`That’s what freedom sounds like.’ On protest, from Broadway to the Texas Capitol, in the age of Trump



Protest and counter-protest at the Texas Capitol on Saturday

Good Monday Austin:

One of perks of being the vice president-elect is you can score tickets to Hamilton. Like President Obama cutting the line at Franklin Barbecue.

One of the costs of being Donald Trump’s vice president-elect, is you collect some boos when you take your seat and get lectured from the stage when the performance is over

Pence, on Fox News Sunday, took the experience admirably, graciously in stride.

Pence was on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace:

WALLACE: Finally, I’ve got about a minute left. I got to ask you about the subject everybody is talking about today. You know what it is. And that is the fact that you went to see the Broadway musical “Hamilton” on Friday night.

And afterwards, the cast addressed you as you were walking out of the theater about their concerns as to whether Mr. Trump will protect diversity in our nation. Here he is.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.


WALLACE: Now, Saturday morning, Mr. Trump tweeted this, “The cast of ‘Hamilton’ was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize.” And he tweeted about it again at 6:23 this morning.

Governor, what did you think of the cast’s comments, and did you consider it rude?

PENCE: Well, first off, my daughter and I and her cousins really enjoyed the show. “Hamilton” is just an incredible production, incredibly talented people. And it was a real joy to be there.

You know, when we arrived, we heard — we heard a few boos, we heard some cheers. And I nudged my kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like.

And — but at the end, you know, I did hear what was said from the stage, and I can tell you, I wasn’t offended by what was said. I’ll leave to others whether that was the appropriate venue to say it.

But I do want to say that the basic element, the center of that message is one that I want to address. That is, I know this is a very disappointing time for people that did not see their candidate win in this national election. I know this is a very anxious time for some people.

And I just want to reassure people that what President-elect Donald Trump said on election night, he absolutely meant from the bottom of his heart. He is preparing to be the president of all of the people of the United States of America.

And to watch him bringing together people of diverse views, bringing together people that differed with him strongly, seeing him talk to leaders around the world, I just want to — I just want to reassure every American that in the days ahead, I’m very confident that they’re going to see — that they’re going to see President-elect Donald Trump be a president for all of the people, and we embrace that principle and we’re going to work hard to make that principle every day that we serve.

WALLACE: And just to button Hamilton-gate up, do you want or expect an apology?

PENCE: Well, as I said, I would just — I would leave that to others, whether that was the appropriate venue for that. But, you know, I will tell you, Chris, if you haven’t seen the show, go to see it. It is a great, great show.

You know, I’m a real history buff. So I — my daughter and I and her cousins really enjoyed it.

WALLACE: Well, I’ve seen it too. We can say Pence and Wallace, two thumbs up.

Governor Pence, we want to thank you. Thank you for joining us. Always good to talk with you, sir.

PENCE: Thank you

That was in marked contrast to the president-elect’s reaction, which began with this now-deleted tweet.



Then these undeleted tweets.


A “safe and special place?”

What kind of bubble does Trump live in?

Does he think the whole world is the Brown University campus?

And he, uniquely, has a safe place right there in Manhattan, a short walk from Broadway.

Not just Trump Tower, but, you may recall, all of Fifth Avenue, New York’s Main Street.

Trump: “I could stand in the middle of 5th avenue and shoot SOMEBODY and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

Indeed, if Trump wants to demonstrate – or test – his continued popularity, he ought to, with a little Aaron Burr bravado, periodically test that assertion, and just go and shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, and see what happens.

But, back to Broadway.

Classic Trump.

Normally, he would throw in that Hamilton is a big flop and losing money but that’s too obviously untrue, so instead he uses his favorite information source – I hear –  to say it’s highly overrated – apparently by virtually everyone who sees it (I haven’t), including Mike Pence.

The future First Tweeter then took a break to comment on what else he’s up to.


And then,  the critic returns.

Perhaps the humor of The Bubble was too subtle.

So, while Pence emerged as classy and wise, Trump burnished his reputation as emotionally seven-years-old.




Amid the Hamilton tweets, there was also these:


For some, this was the real diversionary motivation behind the Hamilton tweets.
























From Vulture.com,  The Hamilton-Pence Incident Was More Than Just a Distraction By

Over the weekend, “Hamilton is a distraction” became, for a surprisingly diverse group of commenters across the board, a common refrain. According to their argument, every moment spent paying attention to this silly theater kerfuffle was a moment in which we were not looking at the $25 million Trump University settlement, or at Trump’s national-security appointments, or at the unprecedented blurring of lines between his private business interests and his new temp gig as a public servant. Some journalists manifested a growing strain of Trumpanoia in which anyone who comments on anything Trump does or says on Twitter is playing right into his diabolical master plan (“Stop Being Trump’s Twitter Fool,” the veteran writer Jack Shafer warned on Politico). Not to mention all the variations of “This is why they hate us,” and “This is why we lost” proffered by people who remain determined to embrace a narrative that the election was “real” America’s calculated repudiation of diversity-based cultural elitism and of people who make mean jokes. Just days before the incident, the conservative historian Niall Ferguson wrote a Boston Globe op-ed clickbaitingly headlined, “Was the election a vote against ‘Hamilton’?”

That kind of anti-elite symbol-making, in which Hamilton represents a trinket of the smugly out-of-touch (it’s great, it’s ours, you can’t get in, and you wouldn’t like it anyway), obviously freights the show with baggage it doesn’t deserve. No, it didn’t get Trump elected. But the flare up is a bigger deal than those who are labeling it nothing more than a damaging diversion would like to believe. Little incidents can come packed with big meaning. The Hamilton episode touched on LGBTQ issues, which were shamefully underdiscussed during the campaign and remain so now. It touched on immigration; on race; on the impact and value of protest speech; on the president-elect’s temperament; on his demands for opponents to capitulate; on his disdain for First Amendment freedoms (his quartet of Hamilton tweets was consistent with his post-election attacks on public protestors and on the New York Times); and on the worries of several large populations that the Trump administration will demonize them and make them less safe. Those who consider themselves progressives — but view all discussion as a zero-sum game in which attention to one story means lack of attention to another — might do well to think harder before brushing this off as trivial because the gateway is showbiz, or because a different story is on their minds, or because they want their conversation to be the conversation.

As for showbiz itself, what was exposed on Friday night at Hamilton was the dawning of the age of anxiety. Hollywood doesn’t know what to do right now; neither does Broadway. What should oppositional entertainment be in the age of Trump — especially in a country where half the population seems to instantly discredit anything that comes from New York or Los Angeles? Is the job to buck up the left, to reach out to the right, to depict an America that’s routinely ignored by Trump, to depict an America that’s routinely ignored by the makers of entertainment, or all of the above?

Anger, fear, and sadness can, no doubt, inspire a lot of great creative work. But planning popular art as a sweaty reaction to electoral defeat is a surefire way to create something bad. One can embrace politically conscious pop culture and still realize that while it’s very good at some things — gradually expanding people’s vision of the world, slowly normalizing the misunderstood or marginal — it is not direct activism, no matter how performatively satisfying it can feel, no matter how viral it can go. Activism is activism; pop culture is the drip-drip-drip of water regrooving a rock so gradually that you’ll never pinpoint the moment the landscape changed. A hashtag is just the grate through which the water drips.

Which doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t try. In the first of his anti-Hamilton tweets, Trump (who is said to like musicals and apparently saw Evita six times, a heterosexual world record) surprised people by using language that many on the right detest and routinely mock. “The Theater,” he wrote, apparently sanctifying it with a capital letter, “must always be a safe and special place.” Ha ha, he almost said safe space! However, he’s right. What he doesn’t understand is that anybody who walks through the doors of a theater should be prepared to have preconceptions challenged, beliefs questioned, certitudes shaken, ideas adjusted, worldviews broadened, and perspectives shifted. People who consider that a threat to their safety should probably stay away from theater and the rest of popular culture altogether. For the rest of us, that’s not only safe, it’s essential.

You can do two things if you’re on a stage: Show or tell. There are those who feel Hamilton should have stuck with the first; instead, the cast and production team chose, for one night, to do both. While this is going to be a very long and ugly fight, I’d award them a narrow victory-by-decision in Culture Wars, Round One. They saw an extraordinary circumstance looming before them, they stood up, they represented themselves and others with firmness and dignity, and they sparked plenty of meaningful, non-distracting dialogue by doing so. Chances to speak truth directly to power, even when power turns its back and starts walking up the aisle, may be rarer than we would wish in the next four years. When the opportunity comes along, there’s much to be said for not throwing away your shot.


And, a counter-take from Springsteen and the Soprano’s Stevie Van Zandt.








Which brings us to Saturday’s scene at the Capitol.




From the Statesman:


Eight people were arrested and riot police were summoned to the Texas Capitol on Saturday as members of a White Lives Matter group, some of them armed, faced off against a variety of opponents.

(Ken Reed and other White Lives Matter proponents held a rally in front of the Texas State Capitol on Saturday. Photo by. Dave Creaney)
(Ken Reed and other White Lives Matter proponents held a rally in front of the Texas State Capitol on Saturday. Photo by. Dave Creaney)

About 20 White Lives Matter protesters came around midday to protest hate crime laws that they say favor minorities. “Equal justice under law” was on a sign held up by one man, who dressed all in black with what appeared to be a Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifle slung on his shoulder.

(Members of Houston-based White Lives Matter march in a demonstration escorted by Texas State Troopers. James Gregg.)

The protesters were shouted down by what a Texas Department of Public Safety officer said were 300 to 400 counter protesters, who yelled “Nazi scum” and other insults.

Riot police were summoned, with about 60 state troopers on the scene and a state Department of Public Safety helicopter buzzing overhead. Horse-mounted officers from DPS and the Austin Police Department were also involved.

(Photo by James Gregg)
(Photo by James Gregg)

The incident at the Capitol seemed to be yet another convulsion fueled by divisions, many of them about race, that have deepened across the U.S. since the presidential election nearly two weeks ago.

DPS officials said eight people were arrested — including two on the Capitol grounds — on misdemeanor charges that included assault, interference with public duty, disorderly conduct and evading arrest.

The counter protesters were organized, at least in part, by Smash Fascism Austin.

The goal, the Smash Fascism group had posted on Facebook, was to “turn out in overwhelming numbers, drown out their message of hate, and show them the people of Austin will not stand for fascists organizing on our streets.”

This too is what freedom sounds like. And, if you don’t like the obscene sounds of freedom, do not click play.


The clash of protestors and counter-protestors came on a glorious fall day right next to, and just after, the dedication of a magnificent Texas African-American History Memorial on the South Lawn of the Capitol.

(Photo by David Creaney)
(Photo by David Creaney)

The spirit of the dedication was uplifting.

And, while I usually find demonstrations of almost any kind of uplifting, because of what it says about America, Saturday’s scene was also a little dispiriting, and not just because, or even mostly because of the White Lives Matter demonstrators at its center.



(Dave Creaney)
(Dave Creaney)

What bothered me was that the anger of at least a significant number of those anti-fascist counter-protesters was disconnected from a sense of higher purpose or any kind of transcendent spirit and seemed all about a hatred of the little band of Nazis they vastly outnumbered and surrounded, and who, it seemed from some of the counter-protesters’ chants and signs and comments, they did not believe were owed or deserved the free speech rights of all Americans.’

Maybe it was simply an understandable, cathartic release under the current circumstance, but, in defense of diversity and tolerance, there seemed to be coursing through the crowd a totalitarian spirit.



(James Gregg)
(Photo by James Gregg)


Early in the afternoon, when the scene was still raging, a couple of the White Lives Matter protesters exited the confrontation heading to their car parked a couple of blocks away on East 11th Street. They were followed by about a dozen of the counter-protesters chanting at them. As the WLM’s got into their car, one of the counter-protesters kicked the car. As the car drove away, one shouted after it,: “Go home and molest your children.” Another shouted, “I hope you get in a crash and die.”

As the police began to try maneuver to extricate the remaining White Lives Matters protesters from the scene, a chant from some of the counter-protesters rose up, “Cops and Klan go hand in hand.”

Another chant suggested the cops could not keep them safe.

Department of Public Safety Director, Steven McCraw, watched events unfold from the perimeter of the scene. “We’re here to protect the protesters, the counter-protesters and the counter-counter-protesters.”

An Austin men walked up and down the line of troopers, telling the black and Hispanic officers that they should not compromise their morality to do their job. But they were there to make sure nobody got hurt. Would they have served a higher moral purpose by turning the Nazis over to the crowd and say, “Have at them,” or watch as a firefight ensued between armed belligerents?

I don’t get it.


(A group who refused to identify themselves stands near a White Lives Matter demonstration armed with loaded rifles across the street from the state Capitol. Hundreds of protesters and counter-protesters demonstrated downtown in a tense standoff and multiple arrests were made. JAMES GREGG)
(A group who refused to identify themselves stands near a White Lives Matter demonstration armed with loaded rifles across the street from the state Capitol. Hundreds of protesters and counter-protesters demonstrated downtown in a tense standoff and multiple arrests were made. JAMES GREGG)


A masked counter-protestor shouted at a Statesman reporter who had spoken with Ken Reed: “F*** you for interviewing a Nazi.”

The idea of a masked person berating a reporter not to talk to one of a small number of people -no matter how loathsome their ideology – encircled by a far larger crowd screaming at them, seemed more fascist than anti-fascist in its sensibility.




The black freedom struggle was built on heroic non-violent resistance, on Martin Luther King’s belief in radical love and the Beloved Community.

And a certain actual tolerance and humility.

And even, perhaps, a little sense of irony.





Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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