Juwan Andrews, one of the approximately 30, mostly black Valdosta State University students forced to leave a Donald Trump rally on their Georgia campus on Monday night, says that the students were not causing a disturbance, contradicting statements from the GOP front-runner and officials on what led to the confrontation.
There are conflicting accounts about what sparked the removal of the students, with reports alleging that Trump himself had demanded their removal from the top of the bleachers prior to his remarks. The Trump campaign has denied any involvement in or knowledge of the incident, while the Secret Service has said that federal agents were not involved and that staff for the candidate were behind the decision to escort the students out.
Local police have told MSNBC that while the public was entering the arena in preparation for Trump’s appearance there were 30 to 40 students who “were causing a disturbance.” The students were allegedly using profanity, which was flagged by Trump personnel, who eventually escorted them out of the building. Ironically, Trump frequently uses foul language of the campaign trail himself.
Andrews insists that he and his fellow students were doing nothing of the kind. “Yesterday, contrary to what was said, we were standing at the top of the complex stairs. And we weren’t doing anything, we didn’t plan to do anything,” he told MSNBC’s Tamron Hall on Tuesday. “As students we came to gain knowledge, and the accusations that we were causing a disturbance — that’s alarming because I can contest that we weren’t, and many people can contest that we weren’t.”
He pointed out that he and his fellow students all had tickets to the event, and that one of his classmates had actually attended in order to cover the speech for a class on public relations. Andrews also threw cold water on theories that he and the other evicted students were part of the Black Lives Matter movement, or otherwise part of a politically-motivated partisan protest.
“I have no definite person I’m voting for,” Andrews said. “I wanted to hear him speak.
As for the widely-circulated photos of black students with their fists raised in what could be interpreted as a Black Power salute, Andrews said the images are being taken out of context. “We had our fists up because the audience was yelling at us, chanting things and they didn’t even know the situation,” he said.
In a separate interview on Tuesday with MSNBC’s Craig Melvin, two more black Valdosta students — Quinten Sabre Sims and Jasmine Martin — corroborated Andrews’ account of what took place on Monday.
“They didn’t give us any indication or reason as to why we were being escorted out,” Martin told MSNBC. “All they were saying is ‘we need you guys to be removed from the premises’ and that they had a right to that property and because they wanted us gone we had no reason to be there anymore.”
Sims added that they “were all attending the event to get information about his policies. Because how he’s portrayed in the media, we don’t really get in-depth reporting about his policies, so we all decided to go as a unit and be there in solidarity because when we got there, a lot of people were there with their friends and family, so we figured why couldn’t we do the same.”
Martin claims that an email to her peers was sent out prior to the event making it clear that this would not be a protest. “Not a lot of us had previous knowledge about what he was gonna talk about,” she said.
She went on to claim that a tweet she sent out Monday urging rally attendees to wear black as well to bring books and headphones to the event has also been misinterpreted. “It was just what we wanted. We didn’t want people to assume that we were coming there to cause any disruption,” she said Tuesday, pointing out that some students brought paper to take notes. “It’s sad how it was portrayed.”
Scuffles at Trump rallies are nothing new. Earlier on Monday, a TIME magazine photojournalist was manhandled at a Trump event in Virginia by a member of the Secret Service for reportedly briefly stepping outside of designated holding pen area. The Secret Service is currently investigating that incident.
“I just, I stepped 18 inches out of the pen, then they grabbed me by the neck and started choking me and slammed me to the ground,” Morris told NBC News after he was briefly detained. “I never punched him, I never touched him.”
But the confrontation at Valdosta has taken on a racial dimension in the aftermath of Trump’s initial refusal to fully disavow the support of former KKK grand wizard David Duke and other white supremacist groups. Valdosta had been an all white institution until 1963, and the optics of more than two dozen, mostly black students getting bounced from a campaign event can’t be good for the GOP.
For his part, Trump has steadfastly denied that he holds bigoted views. During a Tuesday appearance on “Good Morning America,’ he claimed: “There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.”
Trump is favored to win all but one of the states (Sen. Ted Cruz’s home state of Texas) that are up for grabs in the slew of primaries being held on Tuesday. Some have predicted that his delegate lead could become so insurmountable that only a brokered convention could rob him of the Republican nomination for the presidency.