As what had been a peaceful protest in Austin dissolved into sudden violence Sunday night, one image stood out: Amina Amdeen, a Muslim woman and Iraqi immigrant wearing a hijab, throwing herself in between her fellow protesters and a towering, impassive supporter of Donald Trump.
Then, in the frantic moments after the blur of shouts and shoves and arrests at the end of a march near the Capitol, Amdeen and that advocate for Trump, construction worker Joseph Weidknecht, hugged each other in respect despite their differences.
He called her a “hero of this night.”
She asked him to consider her humanity, and those like her who are fearful of Trump and his policies, going forward. A smattering of other anti-Trump protesters came up, hugged Weidknecht as well and apologized for what had happened.
It was a moment of unexpected connection and bravery in a bitterly divided America.
“I do not stand for what he stands for,” a shaking and tearful Amdeen, 19, said of Weidknecht minutes after the incident. “But I know his fears and concerns are valid. I love this country so much, and I don’t like what I see coming. We are not being civil to each other.”
Amdeen, a University of Texas student in international relations who moved from Baghdad to Austin with her parents when she was 10, said Monday that the resistance to Trump must be nonviolent.
“Our job now is to make our emotional pain visible,” she said, “so we can gain the sympathies of whoever voted for Trump because they were tired of the economic situation and didn’t think about how they were affecting minorities. … I put my arm around him just to make it very, very clear I was here to protect his right to speak, and his bravery to be there as a Trump supporter.
“The most radical thing you can do is embrace the people who are perceived to be your enemies. … We can’t let this escalate into a war between two parts of America.”
‘She stood there like a mountain’
The march had begun just after 7:30 p.m. Sunday on the Capitol’s south steps, one of several such protests around the country in the days since the election. About 150 people, many of them costumed and carrying signs, set off down the Capitol walk and then continued south down the middle of Congress Avenue.
In a city that voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, the 90-minute march was greeted generally with smiles, applause, car honks and, by motorists stalled by the event, patience.
Weidknecht, a union sheet-metal worker, and a handful of other Trump advocates had been at 11th Street and Congress Avenue when the march began. Weidknecht, 24, wore a red “Make America Great” cap and carried two signs, one of them saying, “Proud to be Deplorable.” His group was still there when the march returned.
Several anti-Trump protesters, a couple of them wearing the Guy Fawkes masks popularized by “V for Vendetta,” quickly surrounded Weidknecht, shouting obscenities and calling him a racist. Amdeen, at least a foot shorter than Weidknecht, squeezed in between him and the others, imploring the protesters to stand down. Another anti-Trump protester likewise tried to calm the situation.
“She stood there like a mountain trying to stop the violence,” Weidknecht said Monday of Amdeen.
Before long, one of Weidknecht’s signs and his hat had been snatched away. He held up his other sign. That too was gone within seconds, and a man began ripping it up. Weidknecht, who is 6 feet 6 inches and 350 pounds, said Monday that at least one protester brought out a cigarette lighter and tried to light both the sign and his T-shirt.
“I can handle myself in a brawl,” Weidknecht said. “But when they brought out the lighters, I was genuinely scared for my life.”
Austin police Monday released the names of six people arrested at the scene on various charges, each of which involved altercations with officers: Jarred Roark, 34, who police also allege assaulted Weidknecht; Taylor Tomas Chase, 21; Joseph Wayne George, 36; Samuel Benjamin Lauber; 21; Jason Peterson, 24; and Jade Tabitha Shackelford, 19.
Weidknecht was questioned by police but not detained.
Freedom of expression
Amdeen, breathless and crying in the moments after the incident, said she could only think back to her homeland.
Peaceful protests were not possible in Baghdad, she said. There, she remembered from her childhood, one had to worry about falling bombs, political repression and deadly conflicts at the street level.
That is what made the flurry of profanities and manhandling so upsetting to her in her adopted hometown of Austin and in the country where she is now a proud citizen, Amdeen said.
Weidknecht, who is currently laid off, said he agrees with Trump on some things, particularly immigration and jobs, and not on some others. He said he believes in freedom of religion in America, including for Muslims, but added that he worries about imposition of “Sharia law.” He worries, he said, “that my voice will be stifled because I have a radical viewpoint.”
But he acknowledged, given the result of the election and the makeup of Congress, that his views are aligned with those in or coming to power. Weidknecht said Sunday’s event was his first protest and probably his last.
“Yeah, it’s apparently not my gig,” he said. “I’m afraid that next time I won’t be as calm.”