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Rally, chant spark outrage; city leaders respond

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Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly shakes hands with President Donald Trump at Pitt-Greenville Airport after Trump landed to attend his "Keep America Great" campaign rally at East Carolina University.

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Friday, July 19, 2019

City leaders defended Greenville as a diverse, inclusive and compassionate community on Thursday in response to a growing wave of condemnation from all corners of the country prompted by chants of "send her back" during President Donald J. Trump’s rally at ECU’s Minges Coliseum.

A storm of outrage via email, telephone and social media painting the city as a bastion for fascists and racists prompted statements from leaders including Mayor P.J. Connelly. Wednesday's rally also has at least one leader of an alumni association chapter calling on East Carolina University interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach to release a statement condemning the crowd’s reaction.

A large number of people in the audience at the president’s “Keep America Great” rally chanted “send her back” after the president said Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has made anti-American statements and has supported terrorist organizations. The chant referred to weekend when the president tweeted “... if you’re not happy, you can leave ...” about Omar and three other women who are freshman representatives.

The president on Thursday also distanced himself from the crowd’s response. Multiple news organizations reported that at an Oval Office event honoring members of the U.S. Special Olympics team, the president said, “I wasn’t happy with the message they gave last night ... I was not happy when I heard that chant.” The president said he tried to stop the crowd by starting to speak “very quickly” but video shows he was quiet and listened to the chant for several seconds.

Along with social media comments, The Daily Reflector, the City of Greenville and the Greenville-Pitt County Convention and Visitors Bureau received telephone calls and emails about the event.

“I am extremely disappointed and disheartened by the chant that took place at the president’s rally last night,” Connelly said in a statement released at 5 p.m. He did not accept a an interview request.

Connelly's statement said the city was a diverse place of compassion and acceptance. He said regardless of regardless of race, religion or political beliefs, everyone is welcome in the community.

“Hate will never have a place in our community,” Connelly said. “The behavior that was on display last night (Wednesday) is not reflective of the Greenville I know and love.”

A spokesman for the city said staff received about 15 calls related to the rally on Thursday from people who watched online streams of the event.

A comment on the city’s Facebook page called Greenville, "a bastion of intolerance and racism” and asked “Is your city really that racist?” Call and emails to The Daily Reflector took a similar tone. One called the event "blatantly racist, misogynistic, xenophobic and as close to a fascist rally as anything we have ever seen in this country."

State representative and congressional candidate Greg Murphy joined the president on stage later in the speech. Asked his reaction to the audience’s chant, Murphy said the audience was caught up in the energy of the moment.

“Now that I’ve heard the chant, I think it was an unfortunate choice of words,” Murphy said. “I think people are unhappy with some of the anti-American rhetoric coming from members of Congress and I think that pent-up frustration could have been expressed better.”

Murphy is the Republican candidate in the 3rd Congressional District special election to fill the seat of the late Walter B. Jones Jr. During the 2016 presidential election, Trump won the 17-county district with 22 percent lead.

Some social media commenters said the crowd did not reflect the Greenville community because Democrat Hilary Clinton won nearly 52 percent of Pitt County’s vote in 2016 versus Trump’s 44 percent of the vote. Indeed, many at the rally came to Greenville from outside Pitt County and outside North Carolina.

Asked about the outrage, an ECU spokeswoman repeated an earlier statement that the university didn’t host or sponsor the event, it just rented its facilities to the Trump campaign.

“As a public university, we must follow federal, state and UNC-System guidelines regarding free speech,” she wrote in an email.

Wayne Sampson, a member of the Los Angeles Chapter of the ECU Alumni Association, said more is needed. He wants the chancellor to release a statement that the university doesn’t support the crowd’s reaction.

“Our school’s name is in the press and it’s not in the press for doing good things; it’s in the press for racist, xenophobic chanting and hate speech,” said Sampson, a 2008 graduate of ECU.

Sampson said the university’s students and alumni expect more from the chancellor.

“I feel the chancellor of the university should make a statement denouncing that (speech) and the school does not support that, does not stand behind that and that is not who the community is,” Sampson said. “I think he has an obligation to current students and alumni to make a statement that the university doesn’t support that type of speech and that’s not who we are as a university.”

Growing up in the Fayetteville and attending ECU, Sampson said he witnessed occasional acts of racism. Everyone knows racism exists, he said, “but I don’t think it was as in you face as that, at least not that loud. I think it’s fair to say it was a modern-day Klan rally.”

Andrew Schmidt, executive director of the Greenville-Pitt County Convention & Visitors Bureau, the organization that promotes travel and tourism in Greenville and Pitt County, said his office received five or six telephone calls on Thursday morning.

“I think the majority of people were people just expressing concern,” Schmidt said. So far, no organization has said it would cancel any event planned through his office.

“We are a destination and marketing organization for Greenville-Pitt County and our message is all people are welcome here," he said. "I think people have seen that message before and hopefully they’ll see it again in the future."

Uptown Greenville, a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing the city center business district, received no telephone calls, said President and CEO Bianca Shoneman.

“I certainly hope this event, which has gotten a lot of national level press, does not have a long-term impact on Greenville's brand because it’s a great place to raise your family, a great place to live,” Shoneman said. “I believe in my heart there are signs in our city that say we are building an inclusive community and there are actions every day that point to that inclusivity.”

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.

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