A hush quickly fell over the crowd Tuesday as a well-dressed man stood in front of President Donald J. Trump, holding up a three-level sign reading “GO BACK TO YOUR CORRUPTED HOME — DEPORT HATE — REUNITE MY FAMILY AND ALL SHATTERED BY SYSTEMIC DISCRIMINATION.”
The man, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, was shuffled away by Virginia State Police within 15 seconds of shouting “You can’t send us back” at the president.
While the protest by Del. Ibraheem Samirah was a momentary disruption in the president’s speech, 2019 Commemoration officials say the event was a success.
“Our goal in the commemoration is to bring attention to Virginia’s role in the creation of the United States,” said Kathy Spangler, executive director for the 2019 Commemoration. “We met our goal of spreading the word — I think we achieved that.”
Further, being able to protest and exercise the First Amendment right — whether outside of Jamestown Settlement or in front of the president — is a facet of the same democracy and rich history politicians, historians and Trump celebrated Tuesday, Spangler said.
“Citizenship is about your voice,” she added.
The 2019 Commemoration organizers have avoided politicizing the 400th anniversary events, but also created opportunities for people to have conversations about “how our history matters today.”
“Politics is not our business,” Spangler said.
Tuesday’s celebration focused on the anniversary of the first meeting of the first representative legislative assembly in the New World. It was just one piece of a yearlong series of events, programs and exhibits meant to commemorate important events that occurred in 1619, including the arrival of the first recorded Africans in the New World, the creation of the first representative assembly, recruitment of women to join male settlers at Jamestown and the first official Thanksgiving in North America.
Those issues, however, can easily lead to political conversations, Spangler acknowledged.
Spangler said July 30 organizers aimed to have speakers with multiple perspectives on democracy and what it means to America — from Presidential Historian Jon Meacham’s statement on building walls, to Illinois Sen. Toi Hutchinson’s recollection of her grandparents receiving the right to vote.
All speakers offered something different, she said.
Starting conversations, both easy and challenging, is one of the main roles of the 2019 Commemoration, Spangler said.
Those conversations include protests. Spangler said the organizers made sure protesters had space to gather peacefully in the area, including nearby at Jamestown Beach Event Park.
“We didn’t do anything to prevent it,” Spangler said. “It’s not been a distraction for us. We have a great respect for everyone’s voice.”
She said inviting high-ranking officials such as the president is a part of any large-scale commemorative event, and should be considered an honor no matter who holds the office.
In past commemorations, including 1907 and 2007, presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush also attended the events and likely elicited some backlash, she said.
After Samirah stood up and approached the stage where Trump was giving a speech, it took several seconds for authorities to usher him away.
The incident was not violent.
Spangler said the Virginia State Police and other security acted exactly as required under the safety plan.
Commemoration staff worked with multiple local and state law enforcement agencies to ensure there was a safety plan in place for such a large-scale event. The National Park Service incident command team for the agency’s eastern district was also involved in safety planning.
That plan was further tailored by the Secret Service when the president confirmed he would attend the event. Spangler said she was surprised by how few alterations the Secret Service needed to make, which showed the safety plan was fairly comprehensive to begin with.
Protests were also “well-planned for,” Spangler added. Commemoration organizers left it to outside law enforcement and agencies to ensure those protests were both safe and accommodated.
Tuesday’s events did result in some learning experiences, Spangler said.
One of those experiences emphasized the need for clear communication as far ahead of time as possible.
Because the White House did not issue official confirmation about Trump’s attendance until Friday, 2019 Commemoration staff had to do some last-minute adjustments to plans and ensure more than 800 people including high-level guests and media all had the correct information about what to expect.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges with a very late public announcement of a presidential visit,” she said.
Spangler will take the lessons learned and apply them to the next event at Fort Monroe in Hampton, where the landing of the first recorded Africans will be honored from Aug. 23 to 25.
Overall, the public and internal staff have given positive feedback about the event and the presidential visit. Spangler and some of her staff were able to meet with Trump for about five minutes after his speech, who said he and his staff were very pleased with the outcome.
“There was no sense from our perspective that [any protests] damaged or degenerated the event,” she said.