The Palm Beach protest against Donald Trump started at 5 pm, under clouds that were cotton candy pink and blue. The colors of the westerly promenade along Flagler Drive are similarly Barbie in palette—shades of Polly Pocket or Miami Vice—if more subdued. The looming white tower of Trump Plaza, where the rally at the start of the march to Mar-a-Lago took place, stands a few hundred feet from a shiny mauve building with windows like the surface of aviator sunglasses. Palm trees swayed in the little bit of breeze that allayed the humidity of the evening.
Confusion marked the start of the proceedings. “Wrong message, wrong message!” shouted an older white woman in front of a few signs, held by some young people dressed like Occupy protesters of the beach (camo pants, black T-shirts, red scarves and bucket hats, Teva sandals).
“They’re saying ‘Fuck the police,’ that’s not what we want,” she lamented. It didn’t matter because both she and they were soon swept down the sidewalk, on which organizers had agreed to stay in an agreement with West Palm Beach PD. They didn’t have a permit, but police would “cooperate” if marchers stayed off the street and stopped at the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway that leads to Mar-a-Lago, separating West Palm from Palm Beach. The protest didn’t have the heft of those in other cities, where rows of people ten or twenty deep filled the streets. Instead it snaked its way along, slowly and orderly. You no sooner roused one thin group chant than it was swallowed up by another.
The reduced speed was also a factor of age; at least half if not more of the 3,000 people walking in the dusk seemed to be over 50. One woman pushed her friend with a bright white, wispy coif of hair in a wheelchair, while she beat her sign with a glow stick to a steady beat. Two salt-and-pepper men kissed each other as they passed another woman along the sidelines, who clapped and cooed at their display. The observers standing along the route made it feel in some places like we were in a parade, not only because many were waving American flags, drinking beer and cocktails. They handed us water bottles and Kind bars.
As the group marched farther down Flagler toward its destination at the Southern Boulevard bridge, it left downtown West Palm Beach and passed increasingly larger houses and condos, on larger lots. The sun had set, and living rooms were illuminated, their occupants dark shapes hanging over balconies and on porches, watching from across the street. Every few blocks, a small group of counter-protesters was present on their side of Flagler, with Trump signs or other paraphernalia, though their shouting was largely drowned out by the marching crowd and cars honking in support on the road. We couldn’t tell in which camp two little boys wearing boxing gloves on one corner fell, shirtless and pale, bumping their fists against each other like they were warming up for a fight. We crossed and they told us they wanted to march but their babysitter wouldn’t let them. They pointed at a young black woman standing nearby with their 4-year-old sister, also shirtless in solidarity. The 11-year-old said, “We live right near Mar-a-Lago. We hate Trump.” His little brother said he wished protestors would walk in the street. “The cops can’t do shit!” He waved his gloved fists. I asked him if he knew what concealed carry was; he didn’t. Their babysitter pleaded with them to stay on the grass of the sidewalk.
Most Flagler Drive residents observed what was happening in quiet, if they were even home. One balcony flashed a light in what marchers perceived as support, to the cheers of those down below. A woman from a high rise shouted “voter fraud!” which was met with “he won!” “Come down here so I can grab your pussy!” a middle-aged male marcher in a polo shirt yelled. As the night had darkened, it became more difficult to discern participants, neighbors, and those who seemed somewhere in the middle. A substantial, jewelry-clad elderly white woman propped a sign up along the abutment of the Intracoastal that said All Lives Matter—Even Blacks. Two couples who were on the sidewalk of the march, but sitting at the entrance to their private dock, poured wine and turned away, looking at the lights of Palm Beach proper.
Protestors eventually walked up and onto the bridge because no one stopped them. A large crowd gathered at the entrance where the media had set up, some because of a bottleneck created by a guardrail, and some because they weren’t sure whether or not to cross. A group behind a Hispanics United sign carried a coffin covered in an American flag, lifting it up and over the mass of people. When a pickup truck came down from the other side of the bridge with a Confederate flag on its bumper and its windows down, the occupants engaged protestors, who shouted into the window. The driver, a gray-haired white man, leaned out and screamed back, but drove away when West Palm cops approached, flanking out in front of the street to keep it clear for cars trying to get to or from the Red Cross gala at Mar-a-Lago. It was the second time I thought about concealed carry.
The march was finally stopped on the other side of the bridge, at the back gate of Mar-a-Lago, which looks onto the encroaching Atlantic Ocean from Palm Beach island. A police officer announced through a megaphone that anyone who crossed the street, onto the property of the resort, now the “Winter White House,” I guess, would be arrested. No one did. The halt in movement offered an opportunity to survey en masse the people who had gathered in South Florida to protest the President. There were more black and brown people present in the crowd than I had seen over two days walking around in West Palm Beach. Though there were the retirees, the middle-aged women wearing Women’s March or Hillary Clinton regalia, there were teenagers and college students; a crunchy cohort of white dreaded men and women, too.
My host for the weekend was at a gala event that night for the Norton Museum of Art, held along the protest route while it passed, though she says attendees couldn’t hear the marchers above the band. She felt heartened that so many people had attended; some very moneyed party guests had railed against Trump during the event, whose entry into Palm Beach society decades ago irked its elite members. But she said she had no idea that so many regular people would show up to the protest. The regular people, of course, had voted in the election, making Palm Beach County go blue in a red state. And there were many, many more regular people than there were not, than the people dancing and eating canapés in the gala tents on either side of the intracoastal. Assembled at the march, they were drivers, cooks, students, painters, salon workers, teachers, hotel staff, waiters. There must have been a few dozen housekeepers that walked out of the houses on Flagler Drive to cross the street, at least to look at the line of people passing. I saw one woman in a maid’s uniform sitting on the ledge along the water holding a sign whose message I couldn’t catch in the darkness, written on two paper plates.