BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A white man punched and attempted to choke a black protester who was thrown on the ground at a Donald Trump rally here on Saturday morning, as an onlooker yelled, “Don’t choke him! Don’t choke him!”
The protester, identified by local media as well-known activist Mercutio Southall Jr., started shouting during Trump’s speech and could be heard yelling, “Black lives matter!” A fight broke out around him, prompting Trump to briefly halt the rally and demand the removal of Southall.
“Get him the hell out of here, will you, please?” Trump said.
The crowd alternated between cheering and booing as security officers pushed their way through the crowd of several thousand. Southall fell to the ground and was surrounded by several white men who appeared to be kicking and punching him, according to video captured by CNN. A Washington Post reporter in the crowd watched as one of the men put his hands on Southall’s neck and heard a female onlooker repeatedly shout: “Don’t choke him!”
Southall has had many run-ins with police and has even been arrested as he fights against what he says is unfair treatment of blacks.
Several bystanders were alarmed that Southall would be severely hurt, and the security officers quickly got him off the ground and walked him out of the building. Meanwhile, Trump recounted how Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently responded to Black Lives Matter activists who came onstage during one of his events.
“You see, he was politically correct,” Trump said. “Two young women came up to the podium. They took over his microphone. I promise you, that’s not going to happen with me. I promise you. Never going to happen. Not going to happen. Can’t let that stuff happen.”
In an interview on Sunday morning on “Fox and Friends,” Trump said, “Maybe [the man] should have been roughed up.”
Southall “was so obnoxious and so loud, he was screaming. I had 10,000 people in the room yesterday, 10,000 people, and this guy started screaming by himself and they — I don’t know, rough up, he should have been — maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” Trump said, according to a transcript of the interview.
The racially charged altercation occurred in Birmingham, famous in the 1960s as a center of the civil rights struggle, and led some to note that Trump’s supporters at the rally were nearly all white — in a city with a black majority. Critics and rivals have said that Trump is stoking racial tension. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said some of Trump’s anti-Islam comments are “manipulating people’s angst and their fears.”
Sanders, in an address at Georgetown University last week, said of Trump: “People should not be using the political process to inject racism into the debate.”
Before the fight broke out, Trump had warned the audience that Islamic State fighters might recruit their children online and called for an impenetrable wall along the southern border, prompting the crowd to chant: “Build a wall! Build a wall! Build a wall!” In his nearly hour-long speech, Trump listed graphic details of killings committed by people who had entered the country illegally, promised to bar Syrian refugees from living in the United States because they might be terrorists and called for heavy surveillance of “certain mosques.”
“I want surveillance of these people that are coming in, the Trojan horse. I want to know who the hell they are,” Trump said. “I don’t want the people from Syria coming in, because we don’t know who they are. We don’t know who they are. And I don’t want them coming in.”
Trump also said he watched as “thousands and thousands of people” cheered the fall of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, giving the impression that he was talking about Muslims being happy that so many Americans died in the attacks. Officials have repeatedly debunked rumors that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the attacks.
Up until this week, when protests erupted at Trump rallies, reporters were free to venture into the crowd to witness and document what was happening. But starting Wednesday, Trump’s campaign manager began to block reporters from leaving a designated media area during the candidate’s speeches, restrictions that reporters have challenged. CNN reporter Jeremy Diamond attempted to watch the whole speech from the audience, allowing him to record the fight that broke out. But soon after, Trump’s staff spotted him and forced him back into the media area they call “the pen.” A Washington Post reporter in the crowd also witnessed part of the altercation.
From the media area, reporters strained to see what was happening. They could see only commotion in the sea of people, followed by at least two protesters being escorted out. As Diamond’s video circulated on social media on Saturday night, some of Trump’s most vocal supporters took to Twitter to call the protesters “thugs,” “Dem plants” and a variety of obscene names. Several wrote that the protesters opened themselves up to the possibility of violence by attending the rally and accused Southall of starting the altercation. They also cast the protesters as violent extremists and pointed to media reports that one of the hecklers arrested at a Trump rally in Massachusetts a few days earlier had once been convicted of trying to bomb a Marine recruiting center.
Southall told the AL.com news site that the commotion started as he began recording himself and other protesters and saying that he wanted “Donald Trump to know he’s not welcome here.” Southall said someone knocked the phone out of his hand and called him a racial slur. Then there was pushing and punches started flying, Southall told the news site.
On stage, Trump had been bragging about his high poll numbers, noting that rival Ben Carson is “dropping like a rock” in early polls and announcing that he’s “winning big” in Alabama. Trump grew agitated as the commotion took up more and more of his rally time and reporters shifted their focus.
“You know, you have one guy over there shouting,” Trump said. “We have thousands of people — and you’ll read about him tomorrow. They’ll say: ‘Oh, the room had a picket.’ Get him the hell out of here, will you, please?”
Amber Phillips contributed to this report.