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Anti-Trump protesters demonstrate facing Trump supporters outside Manhattan Criminal Courthouse in New York City, on April 4, 2023. Credit - Amanda Perobelli—Reuters
In the park across from the Manhattan courthouse in which Donald Trump surrendered on Tuesday, the national divide was, for a few hours, made physical. And it appeared to measure about 8 feet.
That was the rough distance between the rows of steel bicycle racks New York Police had formed into a cordon sanitaire between the people who, on one side, waved flags that read “F-ck Biden,” wore t-shirts announcing “Trump 2020: F-ck your feelings,” and carried signs reading “Salem 1692, Bragg 2023,” On the other side, the flags read “F-ck Trump,” the t-shirts announced “Smash the Patriarchy” and signs read “Witches Know This Is Not A Witch Hunt.”
A lone police sergeant stood in the no-man’s land, mustache drooping and thumbs in his belt, the picture of boredom. The indictment of a former President may have been a first. But there was a practiced, well-worn air to the demonstrations around it.
“I like being part of something larger than myself,” said Marni Halasa, a 25-year-old professional figure skater who had come dressed in a police costume, toting a Trump figure behind a security railing amid wads of cash. The New Yorker has worn a version of the costumre to 25 protests, starting with Occupy Wall Street. “This is a little bit of my therapy but it’s also to add some humor to the event,” Halasa said. “It’s like a party.”
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It kind of was. The atmosphere might be described as “New York”—provocative, rough-and-tumble, and genial all at the same time. Occasionally an anti-Trumper would sneak into the pro-Trump side, like the guy carrying a TRUMP FELONY sign. Everywhere he went, shouting “Lock him up!” two NYPD officers in “community affairs” windbreakers and a third in a fleece tagged along, to keep the peace.
But the man holding a sign reading “Hey Donny, you don’t get hair spray in prison” went unnoticed, standing on a park bench. (“I don’t have a name,” he replied, when asked. “I’m a ghost.”) Except for a dust-up over a banner early in the day, there appeared to be no confrontations. And one would have been noticed by the hundreds of journalists on hand; they clearly outnumbered the protesters.
“Oh, I’ve been interviewed a whole bunch of times,” said Karen Lichetbraun, a retired pre-school teacher on the pro-Trump side, at 10 a.m. “I actually bring a sign to get attention.” It read: “Thank you, Mr. President” and featured an Israeli flag.
Things got a bit tense a half hour later when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene briefly addressed the crowd through a megaphone. Her words were drowned out by the whistles and cowbells of the anti-Trump side (which favored the communal percussive) and after a few minutes she was being swept by her handlers into a waiting white Ford Expedition Max, trailed by epithets and dozens of cameras. “It’s like a fumble!” said Scotty, a Trump supporter from Staten Island who declined to give his last name, saying his union leaders do not share the rank and file’s enthusiasm for the Republican.
“It’s a lot more civil than I expected,” he added, looking around. Democratic congressman Jamaal Bowman began addressing the cameras Greene left behind. Behind him stood a man wearing a train conductor’s cap and a sign reading “Stop Hating Each Other Because You Disagree.” Smaller print identified him as “Truth Conductor.” “Like he’s on Metro North,” said Scotty, naming a commuter railway. At least one other member of Congress, the notorious GOP freshman George Santos, also made an appearance. So did a man in a Trump mask and an orange jumpsuit. And a nude woman wearing white body paint and a diaper. A man carrying a “Fags For Trump” sign strolled into the Trump side to applause.
“You’re not going to find another gay, conservative Latino out here. I’m the only one,” said a man (not the one with the sign) who gave his name as Pablo Rivera, and a moment earlier had been animatedly shouting into his phone’s camera. “I did a live TikTok,” he explained. “I’m not an ‘influencer,’ he said, adding the air quotes. “I get like, 100, 200 a post.” His post a moment earlier tore into Biden for his age, and anti-Trumpers for thinking that because he’s Mexican and gay he should be a Democrat. The lens on one side of his glasses was held in by a bit of tape, but he could see well enough. Police had warned about violence.
“There’s nobody clashing,” he said. “It’s….what? Discourse!”
At midday, Google Maps listed the status of Manhattan’s criminal court complex as “As busy as it gets.”
“It’s a circus. It’s fun to watch,” said Liz Le Bleau, 60, who with her husband Bob drove four hours from their Massachusetts home, then caught a train (likely a Metro North) to Manhattan for the occasion.
“We’re here because we’re excited to see that Trump is being indicted,” she says. “We wish it were for some of the more serious offenses that he’s done but we’ll take this for starters.”
Around 12:30 p.m., police told journalists with certain credentials to line up to cross the street to the courthouse. Someone shouted, “Ask him why he took the nuclear codes!” Phones buzzed with alerts saying the former president had left Trump Tower, but the thud of helicopters was the only way to tell he was approaching, and, because he entered through a side door, no one in the park knew when he’d gone inside.
Dozens of television cameras impeded the view into the street, but it remained empty. At one point, a camera operator got out his phone, swiveled it to “landscape” and made a slow pan of the scene behind him.
The TV reporters mostly did their best to narrate—in Arabic, Spanish, French, Japanese—but Britain’s SkyNews had Michael Wolff on hand to chat with its correspondent, each from atop his own box. The Fire and Fury author dubbed the indictment “an extraordinary gift to what had been a flagging campaign.”
A half block away, John Paul Marcelo had set up his easel between parked cars. A day earlier he’d painted Trump Tower (altering the marquee to “Grump Tower”), and today he was capturing the scene on Centre Street from a distance. “I paint every day,” said Marcello, who is based in the Bay Area. “But I’m definitely painting this because it’s history.”
Beside him, Yury Tulchinsky, a New Yorker born in Ukraine, had been watching him work. “Let me point something out,” he said, and placed a finger on the crowd of people that, on the smallish canvas, amounted to tiny dots of paint. Marcelo helped out:
“It’s a bit of orange,” he said, and smiled.
Suddenly the street was no longer empty. A big white Department of Corrections bus – a prisoner transport – was easing toward the courthouse. A cop waved it down, grumped aloud that someone keeps letting them through, and told the driver to reverse. As it backed beeping past Marcelo’s easel, someone cracked that it apparently wouldn’t be needed.
The cop lit up. “We don’t need it today!” he said. “Yes, he decided to take the motorcade!”