Protesters await Trump arrival at Benedict College, Oct. 25, 2019.
Carol Motsinger, email@example.com
COLUMBIA, S.C. – In a way, what happened outside Benedict College’s gates in the heart of downtown felt quite small. At its peak, the crowd covered less than 100 yards of the sidewalk. But the scene itself represented something much bigger: the fractured, divisive, sometimes ugly and often loud American political climate.
Protests erupted outside the 150-year-old historically black college where inside a school auditorium President Donald Trump spoke to a room filled with more political allies than students.
The event was billed as a keynote speech on bipartisan success in criminal justice reform, which the president tied to the booming economy he takes credit for and that he told his audience has helped black people more than ever before.
Benedict students, who the week prior pondered what questions they might ask the president once his surprise visit to the forum” was announced, were asked to stay in their dorms.
Seven students were allowed inside for the speech.
The requests for students and faculty to remain inside was a matter of security, school spokeswoman Kymm Hunter said. The school’s police worked in conjunction with the Secret Service to develop a security plan out of “safety concerns and threats of protests,” she said.
Classes were canceled, and students were served lunch inside their dorms from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
As Trump spoke, protesters marched in opposition while supporters stood with flags waving and hands clapping. The two groups met at the gates, a couple hundred people in all. And it was loud, so loud that it was hard to hear either side clearly.
As the protesters chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go,” a supporter blew her whistle with every syllable. Shouts of “No more years!” overlapped with “Four more years!”
Sometimes they responded to one another, like when one group yelled “Shut it down” and the other yelled back, “Build a wall.” It was discord – not dialogue.
Benedict students watched from dormitory windows.
The president’s speech was front-loaded with thanks for various political allies and featured a three black speakers joining him on stage to talk about justice reform.
At the event, Trump was named the winner of the Bipartisan Justice Award. The award from the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, a nonprofit organization founded by 20 black Republicans and 20 black Democrats in 2015, is given annually to a public servant who has demonstrated the ability to work across the aisle to achieve meaningful progress in reforming the criminal justice system, according to the White House.
Trump was honored for leadership in the passage of the First Step Act, which expands opportunities for elderly inmates to get released, increases the amount of good-time credit inmates can receive and has provisions to help inmates transition back into society.
One of the three welcomed on the stage was 45-year-old Tanesha Bannister of Columbia, who spoke of how the “First Step Act” that Trump helped usher through helped her.
Bannister was released in May after serving 16 years in prison. She was originally sentenced to life in prison in 2004 after she was convicted in a cocaine smuggling trial.
Trump took no questions.
Earlier in the week, Benedict’s student body president, Jordan Rice Woodruff, told The Greenville News that the president’s visit is difficult “to feel comfortable with” but that he would like to “stand up for ancestors” and ask the president questions.
The weekend forum features nine Democratic presidential candidates on Saturday and Sunday who will speak on justice reform and answer questions.
The president’s appearance at the event prompted at least one Democratic challenger to pull out of the weekend forum.
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California announced she would discuss the issue elsewhere in Columbia.
4 thoughts on Trump’s visit: Trump to discuss criminal justice at South Carolina HBCU Benedict College
“I won’t be complicit in papering over Trump’s record,” said in a Twitter post Friday evening.
The president said hearing stories of injustice motivated him to engage with criminal justice reform.
“There’s still work to do, but what I can say, on this day, a change has been made and we are looking forward to things to come,” Trump said.
“As a result of our tax cuts, our regulatory cuts … the energy reforms – our economy is booming,” Trump said. “Nothing better for former prisoners that are coming home when there’s very low unemployment.”
The president also took the opportunity to stretch beyond the subject of justice reform.
Trump spoke of the impeachment inquiry as a “witch hunt” and made multiple mentions of “fake news.” He expressed condolences on the death of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings.
Trump’s visit to an HBCU in South Carolina came as a surprise
Trump has spoken to a collection of HBCU leaders before, but Benedict’s alumni historian, Robert Squirewell, said he believes this is the president’s first visit to an HBCU.
“All those institutions have voters and constituents that are part of this electorate, so everybody should benefit from it,” Squirewell said.
The major players for the Democratic presidential nomination will participate on Saturday and Sunday ahead of the state’s influential first-in-the-South Democratic primary in February.
Follow Eric on Twitter @cericconnor
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2019/10/25/trump-speaks-hbcu-benedict-college-students-asked-stay-dorms/2462497001/