard for us to sit down and talk anymore. And I think that’s why being here and standing here is important.”
Jasmine D’Avilar, a recent graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, was more blunt. D’Avilar, who strolled down the median of the bridge with one fist raised and was part of May’s George Floyd protests, suggests so many people feed off “racist rhetoric” because “this whole entire country is built off white supremacy,” and therefore “they don’t want to change,” let alone engage conversations about the injustices that spawn protests.
“I don’t understand why people who are fighting for justice are seen as terrorists,” she says. “People are just so unaware and so ignorant and so unwilling to have compassion.”
Monday’s demonstration concluded with remarks from several speakers in nearby Veterans Memorial Park, where Bukata Hayes, founder of equity consulting company Love & Struggle, called upon the community to carry its voice to the polls. In the wake of countless summer initiatives, from a charity Rally For Racial Justice to conversations with elected city officials, Hayes cited both Malcolm X and the late Rep. John Lewis in urging his city to engage in a “blood-less revolution.”
“I’m addressing you as someone who’s been in this community for 26 years,” he said. “This (stand) is for all of us being at the table. This is for us doing our part to rid and dismantle one of our country’s original sins, and that’s white supremacy … The most effective protest for anti-racism starts locally. Today, we start here in Mankato, and Mankato leads the state to make sure that we have someone who represents us all.”
Monday, Hayes explains, was just one sign that solidarity is already taking shape.
“In this moment, we are being asked to lift each other up, to have each other’s backs, to work for the betterment of us all. It is in this moment that we must also be willing to courageously confront those forces bent on dividing us, tearing us apart and divorcing us from our conviction for equality. This dual responsibility is what I saw happening in Mankato with the peaceful protest and rally.”