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COLUMBIA, S.C. — What if President Trump was set to make a grand speech to black students, but no one was allowed to come?
That was the question raised by several protestors who walked the streets of Columbia, S.C., on Friday afternoon, as they geared up to push back against Trump’s speech at historically black Benedict College. Several usual suspects were part of the anti-Trump line up: staffers from rival Democratic campaigns, angered residents and volunteers passing out impeachment merchandise (an impeachment shirt was on sale for $15).
Yet one anticipated group was noticeably missing: Benedict College students.
Benedict alumnus Shawn Torres told Yahoo News that current students were instructed to “remain in place or leave campus” during Trump’s speech, essentially sequestering themselves in dormitories.
“A lot of them are opposed to this but have been silenced,” said Torres, who added that only a handful of students from the college were invited, and the rest of the attendees were recruited from non-black colleges around the state.
The resulting scene outside the speech, which included an eclectic mix of student protesters, Tom Steyer volunteers and some Trump supporters, highlighted, if nothing else, the challenge Trump faces in winning substantial support among black voters.
Benedict’s students, though under restrictions during the speech, found creative workarounds. Some stuck their heads out of their dorm room windows and played hip-hop music in what appeared to be an act of unity with the protestors gathered outside of campus gates. Even such a small showing of support gave new life to the hundred or so anti-Trump protestors, most of whom were bused in by entrepreneur and presidential candidate Tom Steyer, according to the volunteers.
“Free the guys! Free the girls!” chanted the protestors outside the dormitory windows. “They definitely got a voice too,” said 40-year-old Jermaine Evans, an African-American Steyer volunteer.
The Steyer supporters, mostly black volunteers from South Carolina, weren’t able to confirm exactly how many of them attended, but Evans added: “We got a busload, and a couple of vans, and another bus. We came out here in numbers.”
During the protest, a van playing a pro-Steyer, pro-impeachment ad was doing laps around the perimeter of campus.
Only one current Benedict student was spotted by Yahoo News at the pre-speech protest near Bernie Sanders’s Columbia field office: sophomore Nia Byas.
“We are all upset — we are all outraged,” said Byas. “We are being disregarded and pushed to the side. Nobody is really listening to us and nobody really cares about the students. We are not supposed to be anywhere near President Trump.”
News service McClatchyDC reported that more the half the room was reserved for allies of the president. During Trump’s speech, only nine Benedict students were confirmed, but due to conflicts with ROTC training, seven showed up, according to the White House pool report.
Representatives from Benedict College did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
A group of freshman from neighboring Allen College — also historically black, and located across the street — decided to show their collegial support for Benedict students by joining the anti-Trump protesters.
“I feel like that’s wrong — I feel like they do need to voice their opinion even if they do go to Benedict College,” joked Allen freshman Justin Reid.
Though there were tensions between Trump and anti-Trump factions at the protest, the scene appeared relatively muted compared to the president’s rallies or the Democratic presidential debates.
Pierre Wilson, the North Carolina state field director for Blexit, a movement to encourage black voters to leave the Democratic Party, saw the event as beneficial for bipartisan communication.
But Wilson deflected when asked about Trump’s recent use of the word “lynching,” pointing out that former Vice President Joe Biden also used the word in an interview over a decade ago. Biden has since apologized.
The ranks of Blexit supporters were heavily outnumbered by anti-Trump protestors, though Wilson says that’s exactly why he showed up to the protests.
“I want to educate the black community on having an open discussion. I think every Republican is labeled as racist — I hope we can create more dialogue,” said Wilson, who was interrupted by a protestor wearing a Steyer 2020 T-shirt, who yelled “Disgusting!”
Another group of black Steyer supporters walked past, one of whom said they were going to “light up” a Trump “Make America Great Again” cap.
“If I can just talk to one or two people, that would be enough,” added Wilson.
A more animated black Trump supporter from Detroit, who identified himself only as Keith, said he believes that Democrats in Washington are putting the president through a “goddamn lynching.”
“I want to inform my people that we have to think different than what they tell us,” said Keith, who was standing among a group of mostly white supporters selling hats. “I don’t want every four years, that Hillary Clinton and people like that to come with a bottle of hot sauce to the black potluck and get our f***ing vote.”
Justin Johnson, a freshman at Allen, said there’s nothing wrong with that view, but it represents a minority of black voters.
“They can believe, but they want to believe,” said Johnson. “But they have to realize at the end of the day there’s a lot more anti-Trump than pro-Trump black people.”
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