For New Yorkers, Trump’s State of the Union Triggered Mixed Reaction

Our reporters scattered across the city—to Democratic and GOP strongholds—to gauge how voters received the president’s speech

By the NY City Lens Staff

As the president addressed the Congress and the country from the U.S. Capitol Tuesday night, voters in New York gathered in bars and homes to watch and listen.  Here’s a sampling of how they reacted:

John Semich watched the State of the Union Speech in the Grant City Tavern, Staten Island.

“Take a drink when he says ‘Wall'”

UPPER WEST SIDE — At 9 p.m. sharp, the bartender flipped the television from a college basketball game to Fox News, the network of choice for the 30 Republicans who had gathered at an Upper West Side pub to watch President Trump address Congress.

“Everybody takes a drink when he says ‘wall!’” a man shouted as the president began his speech.

Attendees expected Trump to address the five-week government shutdown that resulted from a stalemate over funding for his proposed border wall. Congress has ten days left to reach a compromise on border security before the three-week deal to reopen the government expires. But the issue didn’t really come up.

“I thought a proclamation was going to be made definitively today about what’s going to be done about the wall,” said Brandon Straka, an actor. “But I think he’s right to give the Democrats an opportunity.”

In a city known as a Democratic bastion, New York Republicans find solidarity in gatherings like Tuesday’s watch party. The group comprising members of the West Side Republican Club gleefully booed each time a member of New York’s overwhelmingly Democratic delegation was shown on screen.

“I definitely feel like a pariah. I’ve only been a Republican for two years,” said Straka, a former Democrat who founded the #WalkAwayCampaign in 2018 after he became unable to identify with the Democratic Party’s ideology.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a native of Brooklyn who identifies as a Democratic Socialist, received the loudest jeers, followed by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. New York’s newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also a democratic socialist, earned snickers from the group.

When Trump touted the high participation rate of women in the workforce last year, Ocasio-Cortez and other House Democratic women, all dressed in suffragette white, hesitated to stand and applaud, at first.

“Do yourselves a favor and clap for yourselves!” yelled a woman at the bar. Almost as if they’d heard her, the Democratic women rose and applauded.

Not everyone in the bar was 100 percent behind the president.

“He did a good job associating himself with popular things that he had nothing do with,” said Seth Katz, a physician who described himself as “politically homeless.” Trump baited Democrats several times with applause points such as the historic number of women in Congress, funding to eradicate HIV/AIDS, and childhood cancer.

“I work in a big cancer center. I’m not aware that he’s done anything helpful in that regard more than any other president,” Katz added. “But who is against curing cancer?”

The group’s first applause of the night was for First Lady Melania Trump, who enjoys the highest public approval rating in the Trump family, then for the message of unity President Trump promised to deliver in his speech.

“He started out by saying it was going to be unifying—and it was,” said Christopher Wright, a marketing manager who creates political commentary videos on YouTube. “He’s a true leader.”

Although Wright prioritizes economic policy over immigration issues, failing to deliver on the wall, he thinks, would hurt Trump’s chances of reelection.

“My number one issue is to get the economy back, get jobs back into the country. He’s gotten all that accomplished,” Wright said. “But if he doesn’t build the wall, the Democrats will use that against him. They’ll say he lied.”

By the end of the speech, Trump had given the group only eight chances to toast his signature campaign promise.

Francesca Regalado

Tuning the president out. Literally

HARLEM—Just as President Trump walked up to the podium to deliver the State of the Union address, a Harlem watch party turned down the volume.

Many Democrats, who gathered at a black-owned cafe and bar venue in Harlem to watch Stacey Abrams, the former candidate for governor of Georgia, deliver the State of the Union response, were upset when they realized that the bar owner was going to tune out the president’s speech.

Clyde Pemberton, the owner of MIST Harlem, stood firm about his decision, however, and said he did not want the echo of Donald Trump’s voice in his business.

“Feel free to use your headphones and stay up to date from your mobile devices,” said Ny Whitaker, a member of the Fair Fight host committee, an advocacy group for free and fair elections founded by Abrams, into a microphone. “Some people are complaining, but the aim of the watch party was to listen to Stacey Abrams and we have always been using the hashtag #TuneOutTrump,” Whitaker told NYCityLens.

An attempt to use captions on the screen didn’t work out and many in the audience pulled out their headphones in order to listen to President Trump’s speech. Their argument: it’s important to know your enemy.

“How are we going to follow Abram’s the rebuttal if we don’t know to what she’s replying to,” said Cheryl Kinch, who commuted to Harlem from Brooklyn to attend the watch party. Kinch, an attorney, did not stop taking notes on her notepad throughout the screening. “I love politics and this is something I’ve always been doing during campaigns and officials’ speeches because I want to create my own archive.”

While Donald Trump spoke, Elsie St. Leger, 54, a Harlem resident, also ignored the television screen, preferring to look at the screen on her tablet instead, monitoring her Twitter feed. From time to time, she turned to her friends sitting next to her and mocked the president’s tone and style of speaking.

Attorney Andrew Maloney seemed even less concerned about what the president had to say. “He can try to sound as unifying as he may but at the end of the day his actions speak for themselves,” said Maloney.

He said that he hoped Abrams would talk about the tough issues that the president was not likely to address. “Dealing with fairness and equity as it relates to immigration, unemployment in the minority community and the insistent denial of the equal institutional rights of people of color,” he said.

The turnout was bigger than expected and the more than 100 people who showed up caused some delays in the service, as more tables had to be set in front of a second giant screen.

Among the hustle at the busy venue, Jordan Stockdale, one of the organizers and a deputy executive officer at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, wished for the day when a black woman would deliver the State of The Union address.

Suddenly a loud boo erupted during the last minutes of the president’s speech. The sound had been turned back on again. Just as President Trump said “And let us reaffirm a fundamental truth — all children — born and unborn — are made in the holy image of God.”

When Stacey Abrams came on the screen, however, the room went silent. No talking, no music, and no eating. But when she said, “America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants—not walls,” a loud cheer followed, shattering the silence.

In the end, this Harlem crowd applauded the first black woman to deliver a State of the Union response and overall, they said they found her eloquent, concise, and to the point.

“She raised good issues such as the LGBTQ rights, the higher death rates of black mothers, and the separation of immigrant families at the border,” said Rose Teneych, a former media sales employee and Harlem resident.

Sitting right across her, Cheryl Kinch was going through her notes. She found Abrams’ speech incredibly concise, following a trajectory that connected her personal background to the American dream. “She tackled health, immigration, and gun safety while she was slamming directly the president—without mentioning him,” said Kinch.

The president’s speech didn’t go over as well, at least for those that did listen to it. “He talked about oil and natural gas, illegal immigrants, tariffs, and trade deals,” said Kinch, “but I don’t think he could sit with me in this table and actually discuss any of these issues in depth.”

Argyro Partsakoulaki

Watch party in Staten Island

Behind Trump 100 percent

STATEN ISLAND—When Lisa Esposito, 52, arrived at the Grant City Tavern in Staten Island Tuesday evening, she noticed that something was wrong with the three TV screens hanging on the wall next to two posters of President Trump.

“They had NBC!!,” she explained, asking the bartender to tune them into Fox News instead. The restaurant was about to host a watch party organized by the Republicans of Staten Island, the only borough in New York City that voted for President Trump in the 2016 elections.

“I am going to be loud. I want him to call out the bullshit, and he is going to do it because he is pissed, I want him to push his agenda,” said Esposito in the middle of a pro-Republican crowd. But the crowd wasn’t only pumped to hear the president, they were also ready to diss the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, who also sat on the podium behind the president. John Semich, a 69-year-old retiree, was not happy about that.

“I can imagine her spitting on him if she got the chance,” he said. “They are going to fight him on everything because he is too successful and they hate him.”

The crowd booed when the camera showed many Democratic congresswomen dressed in white and they jeered at when Senator Elizabeth Warren, the stone-faced Senator Kamala Harris, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer came on the screen. But they saved the harshest words for the, now viral, clips of Nancy Pelosi clapping. “I think the botox in her faced cracked,” screamed Semich.

“The modern Democrats are half decent but the ones in the white skirts, those democrats have been acting extremely obnoxious,” added Joseph Pidoriano, a student. “His policies are not ideological, he wants to keep our country safe. Democrats in Congress should learn to cooperate.”

But the Republicans cheered and jumped to their feet when President Trump gave his message about immigration. “Build the wall! Build the wall!”, they chanted, raising their arms when he reiterated his promise to construct a U.S- Mexico border wall.

“When you see him speak in this kind of platform, it makes you very proud to be an American and you understand why this country is so great,” said Rich Castaldo, a 35-year-old businessman.

Trump supporters also applauded the president’s attacks against the “ridiculous partisan investigations.” His comments on abortion, the HIV epidemic and his call for bipartisanship action and unity also received their approval.

Trump fans ate pizza and drank beer during the one hour and 22-minute speech, a speech that was considered by many of them, as one put it, “beautiful, well- written, and perfect.”

Did he manage to deliver an address of unity. Many in this crowd thought so.

“There are more women in Congress now, and you saw the women in white, they were cheering so I think he is going to bring everybody together and he should,” said Gary Humienny, 57, referring to the moment when Democratic women applauded President Trump after mentioning the record number of women in Congress.

As soon as the president’s speech ended and Stacey Abrams appeared on the screen, Trump supporters started leaving the tavern. By that time, the volume on the television could barely be heard.

—Josefina de la Fuente

 

The State of the Protests

Protesters from Rise and Resist told a banner over the viaduct at Grand Central Station on the day of the State of the Union address.

Protesters from Rise and Resist hold a banner over the viaduct at Grand Central Station. (Alice Chambers/NYCityLens).

It was up for exactly 28 minutes before the police came and told them to take it down.

While it was up, New Yorkers passing on the street stopped to take photos, drivers beeped their horns.

“Yes, yes!” cried Vincent Gong. “The last two years have been a nightmare.”

“He’s like a bully in the playground,” said Margaret Wright. “Melania should talk to him.”

The thing that had drawn so much attention was a banner, unfurled along the railings of the viaduct that leads to Grand Central Station in Midtown Manhattan. Held in place by four activists from a group that calls itself Rise and Resist, it read “Arrest Trump.” The protest was just one of a number of demonstrations planned to coincide with the State of the Union by activist groups in the city.

Rise and Resist is one of them. Set up after Donald Trump was elected, a lot of their organizing happens on Facebook, where the group began as “NYC Trump Resistance Group,” in November 2016. They renamed themselves in January 2017. Members say that around 75 to 100 people come to their weekly meetings, and they have just over 15,000 followers on Facebook.

“All these things, you never know what impact they’re going to have,” said Stu Waldman. He was one of the four and, at 77 years old, goes by the moniker “Late-life activist” on Twitter. He has a lot of experience. “You do it ‘cause you gotta do it,” he said before walking into Grand Central Station where Rise and Resist had planned another stunt—releasing helium balloons in the main hall with a banner bearing the same slogan—Arrest Trump.

People whooped as it floated to the ceiling, including a group of soldiers in uniform.

**

Despite uncertainty around the date of the State of the Union, protesters were ready to go once it was announced. “Most of us are practiced protesters; we can mobilize really quickly,” said Martin Quinn, a member of Rise and Resist, which believes that said that President Trump should not only be impeached but arrested.

The group’s main event on State of the Union day was a protest a protest outside Trump Tower on 5th Ave., and at 5 p,m. outside the building, around 40 people walked in a circle chanting slogans: No one is above the law. Trump is not above the law, and Asylum is a right, not just for the rich and white. One protestor was dressed in a giant costume of Stephen Miller, a senior advisor to the president and influential on immigration policy. Many passersby stopped to watch and take photos—of the protest and of themselves in front of the protest.

Many of them were tourists. Edgar Leyva was in New York of vacation. “I think it’s too small,” he said, regarding the number of protesters.

**

A second Trump Tower protest started at Columbus Circle at 8 p.m., this one organized by Refuse Fascism, a far left protest group that also formed after the 2016 elections. Affiliate groups had organized protests in at least 12 other U.S. cities, members said. After speeches at the Circle, they walked to Trump Tower. Many of the same police who’d been stationed there earlier accompanied this new group.

Refuse Fascism had a more extreme position. The focus of many of their chants was immigration policy and they were as critical of the Democrats as they were of Donald Trump and Mike Pence. “We’re pointing out that neither side is any good,” said Travis Morales who is on the steering committee of the New York chapter.

Louise Levathes was up from DC for a few days and had stopped to watch the protest. She didn’t support everything Refuse Fascism was saying, but agreed that Trump and Pence had to go. “We just have to speak out,” she said, “Though I’m not sure a megaphone on 5th Avenue is the way to do it.” The only good thing to come out of the Trump presidency, she said, was that everyone sees they can do it better.

Several men, in New York on vacation from Nashville, said they disagreed. They watched the protest interestedly. They hadn’t managed to find a place to watch the State of the Union but said they were planning on checking it out later. “We’re MAGA,” said Harvey Crouch. “Out of the big cities,” added Kevin Lindsey, “this is what people think.”

By 10 p.m., 5th Avenue was mostly empty. The photos and selfies had mostly stopped, the only people on the street were protesters and police, who were roughly equal in number. The protesters packed up.

One of them nipped into Trump Tower to use the bathroom, and everyone dispersed.

— Alice Chambers

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