By sundown on Friday night, the crowd assembled inside the arena was chanting and ready to cheer on their candidate: Donald Trump. Six thousand strong and still trickling in through the metal detectors at the front gate, they had traveled from across the Midwest, taking vacation days from work, booking bus tickets from afar, and waiting, at times, more than 12 hours outside on the streets of Chicago for a night with the GOP frontrunner.
But not everyone was there to cheer. Just 50 feet in front of the podium where Trump was scheduled to appear at any moment, Nathaniel Lewis, a 25-year-old African-American graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, had established a beachhead of sorts: a pocket of about three dozen college students and activists. They were ready, too.
What Lewis and dozens of his UIC classmates had planned was perhaps bigger—and better organized—than any protest Trump had faced to date. It had been a week in the making, and now everyone was in place: with roughly 2,500 on the street outside and hundreds more inside, including dozens working directly with Lewis. As they waited, the crowd growing loud around them, a few were starting to feel doubts about what they were hoping to do.
“I don’t want to get punched in the face,” one woman, an undergrad, told Lewis over the din inside the UIC Pavilion. Lewis nodded.
“I’m not going to let that happen to you,” he assured her.
A few minutes later, the woman was back. “Can we leave?” she asked Lewis.
In the moment, standing next to them, I could understand what she was worried about. I was just there to watch, but I could feel it myself. The protesters, mostly black and Latino and young, were standing shoulder to shoulder with the people that their protest would upset most.
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