Maya Phillips is a senior at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia, near the Florida border. She’s the secretary of the Habitat For Humanity organization on campus, as well as the fundraising chair of the school’s NAACP chapter. On February 29 of 2016, while attending a Donald Trump rally on campus, she and several other students, most of them black, were asked to leave the event before the Republican frontrunner spoke. Here, Phillips tells her story of what happened that day.
A classmate of mine sent some of us an email, encouraging us to attend the Donald Trump rally. He felt it was the administration’s job to notify us that Donald Trump would be coming to our school. We were not notified, unfortunately. We were unaware that he was coming to our school until it got passed around by word of mouth from student to student. We’ve had about three candidates come to speak: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, and now Donald Trump, who are all from the same political party. We’ve never had any Democratic representatives, we’ve never had any third party or independent candidates.
Just recently our graduation had been changed as well. It used to be in the PE complex, the same gym the Trump rally was in, but it got changed by the new [interim] president of the school[Dr. Cecil P. Staton] to being outside in the football stadium. A lot of students have been upset with the administration ever since graduation has been changed, especially because it gets so hot here. We would much rather have an indoor graduation than an outdoor one. So knowing that graduation had been changed, our president allowed someone else to come speak in the gym that we can’t have our graduation in. A lot of different things were wrong with the picture of Donald Trump coming. So that’s how it began.
The student who sent out the email was very articulate, very educated, and very informative. He never made any negative statements about Trump or the administration. The next day he wanted us to attend the Trump rally, to not only make a statement against our administration, but so that we could see firsthand what Donald Trump has to say about representing our country.
We did plan to wear all black to the rally. My classmate, who organized this, wanted us to be unified. I think his purpose was to make sure that we all stuck together. We didn’t want to be split up. We’ve seen other Trump rallies where things have gotten physical and violent, and I know that’s the main thing he wanted to avoid. So by wearing black, sticking together, we were able to differentiate between the crowd who was with our group and who wasn’t. Usually at Trump rallies, things have gotten out of hand when people are by themselves.
I wanted to stand behind my fellow classmates and their initial idea to wear black, but I had my own reasoning for wearing black too. I felt like it was going to solidify that I was there to take a stand for something. I can say we collectively never had any intentions of being disruptive or causing a scene. In the news right now we’re being labeled as protestors. We never had any intentions to go in and protest, or be disruptive. It was never our goal to do that. I wanted to take a stand for other minorities because Trump says a lot of distasteful things about people that are unlike himself—whether it’s people who are less privileged, and don’t have as much money as him, or minorities, Hispanic Americans or Mexican Americans who he wants to deport.
I also wore black because it was the last day of Black History Month. It was a leap day, which we don’t get very often. For the last day of Black History I wanted my culture to be uplifted. To keep people in the mindset that minority lives to matter, very much. Everyone matters, whether you’re white and poor or black and middle class. Everybody’s lives matter to me, so I was taking a stand for culture, for positivity.
All day everything was pretty calm. The only thing that seemed disruptive on campus was the fact that we weren’t notified. A lot of different parts of campus were shut down. Our student union—where a lot of students go in to get food, go to the bookstore, or just hang out—was blocked. Teachers were cancelling classes. Parking was horrible.
When it was time to attend the rally we all got together [there were approximately 20 to 30 participants], and we walked to the gym where everyone was getting lined up to enter the complex. The police officers there were very nice, and I was very surprised because at our school the police are usually very stern. They’re in enforcement mode and you just don’t know what to expect sometimes, especially being African-American. You’re not sure if people are going to be nice to you or if they’re not.
Me and my friends, maybe three of us, got there a few minutes after the rest of the group, and I saw them a little ahead of us in the line. I asked the police officers if it would be okay if I were to join the others in the line, and he said as long as everybody else in the line was okay with it, then yes I could. I went up to the line where the rest of the group was, nobody said anything. None of the Trump supporters in the line made any smart comments or anything like that. Everything seemed to be going fine.
Our gym is split off into two levels, so we went up the stairs to the second floor because it was packed. There were so many people. There were more people in our gym than there are on graduation. That also made us upset because [space capacity] was the reason for our graduation venue being changed. So we went up to the second floor, to stand behind where our band usually plays. I have footage of us going up the stairs and you can actually see the look on the Trump supporters’ faces looking at us and taking out their phones as if we were there to cause trouble. At this point, again, no one was saying anything. We weren’t screaming, we weren’t yelling, we weren’t chanting. We didn’t have any signs, we just entered, and then we began to walk up the stairs.
Quietly, entering & going up the stairs after we first got in pic.twitter.com/Ds8Pb2i0lg
— Maya Rose (@hawaiian_loke) March 1, 2016
It wasn’t even two minutes before we were turned around. I wasn’t in the front of the line, so I’m not sure who initially said that we had to leave, but I know it was a local officer. At that point we were told that we had to go back the way we came. The first thing I noticed was a few students walking back the way that we just came, so I’m thinking, “Okay, maybe we have to relocate, maybe they’re taking us to an area where we can sit down.” Then the officer begins to lead us to the door, and then he says, “You all have to leave.” At this point we were just confused because the time between us entering the gym and us being told to leave was so fast. So a lot of us were asking, “What did we do? Why are we being told to leave?” The officer that had initially told us to leave kept repeating, “I don’t know, I don’t know, you have to leave.”
Before we left, there were people standing by the doors who had just watched us walk up the stairs, and they began to chant at us. They were screaming, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” And they were throwing their fists up. We were confused because at no point did we label ourselves as not being Trump supporters. I’m not sure if they thought that because we were in all black attire, but besides the attire and us being a group of students, there was nothing else that singled us out.
This one Caucasian woman, who looked to be about in her mid-forties, looked directly in my face and was thrusting her fist, not to hit me, but thrusting her fist at me like, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” as if I had done something. So at this point the only action that we chose to take was that we all threw our right fists up in the air.
You can see in the video that I took that we’re still not saying anything. Some of us are disappointed. We even had two Caucasian females in all black with their fists up with us. I saw a video going around on Twitter of an angle from the bleachers where they could see us being thrown out. You can see some people in the stands are shouting and chanting, “Trump!” and you can see some Caucasian people standing up and clapping for us and cheering for us and throwing their fists up too.
— Darius (@KyngDarius) March 1, 2016
It was insane because you didn’t know who supported you and who didn’t. We didn’t know why we were being told to leave. It was just so much going on. It was definitely a good thing to know that there were Caucasian people who stood up and clapped for us, and that we had two Caucasian students willing to stand with us for something. They stood with us and threw up their fists as well. Out of everything, I think that was the most memorable for me.
After that happened we were escorted down to the basement part of the gym where we could be let out to the ground floor. At this point, of course, we’re upset. People are now screaming at us. People are now stereotyping us when they don’t know that the reason we came was to listen to Donald Trump. We were kicked out so fast that he hadn’t even come out yet. So when we got downstairs, we asked one of the police officers why we got kicked out. And they couldn’t answer us. That’s where we knew that there was more to this than just being in a group and wearing black. Why would Lowndes County and Valdosta Police not know why we had to leave? Why couldn’t they tell us that we were being disruptive, if we were being disruptive? If we were being loud? They didn’t have an answer because we didn’t do anything.
The officer was like, “I’m sorry, we’re not sure why you guys are being asked to leave. We were just told that you have to leave the premises.” Now we’re furious. They escorted us outside and they said that we had to leave. That was where a lot of the footage that’s going around was taken. That’s where the USA Today video that myself and [Tahjila Davis] are in was taken.
When we got outside we still kept asking officers why we’d been kicked out. I didn’t stop asking until we got an answer. They still didn’t know. They said, “As soon as we find out, we’ll let you guys know.” And the actual police chief of Lowndes County came outside and didn’t know why we’d been forced to leave. About five minutes after that, our local police said, “Trump’s people want you to leave. This is now out of our control.” And we were just baffled. We just stood there like “What? You’re kidding!”
— ㅤ (@creativemedia7) March 1, 2016
So he wanted us gone before we could even hear him speak. We didn’t ask for Trump to come to Valdosta, Georgia. We didn’t ask for our Monday to be so different from normal, where teachers are cancelling classes because you decided to come. And you won’t even allow us to listen to what you have to say?
I, personally, can’t give Trump the benefit of the doubt, I just can’t. Because he says some of the most mind-blowing things sometimes, that I wouldn’t expect to hear come out of another human being’s mouth. It’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I was still willing to listen, something that was hard for me to do because I’m a sensitive person. He didn’t care.
There were also three black students who weren’t wearing all black, who weren’t in the group with us, who were pointed out in the bleachers, nowhere near where we were, and they were told to leave, and they didn’t know why. Now you can’t say it’s because we all had on all black. They were forced to leave because they were black.
We were complying with the police, we were going on the sidewalk, we were doing what they told us to, and at that point, a female office said, “You have to keep walking.” And I looked at her and said, “You just told us to get on the sidewalk. We’re on the sidewalk away from the building, now you’re telling us we have to keep walking?” She said, “Yeah.” I’m confused. Why? I’m already out of the building, now you’re telling us we can’t stand by the complex, and now I have to keep walking? So I have to go away from campus is what you’re telling me. Where I live. I’m an actual resident on campus.
At that point we were very hurt. One of us cried, that’s [Davis] who was on USA Today and MSNBC. We just want everybody to know that it was really an innocent act. We were removed for no reason at all. They didn’t care that we wanted to hear him out, they didn’t care that we wanted to know what he could offer. I told the USA Today reporter that we wanted to see what he could offer our campus, our community, and our country. And for you to take that right away from me, yet you want to be the head of the US government, is distasteful to me.
By the time we got kicked out, there were still people entering the gym. The rally hadn’t even started yet. So people in the line were booing us and making derogatory statements, and didn’t know why. They didn’t know what we did, they just saw us, a group of black students, and just assumed we were there to get up and chant in the middle of the rally. It’s just mind boggling that Trump has the power to do that in a place where I live and where I go to classes every day.
Photos by Darian Harris