March 24, 2017
Things could get ugly in Philadelphia this weekend, and maybe that’s the point.
By “things,” we’re talking about dueling events pitting supporters of President Donald Trump and the counter-protesters dead set on chasing them out of town on Saturday.
At 11:30 a.m., members of the former group will gather on Independence Mall for the Pennsylvania MAGA (Make America Great Again) March, which is billed as a show of support for Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, the troops and first responders stateside.
At the same time, a nebulous collection of protesters from a variety of groups will meet not too far away for a #DisruptMAGA event intended to push back against “a group of Trump-worshipping right-wing scum (who will) show support for Donald Trump and his racist, sexist and transphobic policies.”
If all goes according to the Trump loyalists' plan – backed by a permit to assemble – they’ll march to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, finding strength in unity while singing the praises of those they support. (The march’s local organizer, Kevin Efaw, didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday.)
If all goes according to one counter-protest organizer’s plan – they made a conscious choice not to seek a permit – the march won’t make it anywhere near its destination before marchers turn tail and "scurry home to the Lehigh Valley."
That was the focus of a conversation I had with a thirty-something organizer on Thursday afternoon at a local coffeehouse.
He said he was skittish about his name being used because some of his peers are wary of the press and some on the pro-Trump side employ doxxing for intimidation purposes, a particularly troubling prospect since he’s a parent.
He also explained that he wanted to talk to publicly weave a safety net of sorts.
By sharing their intentions to block the march, they can’t be written off as “a terrorist plot to attack police officers and elderly Trump supporters." (To be fair, there is some dicey talk on the event's Facebook listing that could render that safety net ineffective, but such is the nature of a movement that lacks a core organizing unit.)
“Saturday will be proof positive that the resistance is alive and well and continuing to grow.” – Active organizer within the "resistance movement"
It also helps to counter the thought that the protest movement has lost some steam, he said.
“Saturday will be proof positive that the resistance is alive and well and continuing to grow,” he said, noting that Philadelphia's role in the birth of America makes it a perfect place for a showdown to grab the eyes of the world. “I don’t know what Saturday will look like – there are a lot of possibilities – but it could be a historic occasion. It will be a show of force.”
The organizer said protesters are bracing for conflict because of worries that MAGA marchers could follow through on plans to make “citizen’s arrests” against protesters. And there there’s an underlying fear, he conceded, that marchers could be carrying "concealed weapons,” but that won't impact their commitment.
Taken in the context of our long morning chat, it became clear that he views Saturday as an extension of a February 17 protest which saw people injured, a flag burned and people facing felony riot charges after a clash on North Broad Street.
What happens this weekend will clarify whether perceptions of a good working relationship between police and protesters have shifted in recent weeks, he said.
“Is that the new standard? Did the circumstances created on [February] 17th alter the police playbook in these situations? Did the narrative and dynamics of these events change?” he wondered while admitting America’s shifting mood leaves him concerned that things are different now.
He said he knows one important thing, though: He and his “Rebel Authority” peers will again serve as a “guerrilla shield,” holding repurposed orange traffic drums at the front of the counter-protest pack. (In February, that line of defense was “white allies” supporting protesters of color, he said.)
And therein lies the prospect for conflict.
He didn’t offer many specifics around the counter-protest; they will be revealed when the march starts.
While he plans to be up front in the counter-protest pack, it remains unclear whether police will form a line in front of the marchers. (Law enforcement officials justifiably keep deployment and tactical details to themselves in advance of these sorts of events, after all.)
Should that happen, protesters would block law enforcement from passing through their line and, since he said they won’t budge, the prospect for conflict rises.
“It’s important that we as individuals alter the system and take back as much power as we can,” he said, lamenting the “normalization” of the Trump administration. “The group is an evolving organism, but the general sense is that we must counter, escalate and resist what’s happening.
“There is a growing sentiment that we don’t know how long it’s going to be before they make it illegal to protest. It increasingly seems like we’re rapidly approaching that point.”
Though he was light on details, the counter-protester did make one concrete claim about Saturday’s actions.
“The march will be disrupted,” he said. "They will not march all the way to the Art Museum.
“These fascist enablers will be told to leave because they’re not allowed in Philadelphia. We want them to feel very unwelcome in our city. This is not going to be a family-friendly event.”