Every so often, a news story of the day opens up into something deeper, broader, something that transcends the moment it was forged in. So it was with Michael Joseph Garza, whom I originally wanted to speak to briefly about a few minutes of confrontation, but whom I wound up spending nearly two hours with as he discussed his strategy for navigating the complex terrain of coping with and fighting against the Trump movement.
In mid-March, a Trump rally at the University of Illinois-Chicago was disrupted by protestors, forcing its cancellation. As supporters left the arena through a ring of demonstrators, an angry and chaotic scene played out, resulting in an iconic photo of a Trump fan named Birgitt Peterson giving a Nazi salute. Both she and her husband insisted that they were responding to protesters doing the same, but protester Michael Joseph Garza told the Chicago Tribune that he did not believe that was the case and elaborated a bit:
“I went up to her and said, ‘Ma’am, please leave, we have understood you, we have made a (path),'” Garza recalled. “She said, ‘Go? Back in my day, this is what we did,’ basically, and then she hailed Hitler.”
Garza posted his own recollection of the incident on Facebook the same night:
The woman pictured with me and what looks to be her husband we’re stragglers in the pack, and started responding to people’s jeers. Some guy ripped a sign out of the man’s hands and another man leapt out of nowhere, encouraging everyone around to respect them and let them leave (again, sometimes America is amazing).
This woman is a human being and although I don’t share her views, I start yelling “I will respect my elders. Please. Leave.” and a few other great folks and I start to clear the path. I walk right up to her and say “Ma’am we have listened to you. We understand this is all a little wild but we have cleared a path for you to leave *my right hand was constantly swinging in motion, showing her the path out we made for her, as shown in the photo*”
She goes, and I quote “Go? Back in my day, you know what we did-”
Bam. Hail’s Hitler.
I go “Ma’am you are endagering your life doing this. Leave. Take your husband and leave.” (I mean, anyone who knows me knows I get loud, so you know, sorry about that.)
And she won’t. She won’t budge. A young woman comes up to me and says “She wants this. Leave her be.” looks to her and goes “God bless you. I hope you make it home safe.” and I walk away from her astounded.
The self-described compassion in Garza’s narrative caught my eye, as did its closing paragraphs:
The world is broken, I learned that best from Christianity. But I don’t believe even one thing on this Earth is beyond repair, and I learned that from Christianity too.
You don’t have to share my belief in Christianity, but I am asking you to stand up against hate. Or this woman’s slanted arm never bears a greater weight than her own ignorance. She may never get the shot to understand love, living in the world where that symbol actually rules again.
Don’t let that happen. Do something. Please, for the sake of everyone, do something.
I reached out to Garza, a poet, logistics specialist, and consultant, to talk about his experiences. We were finally able to connect on Facebook chat a few weeks later (a newlywed with a new house, Garza is a busy guy).
This interview has been edited for clarity.
So first the basics: What kind of political activism do you do?
The bulk of my activism before the infamous rally can be classified as armchair (Facebook, Twitter, p2p rants), serving the homeless, or some time of ministry.
So you started being more active when Bernie came around. [Garza is a Sanders supporter.] Or more active in the realm of campaigns, I should say.
In some ways the seeds were planted during Obama’s first term, but yes, came to fruition during this race. This campaign took on a heightened sort of significance, but I can’t tell whether it was chicken or egg…
I think you were pretty clear in telling the story of your interaction with the woman at the Trump rally, but was there anything else you left out/remembered later that you wanted to say?
That there is no way she was looking at anyone else other than me when she shot her arm up in that manner. It never even occurred to me that people would question whether or not she Hailed Hitler. It never occurred to me we might be photographed, but that might be my only addendum. The rest I’ve left for those with eyes to see.
I was very much struck by your sort of commonsense Christian response to the situation, especially when you said to her, “We need to get you out of here for your own safety.”
And that response wasn’t completely my idea. I felt it and somehow a few of us just had a sense that it should happen. That they needed to be let out. It was a community decision.
You got that sense from the crowd of people you were with?
I did. As with any crowd there are almost too many emotions to withstand, but among the genuine jeering and yelling at Trump supporters leaving there was this sense of….well victory, but not outright hostility. Most of the “fights” and scuffles I saw were broken up by protesters, not supporters.
What is your religious background?
I was raised Catholic, found Christ at the most incredible Pentecostal church in Berwyn, IL, and am now an aspiring Pentecostal with a sort of incarnational/pyro-theology a la Peter Rollins sort of hope in me.
Say more about how your Christian faith informs your activism. How did it shape how you dealt with this situation?
My faith was one of maybe three solid reasons I went in the first place. I believe activism, at rallies or in the community, is one of the missing pieces to our witness. In my own life the whole idea of praxis was getting murky. I’m a part of a home church that meets in [the Illinois city of] Berwyn right now, and our desire is very much [to figure out] how a church is to function in this era but with that timelessness and power of Jesus.
Trump’s comments about immigrants tore me up. I have friends and family, but down the line, who came from Mexico, and his views I just think are so damaging that I wanted to actively stand up, present myself as an opposing side, and see if I could start a dialogue and see if those comments on immigrants were just a one-time deal or if they were a part of his entire platform. But like, for real.[I had] genuine curiosity as to how these Trump rallies work. Whether they are as charged with anger and yelling as the media makes them out to be. I guess as an American who would potentially be represented globally by this kind of man I almost had to know what was true and what was just click-bait.
I’ve heard other people say the the same thing—they just wanted to see it for themselves.
To my knowledge I’ve never heard of the type of figure Trump is ever running for President. I don’t know history that extensively, but I guess I wondered how it was even possible. What were his supporters like? They’re not really Dementors just wearing human flesh…right?
And? What did you find them to be like? Human or replicants?
Humans. Altogether human, who are as full of passion as I am, but on a completely other spectrum of life than me. The bulk of them believed [Trump] was a solution to an actual problem, not that he was the problem, or that he personified it. I had very few conversations with the people around me. Which was a shame, because that’s what I went desiring. Didn’t feel like people wanted that, or that it was the atmosphere that fostered dialogue.
Was it difficult to keep a vision of the Trump folks’ humanity in the face of their pretty obvious provocation?
It was. It was hard because a lot of the chants weren’t directed towards [Trump] supporters, but Trump himself. A lot of the yelling or pushing and shoving got personal, but the protest wasn’t against supporters. It gets muddled though when you get shoved from behind by a man who has at least a foot and approximately 50 pounds on you.
I had this moment where I walked up to the line between protestors and supporters after the event had been cancelled. We were still inside the Pavilion at that time, and a Trump supporter was shoving one of the protesters on the front line there. Cops had moved away there and it was just us and them. I yelled at some dude, as if this was an effective time to start conversation: “What do you even like about this man? What are you defending? You’re better than this!” Which sounds so ridiculous now.
Tell me about Birgitt Peterson. What were you feeling while you were talking with her?
Initially I was feeling a little confused. The whole ends justifying the means. I was more okay with grown folks yelling at each other while some filed out of a building, than with us yelling at this older couple. It didn’t sit right. And I wish I could say it was a talk. I thought she was sort of docile, harmless—in some ways lost in that crowd. I saw her responding in a sporadic way to people’s yells and comments, so she was alert, and I guess much more than I anticipated. Our interaction was so short-lived. At first it was sympathy. Then shock. Then anger. Then a kind of furious sadness.
How did your faith guide you in that moment, if it did?
I’m a big fan of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I’ve read it every year for the past five or so [years] around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I believe so wholeheartedly in his methods of non-violent protest. I honestly couldn’t stand that, for a second, Trump could say he was pro-life—if he even means that or knows what it means—and Christians could think he’s a viable leader for our country. I wanted to be there to show people there are Christians who don’t stand by him. I felt as though, as a Christian who thinks Trump’s presidency would be damaging to every level of life in America, it was my duty to do something. To stand up physically and oppose his views, openly. The sort of disruption that is beneficial.
King talked about their protests being an inconvenience to life for people in the South, but that it was only a physical manifestation of the sort of social and economic inconvenience black people felt on the daily. I wanted to be a part of physically showing that we oppose his viewpoints, that there are people who want to show him to his face we think you are wrong, and that the ideas you espouse need to be silenced. I’ve taken a lot of flack for that. That one good row doesn’t deserve another. That blocking their freedom of speech and assembly negates any benefits the protest could’ve achieved.
So in a sense, you make manifest the injustice of Trump’s rhetoric.
I disagree. I think there is a larger, more harrowing fight going on when we think it’s okay for this man to get away with the things he’s said, behavior he’s encouraged, and that our system of government can find reason to tear gas a protester who chains himself to a tree or a building but we cannot lawfully just tell Trump “No. Sorry. We’re not interested.”
We have to allow him to express his right to run for President. But we cannot, with just as much candor and volume, express our desire for him to not.
I’m sorry, you disagree with my question about manifesting injustice, or something else?
Oh, no no no. I was on a tear there, sorry. I don’t disagree with your questioning or summation. I disagree with those who say the protest in Chicago was just as wrong as Trump’s rhetoric. I think a protest is a way to disrupt the natural result of a thought or a method for the sake of evaluating what is the truth, what is justice.
So if I’m reading you right, protest is performative in a deeply Christian sense. It highlights the difference between right and wrong.
It is a part of the true religion of James for me. In fighting for some of the lowest, the marginalized, the immigrants [who] Trump thinks are robbing America, or the innumerable casualties [among] those already on the outskirts that the “bombing of ISIS” would cause. What I mean is, taking care of the widow and the orphan, in a lot of ways, means taking care of those on the bottom rung, those forgotten, those unaccounted for. Those that are already struggling in America, or abroad, in many ways would only find their lives more difficult under a man who doesn’t seem to know what he would do with power; doesn’t seem trustworthy to me with whatever power he already possesses.
Feel free to preach a little here. What advice would you give to other Christians caught up in this primary season?
I would ask that other Christians evaluate what are the most pressing issues crippling the American people, and watch what our presidential candidates say about those things. Match candidates’ actual views/stances/policies against your convictions, stay in prayer (but that was always a given), and decide who could do the most good. Who you think has the best shot at doing the most good?
Cornel West said my only requirement is sincerity. I ask that we be sincere about what we do and do not believe, why we believe it, and to take action. To finish off our faith with some works. Or, I guess, complete our faith?
What would you say to Birgitt Peterson if you met her again?
Now I feel like the lines of communication between Birgitt and I are completely shot. That she could probably never field a question from me without suspicion. And I wouldn’t let her be on record. But I would ask her what she thinks it means to be an American? What do you like about Donald Trump? What do you believe in? And whether or not she was Cubs or Sox—so basically the sum total of life’s tough questions.