Reporting from the front lines

Dressed in tighty-whiteys, cowboy boots, and an American flag robe, this demonstrator was walking outside the Trump election night party, singing pro-Trump songs. | Stephanie Sugars

NEW YORK—We expected trouble. Trump supporters had been threatening, harassing, vilifying and intimidating journalists online and at Trump rallies for months. When the NYU Journalism Institute announced it would host a live, election night broadcast, weeks passed without anyone agreeing to cover the Trump campaign. So, Audrey—an undergraduate journalism student—and I volunteered fully expecting to face the abuse we had seen lobbed at professional journalists across the country.

The show coordinators—a couple graduate students and Journalism professors—didn’t make us feel any better about our choice; their weekly questions about whether we were concerned over security, if we felt safe going and if we wanted some people to come with us only made us more anxious. But, we had agreed to a job, and besides: whatever happened, we knew it wouldn’t be boring.

That being said, when my roommate and fellow journalist Kyle heard that it would just be Audrey and I, I welcomed his offer to come with us. While having an extra reporter on hand was certainly appreciated, it didn’t hurt that he’s 6-foot-7. He’s imposing by virtue of height alone, and can deftly diffuse tension.

We had applied for press credentials and badgered the Trump Campaign Office for weeks for access to the official Trump event at the Hilton Midtown, as our parallels covering the Clinton rally would be inside the event. But, the phone line was down, they never returned messages or emails, and generally ranged from unhelpful to cantankerous. Color me surprised.

On the night of the election, we walked into the event and were again denied credentials for reasons they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, elaborate on. We settled on setting up across the street where crowds were already gathering. We looked across at nearly two dozen sanitation trucks filled with sand surrounding the building, and red and blue police lights refracted off nearby windows. We weren’t the only ones prepared for antagonism.

As I approached the barricaded space where protesters were able to gather separate from the flow of pedestrian traffic, I braced myself for shouting, curses and a “tell the truth” and “fuck you” or two. Instead, I and most of the journalists around me, spoke to protesters who readily answered questions about who they were, why they were there and why they supported Trump. They were passionate but not antagonistic in their answers, though the chants were par for the course (“Lock her up” was still a favorite then).

Rather than the all-white crowd I must admit I expected, there was a surprising amount of diversity among the group out showing their support for then-candidate Trump. Men and women. Young and old. Black and white. Jews, Christians and, yes, even a Muslim. “You see this!” A man shouted, with his arm around the shoulder of a young woman wearing a loose hijab. “She’s a Muslim woman who supports Trump! We’re a very diverse group… we’ve got everyone.”

Tonye-D’Mitria Vickers was one of those supporters, and we spoke on and off over the nearly four hours he was in the pen outside the Hilton. A black, gay man from New York, he started supporting Trump after a NYC judge he clerked for spoke highly of him. “He told me that Trump is for all Americans… Do not let your color or orientation define you.” While I struggled to reconcile that characterization with the man I had been seeing on stage for months, a man whose statements alienated immigrants and persons with disabilities, Vickers embraced the oneness professed in that sentiment.

Almost everyone Audrey and I spoke to was willing to answer our questions and was generally pleasant, though a few devolved to shouting and rambling nonsenses. But not once did I feel unsafe.

People from across the political spectrum were on the street with a hop in their step and jubilant attitude: One man had made cereal boxes with a cartoon Trump mascot and was selling them to buy donations for a food bank. A band of students from Columbia came out to play music in front of the Hilton. A man in cowboy boots and hat, American flag hoodie, and tighty-whiteys played pro-Trump songs on his guitar.

Come two o’clock in the morning—eight hours since we began reporting—the election hadn’t been called but we could see the direction it was going. Kyle and I took off our press passes and headed towards Fox News Election Night Headquarters. Men and women decked out in American flags, suits and, of course, red Make America Great Again hats, poured out across the sidewalk, watching and cheering as Fox coverage was broadcast over half a dozen screens.

We weren’t working as journalists anymore, so it wasn’t long before Kyle launched into a discussion with three men standing on the fringes. Infrastructure, immigration, war, you name it, we discussed it. And while we certainly disagreed on things we all thought to be foundational—abortion as murder versus the mother’s right to bodily integrity—it was civil. And when another man aggressively came up to attack us and accuse us of destroying his city and country, they defended us and our right to be there and to be heard. Plenty of what I heard that night was troubling. But I walked home that almost-morning at five am thinking that as long as we could still talk to one another, maybe we’d be alright.

Sadly, my optimism hasn’t held. The first 100 hundred days of Trump’s presidency have brought countless protests, leaks and, portended in his campaign, press freedom abuses. His rhetoric against the press has inspired despots and dictators abroad to disregard or blatantly violate press freedom. And at home things seem to keep spiraling down: Verifiable facts and anything Trump disagrees with is labeled “fake news.” A journalist was arrested in West Virginia for asking Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price a question. Mayor Bob Buckhorn of Tampa joked about frightening journalists while firing blanks from a .50-caliber machine gun at them. Greg Gianforte was elected to the House after he physically assaulted and choked a journalist from The Guardian.

While on election day Americans seemed to still, on the whole, respect basic democratic norms, each other and the fourth estate, that respect is crumbling under Trump’s rhetoric of the press as “the enemy of the people.” Republican senator John McCain has rightly acknowledged that this is “how dictators get started,” and it’s something everyone—not just journalists—should be worried about.