On this past Tuesday, Donald J. Trump made a campaign stop on my campus. What ensued was like nothing I have seen in my four years at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. My campus, a place that feels like home to me and many of my fellow students, felt as if it was stolen from us, and invaded by crowds of individuals spewing hateful rhetoric and verbally and physically harassing students. Classes felt tense and out of control, with both sides of the fence on edge. Professors canceled classes because many of their students, especially students of color, felt like they wouldn’t be safe coming to campus. Students were grabbed, spat at and told to “Go back where you came from” on their way to academic buildings. My friend was followed to her vehicle, and called a “f*cking c*nt” by a Trump supporter just because she wouldn’t engage in a conversation with him.
I think it is safe to say the 2016 election is the most crucial, polarizing, and overall incredible election in recent history, if not in American history as a whole. On a shallow level, family dinners stopped being enjoyable, people’s’ friend lists on social media diminished, and the United States is the laughing stock of other countries. On a deeper, more devastating level, basic rights are being called into question, blatant generalizations are being made about entire demographic groups, and the American people as a whole are experiencing tension and turmoil.
We have a former Secretary of State who has proven herself to be supremely capable through years of experience to take on the role as President of the United States, and a celebrity businessman who has relied on fear mongering and hateful speech to compel his supporters to “make America great again” (what does this even mean?). And yet here we are mere days before the election, and we have a race that is exceedingly too close to call. I’m sure there are many reasons we could discuss about why this is, but what I see as perhaps the most substantial cause for this insane time of our lives is this: fear. This past week, my eyes were opened to just how pervasive and truly devastating this feeling of fear is in our country right now, and it has bred an overwhelming amount of hatred. It has been incredibly difficult not to allow myself to be overcome by anger and disdain myself.
One of the themes that was most discussed on campus was where the line is between protecting freedom of speech and putting staff and faculty in danger. When you don’t feel safe on your own campus, it goes beyond everybody being entitled to their opinion or allowing people to say whatever they feel like saying. It goes beyond politics, and it goes beyond playing by a set of rules and guidelines we are taught to follow. That afternoon, I sat in a classroom where my professor, a woman of color, feared for the safety of her students and encouraged them to leave campus immediately after class. I can’t imagine the amount of turmoil she herself was experiencing throughout the day as well.
Instead of leaving campus, I joined many of my friends in peacefully protesting the rally with a group called Eau Claire Solidarity. The purpose of the protest was not to give in to the hate being toted on the other side, but was to create a community of people that supported each other and stood in solidarity against the disastrous rhetoric Trump continually engages in.
I think it is important to note that I was privileged to be able to stand in that crowd virtually free of fear. As a white cis bisexual woman, a Trump presidency would be devastating for me, but I am privileged enough to not be identifiable as such merely by my appearance. This is a point my white cis gay male roommate aptly pointed out, and that he experienced as well standing in the crowd of people. I felt uncomfortable walking to classes past the supporters, but never once did I have to worry about being harassed for the color of my skin, and that is an incredibly significant point to consider.
We protested Trump’s appearance in Eau Claire during the primaries, and the atmosphere of that rally versus the one this past week truly epitomizes the metamorphosis that has occurred in this election season. At that protest, most of the Trump supporters were not outwardly hateful or antagonistic. Supporters played football with protesters, shared well wishes, and even sang Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody together. In that moment, it felt like we could eventually make it past all the madness, and that Trump could be a blip in the race to eventually be laughed about around the dinner table months later. Instead, we ended up at another rally where anger and hatred surged through the crowd beginning in the early hours of the morning. It was difficult to keep a clear head and not get swept up in the madness going on around us. The stakes were real now, there was nothing to joke about, and we were mere days from the biggest election of our lifetimes.
Donald Trump’s presence on my campus showed me the importance of solidarity and standing up for peace and justice with my fellow students, but more than anything it showed me the fact that we are all responsible for actually creating the peace and justice we so desire. So I joined many of my friends and threw myself into spreading the word and volunteering as much as I could. My fellow volunteers endlessly inspire me with their drive and passion for this country (one of my friends even took a semester off of school to become an organizer for HRC), and I feel so lucky to be a part of a group of people who does more than just talk the talk. These next few days are paramount for a future we can be proud of, so please don’t waste this opportunity to make your voice heard. Vote, volunteer, engage in conversations with the people around you. It’s not over until it’s over, so use your voice for good. You are precious, powerful, and deserve to be heard.