A large Trump rally faced a group of Black Lives Matter counter protesters in a diverse southwest Kansas community last month. The raucous but peaceful confrontations that followed shed a light on the hopes and fears driving competing visions for America’s future in the November general election.
A cool breeze blew through Light Park, situated prominently along the main drag in Liberal on a late summer Saturday evening.
The wind was a welcome respite from a warm, sunny day in Seward County – but offered no relief from heated conversations as opposing groups faced off in the normally quiet park.
Lucy Myers stood back from the two crowds – there were more than 500 supporters joining in a Pop Up 4 Trump parade and rally and about 25 supporters of the local Black Lives Matter movement protesting the show of support for the president.
Myers placed her arm around her elementary-aged daughter Jordyn as she leaned in close to explain what was happening.
“There are other people who don’t believe the same way, and that’s fine,” she said.
When asked if she supports one political side or the other, Myers said that’s not why she’s here.
“Those are my beliefs; those aren’t her beliefs,” she said, looking down at her daughter. “I’m just here to facilitate and show her everything.”
As a Trump defender and BLM supporter squared off, the young girl said the arguing made her nervous.
After reassuring her daughter, Myers said she feels it’s important for her to see both sides.
“I just wanted her to see the atmosphere,” she explained.
She looked down and said, “Letting you see it through neutral eyes lets you decide.”
‘FREEDOM VERSUS COMMUNISM’
Laura Tawater – a huge smile on her face – held up her phone to record Seward County Commissioner C.J. Wettstein giving a stump speech from the bed of a red pickup truck.
As the event organizer and Kansas GOP vice-chairwoman for the 1st Congressional District, she’s pleased the Pop Up 4 Trump campaign has made its way across the state, east to west.
Liberal was the first community, though, where it has faced an organized protest, Tawater said.
“Usually what we do is just pop up, and it’s a magnet,” she said.
The demographics of Liberal stand in contrast to the state as a whole. Non-Hispanic white people make up only 28% of the community’s population but 75% of the people statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 62% of the city’s population is Hispanic or Latino, while 6% is Black.
Yet it’s also a place where identities span multiple categories. About 55% of Liberal’s residents identified as white in a 2019 survey.
While Biden leads in polls among Hispanics nationally, Trump is winning at least a third of them, and some political observers say their votes could be pivotal in a close election. So, it wasn’t surprising to see an SUV sporting a “Latinos for Trump” sign cruising down Kansas Avenue in the parade alongside four-wheelers and massive flags.
While Tawater’s group sells Republican T-shirts, hats and signs, she said the movement is about more than the merchandise.
“We’re really trying to get out the vote,” she said. “We have voter registrations. We’re talking about President Trump and his accomplishments, and also we’re highlighting the state and local candidates too. It’s the connections we’re making with people.”
Tawater sees her mission as more crucial than ever.
“This is a do-or-die election,” she said. “Freedom versus communism. We feel like it’s life or death. We feel like we’re on the verge of losing our country.”
She said Republicans fear the Democratic Party is moving toward communism as it links itself to social and racial justice groups.
“We have to get Trump reelected, because we’ll keep our liberty, our constitution,” she said.
Ashleigh Hall watched Wettstein intently while she wrapped her arms around her daughter Kyleigh. She shares Tawater’s fears.
“I feel if Trump loses, it’s going to turn into a communist country,” she said. “You get a certain amount of food, you can’t do this and you can’t do that. It’s supposed to be a free country.”
Another Trump supporter, Joseph Gentry – who stretched out on his motorcycle while he watched the BLM group and occasionally revved its engine to drown out protesters’ chants – said his support for Trump is largely based on economics.
“Trump has done so much,” he said. “He’s helped me stay working. When Obama was in office, the oil fields shut down. Trump got the oil fields back up and running, and I needed it.”
Gentry said he worries a Biden win will lead to a recession.
“Then we’ll become communist,” he said. Yet pointing to the protesters, Gentry said the right to protest is an important one. But it only underscored the importance of a Trump win in November.
“I’m glad they are out here and they are protesting what they feel,” he said. “We’re out here protesting what we feel. It’s our right. And with communism, we will not have that.”
‘WE LOVE TRUMP’
Earlier in the evening, a group of friends gathered on a sidewalk as the “Trump train” – vehicles bedecked with flags and Trump signs – made its way north from the old depot.
They laughed and waved, eager to show their support for the president.
“We love Trump,” Karen Seibel said. “Look at what he’s done for this country. He loves America.”
She was quick to voice disdain for other politicians, questioning their truthfulness compared with Trump’s.
“He lies less,” Seibel said. “And, I think he only lies to us when he needs to.”
Her sister Donna Moody chimed in.
“No, he doesn’t lie,” she said with a chuckle. “He just doesn’t tell it all.”
Chris Wells jumped in and said she likes Trump because “he’s got guts” and “has an ornery streak.”
But her husband, Greg Wells, said the upcoming election is about more than just admiration for Trump. Like Tawater, he fears what a Democratic president would mean for the nation.
“You know what the Democrats are wanting to do?” Greg Wells said. “The Democrats want to get rid of everything. We need government. We need policemen. … Trump’s been good for the United States, and he had to fight everybody to get here, and he’s still fighting.”
Chris Wells said Americans will lose their rights if Trump isn’t reelected.
In that sense, Seibel said the election is about securing rights for future generations.
“I’m old,” she said. “It won’t matter to me, but it will matter to my grandchildren.”
The most unfortunate part about the state of the U.S. government, Greg Wells said, is the politicians’ seeming inability to cross the aisle for the good of the people. He suggested term limits as a solution.
“We have too much civil unrest because of the parties,” Greg Wells said. “They’re not playing together. … It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. We put them up there, those people up there, to take care of us.”
Seibel added, “You forget who you’re doing it for.”
‘THIS IS MY FUTURE’
BLM supporter Abi Rivas said she’s ready for her government to remember her.
Wearing a feather headpiece and a Mexican flag wrapped around her shoulders, she chanted “Black Lives Matter” with her fist in the air.
Just like the Trump supporters, Rivas said the upcoming election is important to her, too, “as a visible brown person in this country.”
“I live in fear every day that some person is going to attack me because of my skin color,” she said.
“Or some person is going to attack my dad because of his skin color, because of his status in this country. It’s important for me to be here because it represents not only me, but Black people, Mexican, Asians, South Asians. I’m here to speak for people who can’t physically be here,” Rivas said.
Listing off the names Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, 18-year-old Jernell Martinez said the BLM movement goes beyond skin color.
“When I was standing and going back and forth with a man, I said we were standing with white kids, white people who are dying at the hands of the police,” she said. “It’s not just Black lives.
It’s for all of our lives. But they kept thinking we’re just saying Black lives. We talk about all lives.”
Martinez said she also speaks out for her loved ones, including her grandfather, who she said was killed after being deported to Mexico. “It’s all for equality,” Shatarrika Ross added. Ross said it was worrisome to see children joining in the Trump rally.
“I feel like that’s wrong, to take the innocence of a child away, to just tell them to be a certain way instead of giving them that option to choose,” she said. “These babies don’t know what’s going on. There are some who are just taught like that, and it’s sad.”
For Rivas, her concerns go beyond race.
“It’s about how the future’s going to be for all of us,” she said. “I just turned 18. This is my future.”
Although she couldn’t vote in 2016, Rivas said she was devastated when Trump was elected.
“I was very heartbroken, and I was in fear every day,” she said. “If Trump gets elected again, I feel like society is going to feel white people have more power.”
While she said Biden isn’t exactly who she’d envisioned as a Democratic nominee, his election would be the first step toward change.
“It’s going to push a lot of minorities, especially a lot of young minorities, to be like, ‘I need to voice my opinion. I need to change this country to be something even better,’” Rivas said.
And while Republicans worry about the spread of communism, Rivas said it’s not on her agenda.
“A lot of us are fighting communists,” she said. “None of us want a communist country. There’s a variety of people who are Democrats. No one wants a country where people have to share everything.”
‘ALL HELL’S GONNA BREAK LOOSE’
Despite her worries about a Biden presidency, Tawater said she wants people to stay optimistic.
“If we can keep people gathering up like this, people are happy,” she said. “People are excited. They love their country.”
But at the same time, Tawater said she sees what’s possible on the horizon.
“I think in a fair election, Trump will win by a landslide,” she said. “We’re just bracing. I think the left wing of America just won’t accept a second term. And I think all hell’s gonna break loose.”
And if Biden wins?
“It’s just going to get really bad,” Tawater said.
Martinez said her fight for justice likely won’t end with either Trump or Biden in office.
“I’ll fight till the day I die, like my ancestors,” she said. “I’ll always sit there and fight for people. It’s not going to stop me. Whoever wins, it don’t matter. If things are still the same, then I’m still fighting.”
And even if the election doesn’t go the way she wants, Martinez said she’ll still hope for change.
“That’s all you can do – hope,” Ross replied.
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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