As 1968 Wharton graduate and President Donald Trump downplayed the COVID-19 crisis and racial tensions at a Tuesday evening town hall in Philadelphia, protesters gathered outside the event's venue and called for his removal from office.
The event, titled “The President and the People,” took place at the National Constitution Center, moderated by ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos. In-person participants at the event wore masks and sat more than six feet apart, in accordance with state-mandated social distancing guidelines.
Outside the venue, at least 200 people gathered for an anti-Trump demonstration organized by Refuse Fascism Philly and the Penn Community for Justice. Protesters made speeches and chanted slogans like, "Out Now" and "Black Lives Matter" throughout the event.
According to ABC News, this visit will mark the second time Trump has been in Pennsylvania within the last three weeks, as he visited Old Forge on Aug. 20 to host a rally. Currently, Democratic presidential candidate and former Penn professor Joe Biden leads Trump by seven points in the crucial battleground state. Biden's running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is scheduled to campaign in Philadelphia next week, as the former vice president conducts a town hall in Scranton.
As COVID-19 cases are on the rise across many states, several voters asked Trump for his thoughts on the importance of social distancing precautions, as well as generally about the Trump Administration’s approach to the pandemic.
Ajani Powell, a student from Pittsburgh, asked: “If you believe it’s the president’s responsibility to protect America, why would you downplay a pandemic that is known to disproportionately harm low-income families and minority communities?”
Trump responded, “I didn’t downplay it. I, actually, in many ways, I, up-played it in terms of action.”
He referenced the travel bans he imposed on Europe and China at the beginning of the spread of the pandemic in March, claiming that he saved lives through this “action.” But journalist Bob Woodward, in his new book "Rage," reported that Trump knew the virus was "deadly stuff," but wanted to play it down. "I still like playing it down because I don't want to create a panic," Trump told Woodward.
Another town hall attendee, Pastor Carl Day from Philadelphia, questioned Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," asking the president when, exactly, there was a time the country was considered "great" for African Americans. He urged Trump to acknowledge that there is a race problem in the United States.
In response, Trump said that he, personally, has "great respect for all races," and said before the pandemic Black Americans had "the best employment numbers they've ever had."
Day went on to ask about racial disparity in the context of “big, major cities where majority African Americans are underserved and under-resourced.”
Trump denied any current racial and economic disparity, citing former President Obama and now candidate Biden’s economic disparity as “record-setting" during their administration. He said that before the pandemic, that “the African American, the Black community was doing better than it had ever done by far.”
According to the 2019 U.S. Census, the Black population makes up 43.6 percent of Philadelphia county. The Inquirer reported that Black and Hispanic workers are more likely to have low-wage jobs without paid time off or health insurance. Contrary to Trump's assertion, the COVID-19 pandemic was called "magnifying glass" for long-standing healthcare and income inequalities that already existed for minorities in cities like Philadelphia.
Outside the center, protesters held pictures of victims of police brutality and banners that highlight the death of 200,000 Americans due to COVID-19, with the hashtag #TrumpKnew, referring to Trump's early knowledge of the virus's fatality.
2016 College graduate Zoe Sturges, who also graduated from the School of Education in 2017, spoke at the protest. Sturges, who is now a kindergarten teacher in North Philadelphia, talked about the event that made her start protesting: when one of her six-year-old students prank called 911, and the police came and handcuffed the kindergartener to “teach him a lesson.”
“Trump is a serious threat to our nation and I unfortunately know this firsthand. [Trump] went to my college, which is the University of Pennsylvania. So while a lot of people in the city were very upset that he was elected, there were people in the business school that he graduated from that were very happy about it," she told the crowd. "And when I went outside on that election night and marched through the street … and when they saw me they surrounded me by a mailbox and they called me a [N-word]. And that was the first day of Trump being elected."
College senior Kara Cloud also spoke at the protest as the spokesperson for Penn Community for Justice.
“Penn likes to ignore the fact that they produced one of the most anti-intellectual, violently racist and fascist political figures of our lifetime," she said. "But as a student of this institution, I can truly say it is no accident that this neo-Nazi came out of the University of Pennsylvania, an institution that upholds white supremacy by exploiting the labor and land of our city and terrorizing West Philly. An institution that neglects its vibrantly diverse student body and staff, and an institution that significantly contributes to the over-policing and violence towards our fellow citizens.”
Biden released a statement following President Trump’s Philadelphia visit, criticizing his handling of the pandemic and imposition of a “tax scam” favoring the nation’s wealthiest citizens.
“Long before COVID-19 spread to Philadelphia, President Trump’s failed leadership was felt ion every corner of the city. Pennsylvanians deserve better. As President, I will restore the leadership that has been lacking in the White House for the past four years, and help working families recover from this crisis and build back better than they were before," Biden wrote.
Nationally, Biden is polling ahead of Trump 51 to 42 percent, but leads by a smaller margin in several key swing states including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where he leads by seven points. In Florida he leads by one, and in Wisconsin by eight.
The program aired 49 days before the election, and two weeks before Trump will take part in his first live debate with Biden, which will take place on Sept. 29 in Cleveland. Two other debates are scheduled to follow.