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Meet Pete Buttigieg’s silent protesters

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Hilah Kohen, Stephon Berry and Owen Stiles protest at Pete Buttigieg’s town hall in Coralville on Dec. 8. Illustration based on a photo by Zak Neumann/Little Village

“For me, it was a question of what are effective means of getting information out, in a way that helps and doesn’t cause harm,” said 23-year-old Hilah Kohen when asked about the protest at Pete Buttigieg’s town hall in Coralville on Sunday, Dec. 6.

That day, as Buttigieg began to speak in front of a crowd of approximately 2,000 at the Marriott Convention Center, Kohen, Stephon Berry and Owen Stiles stood silently and unfurled three cloth banners: “0% Support w/ Black Voters in S.C.,” “Climate Plan Fatally Lacking” and “We Need More Than Pete. Sincerely, Your Fellow Iowans.”

Before they could reach that moment, the three Iowa City friends had to decide how to get their banners past campaign staff, navigate through a crowd filled with familiar faces — “I got to say hello to one of my kindergarten teachers,” Kohen told Little Village — and find seats where their messages would reach as many eyeballs as possible.

On this last point, they had the unwitting help of a Buttigieg campaign event organizer, who invited the three to sit in the bleachers behind the stage, where everyone in room would have a clear view of them.

The demonstration started with the sort of text Iowans have been receiving for months — since all Democratic presidential hopefuls began descending on the state at the beginning of the year.

“I got a text from Pete’s campaign saying he was going to hold a town hall in Coralville,” Kohen said.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg staring at protest banners at the Coralville town hall, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

It was the first time the South Bend, Indiana mayor would be in the area since he finished ahead of all the other Democratic candidates in the most recent Iowa Poll. Other polls have also put him in first-place in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Kohen, who follows politics closely, was concerned.

“I thought, I’ve got to tell the people I know, the people around me, what I know to be true about this person’s candidacy,” she said.

Kohen talked to friends, including Berry and Stiles, about what to do. The three decided to take action.

“I was motivated by a sense that this was something I could do to actually affect the outcome of the caucuses,” Berry said.

Berry and Kohen have been friends since meeting at West High School (both are in the class of ’14), and Stiles is Berry’s partner.

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Berry joined Kohen for an interview at Little Village‘s office this week.

“I felt this would be the only opportunity I would likely have to confront [Buttigieg] directly,” Berry said. “Because the intention of us unfurling those banners was not just to let people know about these things, but also to hopefully get a chance to confront him directly. And have a dialogue about the claims that were on the banners.”

Hilah Kohen and Stephon Berry unfold one of their protest banners in the Little Village office. Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

They knew Buttigieg sometimes engaged with protesters at events, and hoped that would happen this time.

“Once we had the group, I got to thinking about how this could work,” Kohen said.

They needed to display their messages conspicuously, but in a minimally disruptive way. They would also need to be able to conceal any signs or banners on their way into the event, or they would no-doubt be confiscated.

Fabric was the answer. Kohen made a trip to JoAnn Fabrics. The three worked on the project, with Kohen finishing the banners iearly Sunday morning.

Berry and Stiles headed to Coralville hours before the doors opened for the town hall at 1 p.m.

The line to enter the Pete Buttigieg campaign event stretched around the Marriott Hotel and Convention Center. Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“We were terribly worried we weren’t going to get there early enough to have a spot at the front where our signs would be most visible,” Berry explained. They ended up being among the first in line, and Kohen joined them.

“There were a bunch of people who were canvassing for Pete, and trying to recruit other people to canvass,” he said. “We told them we were just there to hear what he had to say, and hopefully what he had to say would be compelling.”

One of the canvassers brought over a senior Iowa campaign organizers to speak to the three.

“She was a very sincere person,” Berry said. “Very nice.”

She invited them to sit in the bleachers behind the stage. At first, Kohen and Berry just thought they had gotten lucky in being invited to sit in a high-profile spot. But after the crowd began to fill the room, they began to suspect that they’d been strategically placed.

“I think I was one of maybe five people I counted there who was visibly not white-passing,” Berry said. “I said, ‘Oh, this probably isn’t luck.’”

Event organizers on every campaign, not just Buttigieg’s, use seats in bleachers or on risers to compose an attractive human background for the photos that will invariably be taken of the candidate on stage. Organizers typically try to populate this area with a diverse-looking group of people — which can be challenging in Iowa.

Berry is black and Kohen is a woman. Both are young, as is Stiles. The group would help create a photogenic backdrop. But the pictures ended up being more interesting than the organizer intended.

The line to enter the Pete Buttigieg campaign event stretched around the Marriot Hotel and Convention Center. Sunday, Dec 8, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Kohen and Berry were feeling nervous as the minutes ticked by. They spotted people they knew in the crowd. Iowa City Councilmember-elect Janice Weiner was the first speaker — not on behalf of Buttigieg, but to encourage people to volunteer for the caucuses.

“She’s just enormously respected in the community, especially in the Jewish community I grew up in,” Kohen said.

The speaker who introduced, and endorsed, Buttigieg was Coralville Mayor Pro Tem and former West High teacher Mitch Gross. Both Kohen and Berry are former students of Gross.

“So, yeah, there were some nerves,” Kohen said.

But Kohen, Berry and Stiles didn’t hesitate to act, once Buttigieg began to speak. They unfolded their banners. The woman standing next to Kohen didn’t hesitate either; without looking at the message on the banner, she immediately took a corner to help Kohen hold it.

“I said, as quietly as I could, ‘This sign is negative. You don’t have to do this,’” Kohen recalled. The women let go.

Kohen still feels bad about it. “She was just trying to be nice.”

Buttigieg turned in their direction. He clearly saw the banners, but he didn’t react and carried on with his prepared speech.

Protesters hold up banners during Pete Buttigieg’s speech at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Beneath the bleachers, the organizer who had placed the three in their seats was reacting. She kept repeating — “in an urgent manner,” Kohen said — that they needed to either surrender the banners or leave.

They folded the banners, and left the bleachers.

“We never intended to escalate the situation,” Berry said.

It wasn’t until after the banners were out of sight and the three were exiting the bleachers that Buttigieg mentioned them.

“I want to acknowledge our friends who just came through,” he said. “This is a competitive process. That’s fine. We welcome and support and hope to win over anybody who is not yet with us. And we appreciate and respect what anybody has to say.” The audience applauded.

“Although I would humbly suggest that it’s better to do it by lifting up your candidate than trying to tear down others,” Buttigieg added.

“The intention of us unfurling those banners was not just to let people know about these things, but also to hopefully get a chance to confront him directly,” Berry said. “And have a dialogue about the claims that were on the banners.”

“He didn’t take the chance,” he continued. “He could have won over a supporter, if he addressed them, possibly quell our concerns about his policy platform. But instead, he just dismissed us.”

The messages on the banners had been carefully selected by Kohen, Berry and Stiles. They explained their thinking at length in an op-ed published in the Press-Citizen on Tuesday.

“0% Support w/ Black Voters in S.C.”: The text refers to a poll published by Quinnipiac on Nov. 18 that found Buttigieg was supported by 6 percent of white Democratic voters in South Carolina, and 0 percent of the state’s Democrats. More broadly, it addressed the fact that Buttigieg only polls well in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

But it also refers to Buttigieg’s uneasy relationship with much South Bend’s black community, his failure to effectively address the community’s concerns about police behavior or to address the city’s de facto segregation, and his exaggerations about what his administration did for the black citizens of South Bend.

“Climate Plan Fatally Lacking”: Kohen, Berry and Stiles feel that Buttigieg’s commitment to make the United States carbon neutral by 2050 isn’t enough to address the climate crisis. “2050 is the deadline set by the IPCC, but it only has a chance of keeping average warming under the crucial 1.5° C.,” they wrote in the Press-Citizen. “In Greta Thunberg’s words, the models behind Pete’s plan ‘do not include tipping points’ and other crucial factors, creating risks that are ‘simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.’”

“We Need More Than Pete. Sincerely, Your Fellow Iowans”: As Berry explained during the interview with Little Village, “If Pete can’t do better [than he has], then Iowa needs to do better than Pete.”

Pete Buttigieg greets supporters at a campaign rally in Coralville, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The organizer who put them in their visible seats was waiting for Kohen, Berry and Stiles when they exited the bleachers.

“She just kept repeating, ‘You’re obviously uninvited,’” Kohen recalled. Campaign volunteers escorted them out of the convention center.

“We took a turn around that really nice walkway, where everyone had been standing in line, and then we went to get lunch at Z’Mariks,” Kohen said.

None of them have plans to engage in protests at the future campaign events of any candidate, but all three are glad they did what they did.

“I think for a lot of people, especially following the 2016 election, peaceful protest — especially peaceful civil disobedience — was a way forward,” Kohen said.

“I was basically convinced that, as opposed to writing an angry Facebook post, or just talking to the smaller group of people I see on a day-to-day basis — without any risk to myself — the way to reach more people and really show the extent and the depth of our belief, was to get up in front of 2,000 people — including people who have know us our entire lives — and engage in a minimally disruptive thing meant to encourage dialogue and debate.”

“It was slated as a ‘town hall,’ after all,” Berry said.


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