Burlington Free Press | January 11, 2016 | Article by Jess Aloe
When Donald Trump took the Flynn Center stage Thursday in Burlington, Sen. Bernie Sanders was more than 1,000 miles away in Iowa. But the night was a big one for the Democratic presidential candidate anyway.
As hundreds of protesters gathered in City Hall Park, many wore Bernie stickers, held Bernie signs and chanted Bernie’s name. Protesters interrupted Trump’s speech at least a half-dozen times, some yelling support for Sanders.
Earlier in the day, as people lined up to see Republican presidential front-runner Trump, the Sanders campaign sent out a fundraising email with the subject line “Donald Trump is in Vermont today.”
“There’s a reason he’s coming to Burlington,” the email read. “Trump wants people to think that in our hometown, he has more support than us.”
The Sanders campaign did not respond to an inquiry about whether the email led to a boost in donations.
Others in Vermont shared the campaign's attitude. One rally organizer, James Haslam of Rights and Democracy VT, said Trump was coming “to pick a fight in Bernie’s backyard.” Sanders issued a statement earlier in the week welcoming Trump to Vermont and saying he hoped Vermont's values rubbed off on the billionaire real-estate mogul from New York. Haslam planned his Love and Unity rally before Sanders issued his statement but said the focus on positivity and inclusiveness was consistent with the senator’s.
Trump came to Burlington looking for headlines, Haslam said.
He took potshots at Sanders in his speech, and said he'd like to face the self-described Democratic Socialist in the general election. Later Thursday, Sanders said he and Trump finally agree on something and he would love to run against Trump, calling him a pathological liar.
Friday, Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said the response to Trump was gratifying to see.
“The people of Burlington spoke loudly and clearly about their support for Sen. Sanders and his agenda,” Weaver said.
“People were out exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Michael Briggs,a Sanders spokesman, also on Friday.
As soon as Trump’s visit was announced on New Year's Eve, a debate broke out on social media about the most effective way for Trump opponents to respond, conscious of the fact that Trump supporters, the media and others could use reaction of Sanders supporters unaffiliated with his campaign to paint a picture of the senator for a broad audience.
The Vermont Workers’ Center began a petition seeking to have the Flynn cancel the event, but quickly withdrew it after receiving push-back from the public.
Matt McGrath, co-director of the center, said organizers took down the petition because of the free-speech debate. “To us, the petition was becoming a distraction from the issues,” he said.
Other protesters planned to reserve tickets and leave seats empty, although that strategy later was abandoned after it became clear the Trump campaign had given away thousands more tickets than seats.
By Thursday night, the line to see Trump had stretched down St. Paul Street and wrapped around Maple Street. One Sanders supporter, Stu Sporko, said he had reserved tickets for Trump's speech, but then decided against waiting in line. He joined the protests across the street instead.
Sporko brought a “Bernie for Pres” banner to the park from his nearby store, Battery St. Jeans. He said the banner has been hanging in the store for years. It started as a “hopeful joke,” he said. He said he had planned to hear Trump out, though he’d also planned to bring his “Bernie for Pres” banner.
“He’s not the nicest guy,” he said, referring to Trump, “but freedom of speech is something we’ve got to support.”
James Ehlers also organized an event to counter Trump's appearance, which he emphasized was a rally focused on a positive message, not a protest focused on Trump. Ehlers said he is “definitively working very hard to have Bernie Sanders become our next president.”
The emphasis on positivity made Thursday a great night for Bernie Sanders, Ehlers said. Ehlers said he believes Trump’s vitriol might have even ended up being a net positive for Sanders, bringing people out into the street and uniting them behind Sanders.
“Marco Rubio would never have generated a peace rally,” Ehlers said.
Trevor Fulchino, a 30-year-old special education teacher from South Hero, was one of the people moved to stand out in the cold by Trump's visit to Sanders' hometown. Standing in front of the Flynn and holding a “Bernie is from here, trump that” sign, he said the protest was his first political rally.
“I’ve really enjoyed what Bernie Sanders has done for this state,” he said, and he didn't want to miss something this big.
Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, a million-member progressive group which has endorsed Sanders, said Thursday night’s events showed the country what could happen if Sanders, who trails frontrunner Hillary Clinton in national polls, were the Democratic nominee.
“It’s a great reflection of what we would see in a national election if it were Trump versus Sanders,” Chamberlain said, noting that it looked more and more likely that Trump would become the Republican nominee.
Trump and Sanders both have grassroots energy driving their campaigns, he said, and a grassroots election would be good for the country.
The protests and rallies were largely peaceful, despite some heated words and chants yelled back and forth. No arrests were made, Burlington police said.
Trump’s campaign refused to allow in undecided voters or people who declined to say they were Trump supporters. Protesters booed as people walked into the Flynn, and cheered as people refused admittance were escorted out. Despite the screening, some protesters managed to get in and disrupt Trump’s speech.
James Haslam had decided to focus on a silent vigil, followed by live music on the steps of City Hall, rather than interrupting Trump. He praised some of the people who were thrown out, saying it took a huge amount of courage to stand up in a crowd of Trump supporters and voice opposition.
Haslam was proud of Burlington's response to Trump, despite how little time Trump opponents had to plan protests and rallies. Haslam said he had printed 2,000 stickers reading “love and unity” and gave away all of them.
This story was first published Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. Contact Jess Aloe at 802-660-1874 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter atwww.twitter.com/jess_aloe.