Slingshot: Recollections of Reporting the Trump Era
Updated: Jan 18, 2021
I've worked in media under three presidential administrations now. Anti-war activism brought me to KPFK-Los Angeles where I produced morning radio during Dubya's reign. I watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama from my North Hollywood office after that. And then came Trump. Hostilities against the press ramped up when I found myself in the OC Weekly's newsroom.
We were the most lippy fish wrap in town. What could go wrong?
Reporting the Trump era was a wild ride. Proud Boys threatened to pay our offices a "visit" but never did. After the Capitol Gazette massacre, I led a petition to at least get a key pass system installed at work; the owner agreed. All the while our emails and comments section were stuffed with those quaint little "love letters" from the MAGA faithful.
With Trump out of office this Wednesday, here's a look back at the most exhausting time in American journalism as I reported it from the frontlines of riots, rallies and rampant racism!
Donald Trump announced his bid for the presidency in June with infamously racist remarks about Mexican immigrants. A few weeks later, I found myself waiting in line to greet Ann Coulter, author of the screed Adios, America. I was the only brown person in queue at Costa Mesa's Barnes & Noble bookstore. When I reached Coulter, I began pestering her with a sarcastic line of questioning as she signed my book.
"So, how many Mexicans do you get at your signings?" I asked.
"About 20 percent is what the polls say," she responded.
"But I'm the only Mexican here today!" I said.
Coulter's mood soured. Security escorted me out of the book signing area, but not before her handler had snapped a picture of us with my phone.
Pro-immigrant activists saw me exit the store and serenaded me with "Walk of Shame!" I gave them my copy of Adios, America and they tore it to shreds.
Away from the action, I scrolled through my camera roll and saw the photo of Coulter stretching her hand to shake mine, only I kept my hand in my pocket. I uploaded the pic to social media--it went viral.
Fracas at the Fairgrounds: 2016
The OC Weekly crew headed to the fair in April 2016--but not for fried Snickers!
Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and decided to take a victory lap ahead of California's primary. He chose Costa Mesa--a city with a legacy of anti-immigrant hate--as his venue. I covered the counter-protests, which started tamely enough before activists marched towards a line of MAGA minions waiting to see Trump speak at the Pacific Amphitheater.
Things didn't get interesting until people poured out of the stump speech. By that time, hundreds of Latino youth arrived to fortify the protests. Heated shouting matches ensued. At a crosswalk, a visibly shaken old white lady who attended the rally took my arm. Maybe Mexicans weren't so scary, after all!
In time, anti-Trump protesters took over the streets. YG and Nipsey Hussle's "Fuck Donald Trump" blared everywhere. Cars started doing donuts in the intersection. An overly aggressive sheriff deputy threatened me with arrest if I didn't back off a skirmish line. A good time was had by all--except Cole Bartiromo.
The Trump supporter had his red MAGA hat plucked off before somebody punched him. His bloody face ended up on the cover of the New York Post. Fox News' Maria Bartiromo tweets that she has no cousin named Cole--as had been claimed.
Maybe now Maria is the relative that nobody wants to claim!
Something's Not Alt-Right: 2017
The violence began in February 2016. That's when a handful of Klansmen clashed with antifa at Pearson Park in Anaheim. The blood-drenched fire hydrant I saw that day became a harbinger of things to come.
In 2017, a number of groups sprouted up and saw the Trump presidency as a watershed moment for alt-right entryism. The Weekly--having a strong white supremacy beat--went into action and started reporting on groups like the Proud Boys, Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights and the DIY Division (which later became the Rise Above Movement).
That year, I wrote a piece about a curious character named Johnny Benitez. He joined groups on both the left and the right under a flurry of pseudonyms. The article eventually sowed suspicion within the Proud Boys, all the way up to Gavin McInnes, himself.
When Benitez tried organizing a vigil in Laguna Beach, Kyle Chapman and a contingent of Proud Boys crashed it.
On October 22, Benitez and Chapman clashed again, this time during the California GOP Convention at the Anaheim Convention Center. That same night, I was a stone's throw away at the Sheraton partying it up with union healthcare workers.
A Councilwoman's QAnon Sendoff: 2018
QAnon was still a bit of a novel conspiracy theory in 2018. Certainly, no elected officials had yet been outed as adherents; that was until San Juan Capistrano councilwoman Pam Patterson gave her farewell address after losing her reelection bid.
I received a tip in November that Patterson bragged to young Republicans at the OC Registrar's office about meeting Trump while showing them Q conspiracy videos.
And then came her farewell speech. She quoted a Q drop and signed off, "God bless America. God bless Q and God bless San Juan Capistrano." I reported the bizarre farewell, which was picked up nationally in a time before Q congressmembers.
The kicker? Patterson was defeated by a candidate who was no stranger to controversy himself after naming his dog "Mohammed."
Stay classy, OC!
Immigrants are Welcome Here: 2019
The Trump administration spawned an uptick in alt-right violence and conspiracy theories. Not to be lost in all the quackery were its policy victims. During my last year at the Weekly, I dedicated two cover stories to folks caught up in Trump's anti-immigrant crusades.
I started with Tung Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who had been slated for deportation after Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under the president, started targeting the once hands-off population. Nguyen beat his case, but other refugees with prior convictions weren't so lucky.
Then, I met Ashkand Keshtmand, an Iranian man in OC who was separated from his wife on account of Trump's Muslim ban. Both shared their pain with me as they remained in the purgatory of "administrative processing." I lost contact with Keshtmand, but I often wonder about him and his wife.
Sure, the Muslim Ban may be soon ending, but was the cost of waiting too heavy to bear for them?
From the Bleachers: 2020
Last year found me largely sidelined from reporting on Trump, save for these trusty Slingshots. I guess I was no longer an "enemy of the people," eh? Kinda like Trump will no longer be president. At least I still have my Twitter account!
- Gabriel San Román
The corporate fallout from the failed coup at Capitol Hill continues to sound with the Walt Disney Co. joining the chorus. First, CEO Bob Chapek put out a statement earlier this month denouncing the siege. "What we saw was an egregious and inexcusable assault on America's most revered institution and our democracy," said Chapek. "Thankfully, the democratic process that we hold dear ultimately prevailed."
Predictably, the company's ensuing call to come together as a nation was met on social media by the cheap whataboutism of "BLM" and "antifa" and questions about why the Mouse House didn't issue any such statements over the summer.
Long a corporate greaser of both wheels, Disney followed up its initial statement with a pledge.
"In the immediate aftermath of that appalling siege, Members of Congress had an opportunity to unite--an opportunity that some sadly refused to embrace," it read. "In light of these events, we have decided we will not make political contributions in 2021 to lawmakers who voted to reject the certification of the Electoral College votes."
Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, believes such pledges from Corporate America are inadequate. It released a report "Bankrolling the Disenfranchisers," this month which tallied corporate and trade association PAC money spent on the campaigns of lawmakers who objected to the Electoral College vote at $170 million since 2016.
The Walt Disney Co. didn't crack the top 100 in that regard. Even still, the report's criticisms still apply.
"A temporary suspension of contributions is not enough," said Mike Tanglis, of Public Citizen. "These corporations cannot simply wait for the dust to settle and then resume business as usual."
The civic group called on corporations and trade associations to show a deeper pledge to democracy by suspending their PAC operations across the board altogether.
But that would entail voluntarily giving up the power seized during the corporate coup of Citizens United.
By the Bylines
Ray Garcia of the Center for Journalism and Liberty penned "Voices of the Dispatched" which features ten profiles of displaced journalists, including yours truly. Man, I need a new schtick!
The Los Angeles Times' Vera Castaneda wrote a piece about LibroMobile's 3rd Annual Literary Arts Festival coming up this weekend. Since I'll be doing a reading from my book manuscript, I get a quick shout out!
Lead photo: Protesting Trump's Anaheim Convention Center speech / By Gabriel San Roman