Signs Of Life: Moments of tragic optimism amid a Trump victory

El Hajj Amir Khalid A. Samad with student from his Summer Peace Camp in East Cleveland
El Hajj Amir Khalid A. Samad with student from his Summer Peace Camp in East Cleveland (Reginald Thomas II)

America has over the past couple years felt a lot like the '60s, what with all the protest, unabashed racism, passionate youth, genuine generational cleaving, and this whole second civil rights movement brewing.

"A demented and seductive vertical tension was building in the community...The jitters were setting in," was how Joan Didion diagnosed that rummy decade, though she might as well have been talking about 2016, I think. Then again maybe something that eloquent or perhaps high falutin' doesn't work for 2016 because this is a moment of slow burn terror that began as a series of hateful banalities and morphed into a white supremacist campaign, culminating in the unexpected though totally predictable victory of Donald Trump, open fascist, as our next president.


So I look to another California-based social critic to sum up the apocalyptic vibes as of late: Compton rapper YG, who puts it more plainly than Didion on 'FDT,' where he shouts "Fuck Donald Trump" over and over again.

A few days before the election, at the Kahlon Mini-Fest at the Crown, the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency looming, dancing to club music felt vital but it also felt like a kind of danse macabre. We were all partying to songs such as Cajmere's 'Coffee Pot (It's Time For the Percolator)' because it felt like we all might be dead very soon. Earlier in the evening, D. Watkins kicked off Kahlon by reading some work, though it was more like a grim stand-up comedy set—toward the end he led the crowd in a quick "Fuck Trump" chant, then quipped that someone probably should've Snapchat-ed that shit. And then he read from the long frustrated list of murdered black men and women that takes up part of the intro to his book "The Beast Side"—a list that would keep growing regardless of who won in the White House. But Watkins expressed fear that the police will be even more emboldened with President Trump in office.

Kahlon briefly delayed the jitters from setting in and caustic, tragic optimism won that night. And now Donald Trump—who wants to kick Muslims out of the country, who wants to build a wall so the Mexicans can't come in, who grabs women "by the pussy," who thinks you can run the country the way you run a business or reality show, who wants to kill the entire families of "terrorists," and does not have a single, stable idea of how to govern—is our president-elect.

The first time it became clear to me that Trump might really win was at a rally in Berlin, Maryland, back in April. Then, Trump was still allegedly a long-shot for Republican presidential nominee —at the time many still believed that the party might succumb to reason and that, um, Ted Cruz might get the nomination—but he was no less of a threat, and when Trump walked off stage to crazed cheers after an hour of hot nonsense I saw how he had the crowd in his hands. He was the bloated sequel to Ronald Reagan, the charming, goofy actor/phony who became president because he could literally act presidential. This time, it was a reality television star fraud instead. There is a continuum here.

And this, I think, explains why Trump's speeches and his whole m.o. is meandering, maddening semi-promises. He keeps his supporters wanting more by never giving out much at all—this is the agreement we enter into with reality television, too, because it is all about stretching cheap content out for as long as possible and handing us the most basic of rewards one by one. His campaign was one outrageous plot twist and assertion after another, good or bad, it didn't matter what, just that something new happened, anything for us to chew on and digest. It is also why the media ate it up so fully and stupidly. We're all about something new.

The vacuum of empathy that exists in places like Berlin, Maryland if you're a person of color or queer or a Muslim—you know, the people Trump's politics targeted—was palpable and urgent that day in April, too.

"This is my first protest," 17-year-old high school senior Gabrielle Franks told me sheepishly and proudly. Franks, who was from nearby Hebron, Maryland, used Facebook to organize an anti-Trump protest at the Berlin rally. Throughout the day, she stood between the protesters and Trump supporters, encouraging non-violence. "We are here to protest Donald Trump's incitement of violence and hate speech against opposing beliefs, immigrants, minorities, including Mexicans, African-Americans, and women," she told me later on, repeating her well-rehearsed comment on the protest's purposes. She was, at 17, already media trained. Trump and his supporters, not so much.

Once the scene outside the rally morphed into a confrontation between Trump supporters and protesters, it echoed some of Trump's fractious-to-violent rallies in other towns: Anti-Trump protesters began saying aloud to the Trump supporters that he is a hatemonger when it comes to a staggering number of issues and, by the way, you're totally a hatemonger too if you ride for this fella. Trump supporters, pissed off that their candidate was being called racist, doubled down on their rhetoric, and began throwing racist, homophobic, and gendered slurs at the protesters, especially the word "nigger," all of which proves the point of the anti-Trump protesters. Repeat this for four straight hours until the Trump event is over. Then things get darker and violent and, sometimes, the police look the other way when Trump fans begin busting heads or antagonizing people.

After Trump's speech, police in riot gear had constructed a line along the road as small pockets of Trump supporters—many of them high on whatever Trump had just delivered, others who couldn't get in amped up because they'd been yelling and screaming at protesters all evening—argued with anti-Trump supporters. A group of burly, white, good ol' boys launched "nigger" and other insults at a small group of young black men protesting Trump. The black protesters yelled shit back and played on centuries-old white paranoia, joking that they'll be hooking up with these guys' sisters and daughters, for real, for real. Eventually, the group of black men walked away. The white boys called them "pussy."

Moments after, police in riot gear got in formation and marched away. That is, they left the scene just as it was escalating. Not long after, a fight broke out in the parking lot between supporters and protesters. Quickly, the cops were back and had put a whole bunch of young black men on the ground.

"No white guys on the ground," a black protester shouted out to anybody who could hear him, as two black men were cuffed and pushed next to a cop car.

"There's no white people being cuffed, being detained," another black protester pointed out. Then, as if he was aware of the scrutinizing facts of the media if this video were to flit across Facebook or Instagram, he stressed "at this moment," at least.

A small but telling skirmish. The fight between Trump supporters and protesters was undoubtedly the result of the police leaving, hinting at what's to come under Trump: They will feel even more OK looking away if certain kinds of people's lives are in danger and, by doing so, they will allow those certain people to get hurt.


Donald Trump's entire campaign was one big example of looking the other way.

Gabrielle Franks protests Donald Trump in Berlin, Maryland
Gabrielle Franks protests Donald Trump in Berlin, Maryland (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

A few months later in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention, police, state troopers, and National Guard turned the Rust Belt city's downtown into a police state and followed anybody that looked like they might not be a Republican proper. At least one activist's home was raided, and kids in anonymous masks or just scruffy-haired and bearded dissidents got followed by cops in body armor on bikes for blocks and blocks. This was also a glimpse, I think, at a Trump Presidency: a brutal police state.

But in Cleveland there was also El Hajj Amir Khalid A. Samad, who led an End Poverty Now Rally on the first day of the RNC. A few days later, I met up with him at an East Cleveland community center where he holds a summer-long Peace Camp for the empowered, conscious, and aware. The class consisted of 20 or so between the ages of 6 and 16. Each class began with the students saying "good morning" in a different language until they had run out of languages they knew. The lesson on the day I was there was "Ujamaa," which Samad translated to the class as "cooperative economics."

If we're aiming for some kind of community-driven ideal that doesn't need anybody from the outside, Samad said, then understand that violence is bad for the community and it's bad for business, which are one in the same. That means, among other things, that reporting or dealing with those who are doing wrong in the community shouldn't be off-limits. It shouldn't be considered "snitching."

It's "stupid," Samad told the class, adding some lift in his voice. "It's suicidal," he added—and you're a "soft sucker" if you subscribe to this twisted understanding of "stop snitching." Snitching is when you do dirt with somebody else and then you tell on them, one student explained. Samad said he was correct.

The larger lesson, it would seem, is that there is no future in this kind of fronting. He noted to the class that when he sees a young man looking rough with that "dead look" in his eyes, he smiles: "I smile because they want you give that dead look back."

"But that doesn't mean I don't do what I gotta do," he added, "I'm already prepared, so I can smile."

Then the class stood up and Samad began a clap and dance session with each kid introducing themselves and declaring that they were "empowered, conscious, and aware." After his lesson, Samad took a break out in front of the building as the students inside played music— drumming, shaking tambourines, and dancing. He dropped some of the severity from his voice, just chatting now.

Baltimore was fresh on his mind, not only because I had told him that I was from there but because on Monday, the first day of the RNC, Lt. Brian Rice, the highest-ranking officer charged in Freddie Gray's murder, had been found not guilty. Samad talked about how years ago, he reached out to then-Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

"We had some former [Black Guerrilla Family gang members] who wanted to come out to Baltimore and show them how to transition into something else, and the police chief was like, 'Nah,'" Samad said. "That's crazy. You got BGF corrections officers, you can't squash BGF. What you can do is to get them to stop selling the dope, quit the crazy stuff by introducing them to other opportunities. They never followed up on none of that. I was surprised."

Samad then turned to Trump. "The clown downtown," he said, represents the "delusion of white supremacy and white nationalism." Trump's rhetoric and the rhetoric of politicians especially as it pertains to protest and police violence puts law enforcement, especially white officers at risk, he said. They're the ones that are going to get hurt if it keeps escalating. This was, mind you, just a few weeks out from Dallas, where five police officers had been killed. "Police will be the victims," Samad said. "So don't hype this stuff up. I have no idea what [Trump's] going to say tonight."

That night at the RNC, Trump howled on about law and order as he often had.

Last Tuesday evening, right around when the results were sneaking in and it became clearer Trump was probably going to win, I decided I needed get out of the house and at least obsessively refresh Twitter out in public. Back at The Crown a few days after Kahlon, there was the absurdist Night Of 1,000 Melanias Party, a drag and dance show dubbed "the end of the world" party, as well as The Crown's typical karaoke night. Both helped. There is nothing wrong with having some fun when everything feels so imminently fucked up—dancing your pain away, as the Baltimore club favorite puts it. Two singers playfully fumbled through, back to back, the '80s apocalypse pop of R.E.M.'s 'It's The End Of The World As We Know It' and Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire.' There was also a rousing multi-person performance of Linkin Park's nu-metal-meets-hip-hop hit 'In The End' ("I tried so hard and got so far/ But in the end it doesn't even matter," goes its angsty hook).

Trump won and now it feels as though many of us are in mourning.

A Thursday evening protest brought out close to a thousand people, and it was inexplicably though rightly joyful—a massive gathering of the similarly-minded climbing out from under grief and fear, organizing and saying, for the night at least, "nah" all together. The chants jumped from any number of anti-Trump slogans ("Not my president-elect"; "Fuck Trump") to intersectional shout-outs for everybody about to be endangered by a Trump presidency ("Black Lives Matter"; "Trans Lives Matter"; "Pussy grabs back"; and nods to Muslim lives, women's reproductive rights, and more) as the protest moved from Station North to the Inner Harbor and then to M&T Bank Stadium, where it confronted Baltimore Ravens fans entering the stadium for a game against the Cleveland Browns, and then back again.

At the Ynot Lot where the march ended the group broke out into a chant of Kendrick Lamar's tragically optimistic 'Alright': "We gonna be all right/ We gonna be all right…"

In a sense, this march was training for the next four years of protest.


There is so much more work to be done now.