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Friday 18 August 2017

Centre of discontent: behind the barricades at Trump Tower

In the week the US installed its controversial 45th president, Siobhán Brett spends time with the colourful band of protesters refusing to give up their vigil at Trump's Fifth Avenue home in New York

Signs of the times: Barbara Smucker holds a placard in the protest pen across the road from Trump Tower on New York's Fifth Avenue
Signs of the times: Barbara Smucker holds a placard in the protest pen across the road from Trump Tower on New York's Fifth Avenue
Anger: Texas-born actor Richard Rice Alan, a regular at the anti-Trump picket line
Trump supporter, the Naked Cowboy, who is allowed to carry out his vigil outside the doors of the economic building

Protests ebb and flow in New York City. All the time, across its five boroughs, up and down its avenues. Groups of workers, writers, Black Lives Matter activists, students, women, men, people who are anti-fur, people who are anti-Goldman Sachs, people who are railing against climate change.

But in the last half-year, there has been no greater focal point for dissent and demonstration than Donald J Trump, President of the United States of America as of yesterday, and his home at 725 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the mixed-use skyscraper three blocks from Central Park known as Trump Tower.

New Yorkers' disquiet at Trump's elevation was reflected faithfully in the November election result: each borough, other than Staten Island, voted somewhere between 75pc and 88pc in favour of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. At Trump Tower, or 'White House North' as it is glibly known in the US, the first steel barricades were erected during the summer.

Tiffany & Co, a next-door neighbour, has since covered the barricades beside it with tarpaulin in the brand's signature dental-exam-glove turquoise. Concrete crash barriers followed, and little can be done with those. A convoy of sand-filled bin lorries was deployed to flank the entrance on the week of election.

The first protesters arrived to the city's weird new seat of presidential power when the weather was still warm, the ramparts were still light, and polling day was months away. During the headiest times since Trump's election, thousands have converged on the building.

By night, protesting groups do one-off stints at the prescribed New York Police Department pen some distance from the front entrance. By day, however, a small handful of regular picketers remains. One of them is Paul Rosa, who says he began showing up frequently since July. Six months at Trump Tower.

 

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Rosa lives in an apartment near the UN headquarters, about 20 minutes away. He goes to Trump Tower on more or less a daily basis. Only in rain, snow and extreme cold, he says, is it not worth his time.

Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Rosa is an outré figure, each day wearing a stuffed hat in the shape of the dung-heap emoji with the smiling cartoon face. He sells a selection of badges, and an emblem on one matches the hat, captioned "DUMP TRUMP".

His jeans are ready-ripped, his black-framed glasses have yellow-tinted lenses, and in May he wandered in front of a CNN camera while wearing a penis costume and a Trump mask. His poster read: "Photos with Donald Trump!" Of the experience, he says: "The doormen quietly hate him, I can tell."

Rosa, like the rest of his comrades, has since been moved to the opposite side of the street, three lanes of traffic and at least four barricades from the door and the doormen. ('The Naked Cowboy', meanwhile, whose name is Robert - or Bobby, as he has encouraged the protesters to call him - sings and plays rhyming pro-Trump songs on his guitar, wears Trump's name across his briefs, and has been permitted to stay.)

Barbara Smucker, a slight, brown-haired woman with adult children, has lived in New York City since 1982. She travels to the tower from Long Island with a hand-printed sign between three and four times a week. She plans on continuing this throughout Trump's presidency.

"I feel really strongly about this, and I have the time," she says simply. A sticker on one of her placards reads: 'STOP BIGOTRY'.

One afternoon, a man smoking a cigarette, carrying a Gucci shopping bag, wearing a Gucci jacket, black boots with neon yellow soles, and blue jeans fastened with a large, shiny, metal fleur-de-lis buckle, shows up. "Are you stupid? Trump is the best thing that ever happened to this country. Get a job. Get a job," the man hisses.

Rosa steps to Smucker's defence. "Get a job?" Rosa asks cheerfully. "I sold my company last year for $1.8m."

The man laughs. "$1.8m is money nowadays?" An inelegant debate ensues about the merits and demerits of the newly elected president. He eventually moves on, swearing loudly.

"I just made up that part about my success," Rosa says, once he and Smucker had conferred to lament the altercation, reassuring each other. The comedy club sales manager from Pittsburgh smiles a wince of a smile. "Why not?"

 

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The protesters are repeatedly flipped off, told to go to Canada, told to get over it, told to get jobs, told that - contrary to the 'NOT MY PRESIDENT' badges they sport - Donald J Trump is, resoundingly, somebody's president.

But they are also the recipients of boisterous applause, fleeting winks, and spirited thumbs-ups. They are repeatedly asked questions, engaged in long, detailed conversations, and serially asked about photographs. They are profusely thanked.

On an afternoon in mid-December, 'EXXON FOR SEC OF STATE' was one of the four contemporaneous grievances penned on a piece of cardboard. Rex Tillerson's appointment had been announced a day earlier, and Tom Le Clair, a Brooklynite stationed outside Trump Tower, held in his arms a placard bearing the latest development.

When I asked about Tillerson, at that time just one merry man in a band of merry men the then-president-elect had tipped for his cabinet, a selection almost entirely wealthy, already visible in public life, seemingly safe, GOP-friendly (most of the time), Le Clair threw back his head and laughed.

Then quietly, as though letting those gathered in on a secret, he said: "He's very close to Putin, and he worked hard to try to get the sanctions limited so that a big deal with Russia and Exxon-Mobil could go forward. Tillerson was very upset with Obama for that. He seems to be the perfect symbol of multinationalism. Exxon is one of the biggest oil companies in the world, and this is exactly the kind of person Trump wants to be in bed with."

Now, almost one month later, Le Clair, a former university professor who is 72 years of age and never short of a joke, is to be found within a few of feet of the same spot, speaking in the same way to some different inquiring minds, taking questions and explaining positions. It is something like a public service.

The sky above Manhattan is opening up after two days of straight rain. Marine Le Pen is said to have been seen inside Trump Tower this morning. It is just before one o'clock, and the news networks lined in front of the tower are preparing to go live. CNBC on the left, Fox on the right, leather-gloved hands gripping mics, presenters' bodies swaying from ball of foot to ball of foot in the cold air.

Writing for The Daily Beast last month, Le Clair said: "I don't try to change anyone's mind. But if I'm sufficiently enraged to stand alone out in the cold every day, maybe I'll inspire my fellow citizens to stay angry."

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Although staying backbone and grit unites the protesters, precise motivations can vary.

"What's the goal? To irritate him [Trump] so much that he has a hissy fit," Richard Rice Alan, actor, singer, and a regular protester at the tower tells passers-by. "The man has the thinnest skin."

On this day, Alan, who is tall and charismatic, is wearing a full-length cape, a jacket with tails, a waistcoat, and a satin cravat. The outfit, he explains, makes fun at the Trump supporter's desire to "go back to the gilded age". "Yelling does nothing," he says with wide eyes. "You must engage them."

Texas-born but 20 years in New York City, Alan says he has been struck from behind, and spat upon, by Trump supporters. He endures it, explaining, at the top of his lungs, that he is particularly qualified to. "Anybody with experience in theatre, or improv training, or an old faggot like me…we've had years of this."

He walks around with the American Civil Liberty Union app open, ready to livestream any altercation at a moment's notice. Alan, like Rosa, is garrulous and dramatic, perhaps more so. Kisses on cheeks here, coarse insults there, sometimes flying over the heads of children.

"I know that if I wasn't white, I'd be either dead or in jail," he says.

"Get back to your side! Back to your side!" he later roars at the Naked Cowboy, who - 'TRUMP' painted in red across his briefs - has crossed the road for a look around.

Alan, having started out faux-serious, gives way to laughter and speaks pleasantly with Bobby about his day. In the door of the Abercrombie & Fitch store adjacent, two female NYPD officers can not stop themselves from laughing at the absurdity of the scene.

All of those standing vigil at Trump Tower are upbeat, despite ­being deflated by the small ­number of regular ­protesters.

Rosa, at the slightest ­invitation, will splice the population of New York City down from 10 million, down, down, to one per cent, to a fraction of that one per cent, to the six or seven ­people he has come to know and to text about showing up. He is eager to see more people on the streets.

"Anger will rise again when he starts to make his decisions," Rosa says, suggesting that Trump's appointment of a new Supreme Court justice could be one of the first to enrage.

"Hell, I'm hoping for it."

New York’s $500k-a-day bill to protect Trump

At a given time, there are up to seven armed guards at the doors of Trump Tower, and many more Secret Service and private security personnel hovering in the lobby.

Securing the building is costing New York around $500,000 (€470,000) a day. At the beginning of December, Mayor Bill De Blasio called on federal government for $35m in reimbursement for the protection of Trump between November 8 and January 20 alone. Just $7m was initially earmarked for the city. (This, incidentally, was the total cost of relocating Obama from Chicago in 2008.)

However, the cost is set to continue spiralling. The new First Lady, Melania, and Trump’s youngest son, Barron, are going to continue to live in the $100m three-floor penthouse at the top of the building.

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