Within minutes of the first punch being thrown at a rally for Donald Trump in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday, brief video clips of the incident, in which one of Trump’s supporters assaulted a protester being led out of the arena, started to circulate on social networks.
What those brief glimpses of the latest outburst of violence at a Trump rally failed to show, however, is the role the candidate himself played in the moments before the attack, when he stoked anger at the two protesters as they were marched through the crowd of his supporters.
Fortunately, that context is available in the form of unedited video of the first 19 minutes of the rally, which was streamed live on Facebook by the local ABC affiliate, KGUN. The video makes it possible to see exactly how Trump reacted to the ejection of three sets of protesters within the first nine minutes of his speech.
The first disruption came just over a minute after Trump started speaking, when a group of seven protesters, including Katie Litchfield, an animal rights activist, was escorted out by private security guards from the company Allied Barton, directed by a member of the candidate’s personal security detail. Trump acted unperturbed by that disruption, commenting sarcastically, “Awww … we love our protesters.”
Three minutes later, when two young men to Trump’s right started shouting, “We gonna be alright!” — the chorus to a song by the rapper Kendrick Lamar that was chanted by protesters who helped shut down a rally in Chicago a week earlier — Trump ignored the disruption, plowing on with his speech as they were led out.
About seven minutes after he started speaking, Trump was alerted to the presence of two more protesters, a man in an American flag shirt and a woman wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. After initially saying, “We want to do it with love — we love our protesters,” he abruptly switched tone and snapped: “Get them out of here.”
Then, as the two protesters were directed up the stairs of the convention center, past rows of the candidate’s booing supporters, an excerpt from the raw video posted on YouTube by KGUN shows that Trump focused the crowd’s anger on them. Mistaking the hooded woman for a man, he said: “There’s a disgusting guy, puts a Ku Klux Klan hat on, he thinks he’s cute. He’s a disgusting guy. That is a disgusting guy. Really disgusting — a big wheel. A big wheel.”
The instant Trump finished this 20-second riff, one of his supporters — identified later by the Tucson police as Tony Pettway, 32 — ripped a poster from the hands of the male protester, punched him in the face, wrestled him to the ground, and kicked him repeatedly.
After Pettway, an airman at Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, was handcuffed and led away, Trump placed all the blame on the protesters, telling the crowd: “I’ll tell you folks, that’s a disgrace. You know, they take away our First Amendment rights, they’re troublemakers, they’re no good. And we’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to take our country back, folks. We’ve got to take our country back.” His supporters, having watched a man in an American flag shirt cold-cocked as he walked peacefully out, then burst into a chant of “USA! USA!”
Following Pettway’s arrest, a blogger who writes under the name Johnny Silvercloud realized that he had briefly been sitting next to Pettway before the rally began and posted an image of them waiting to hear Trump speak on Twitter.
Silvercloud, who is also an active duty member of the military, told The Intercept in a telephone interview that he was “pretending to be a black conservative” so that he could observe Trump’s supporters up close and write about it for the website he maintains in his spare time, Onyx Truth.
According to Silvercloud — who was ejected from the rally by a suspicious member of Trump’s staff before the candidate began speaking — Pettway told him as they made small talk that he was a master sergeant in the Air Force and liked Trump far better than Ben Carson because the latter was “too calm and that reminded him of Obama.” Pettway was later charged with a misdemeanor count of assault with injury for beating the protester, Bryan Sanders, according to the police.
In an account of the rally published on his site, Silvercloud wrote that he was chilled by how the otherwise friendly crowd became a frenzied mob each time a protester was discovered in their midst:
The protesters who got indoors got an eerie response once discovered; people were instructed to chant “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” while pointing at the protesting people in the stands. This instruction was given well in advance before Trump arrived to speak. Had this been WWE style professional wrestling, I wouldn’t have too much on an issue. But this isn’t professional wrestling entertainment, this is a man running for President of the United States. Before he even came out, I have yet to see anything that remotely looks like unity of the total citizens of the United States. These chants sounded like fascism.
While I have infiltrated this event as a “black conservative,” these chants sent chills down my spine. In knowing that I don’t agree with Trump and his nonsense, I genuinely had a fear of uncertainty in there, and I wasn’t even targeted. The ballgame picnic-friendly crowd practically became a nihilistic mob in short, 2-3 minute durations. People became so bloodlusting on such quick notice, I could have sworn I was on the set of one of those movies that had those fast moving zombies.
In a bizarre coda to the incident, the candidate’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was later caught on video wading into the crowd, along with a member of Trump’s personal security detail, and yanking a protester by his shirt collar.
Speaking to George Stephanopoulos of ABC News on Sunday, Trump refused to condemn his aide, and even denied that Lewandowski had touched the protester, despite clear video evidence to the contrary, saying, “That was somebody else that touched him.”
What Trump failed to mention is that the “somebody else” who also grabbed the protester was the member of his security detail directing the ejection of protesters from the hall.