Protesters gather in Philadelphia to meet GOP congressional retreat

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They marched for the Affordable Care Act and women’s reproductive rights, and against mass incarceration and racism. They chanted against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock and for increased education funding. No Republican was immune from their ire, from President Trump and Betsy DeVos to Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey.

The thousands of protesters who hit the streets of Center City Thursday were driven there by every cause under the sun. But they were united in their fury against GOP and the changes Trump has made or promised since taking office just a week ago.

“I want to be a strong persistent voice in this resistance. I hope at some point, we’re listened to,” said protester Kathi Kehmna, 57, of Santa Cruz, California, who came to the East Coast for last weekend’s Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and stayed this week to visit her daughter, who lives in Philadelphia. “With every cabinet pick, with every confirmation, I’m stunned, because the people that are put in there are really the antithesis of what those agencies are for. It’s a mockery of our democracy.”

By breakfast-time, protesters were already gathering outside the Loews Hotel at 13th and Market streets, where Trump addressed GOP leaders in town a three-day retreat. By lunchtime, thousands of other protesters had amassed at Thomas Paine Plaza near City Hall to listen to speakers denounce Trump and Republican policies, while exhorting listeners to make change by becoming more active in politics and their communities.

As the morning’s rainy skies gave way to sun, the crowd at Paine Plaza marched around City Hall to join those gathered outside the hotel, where they roared their discontent in hopes the politicians inside would hear.

“Trump needs to understand that I don’t agree with anything that he stands for,” said Kimberly Burrell, 45, a mother of four from Southwest Philadelphia. “We will not be treated as third-class citizens in a country that our forefathers helped build. We have rights, and systematically, he is trying to take away our rights.”

A dozen or more people in wheelchairs affiliated with the disability-rights group ADAPT led the march, with most carrying signs and expressing concerns about Republican threats to cut Medicaid funding.

“I’m here to make sure we continue to get the services, mainly that we stay in our homes. If they cut Medicaid, I will end up in a nursing home,” said Norma Robertson Dabrowski, 50, of Roxborough, who is quadriplegic.

Joanne Parker, 78, of Cobbs Creek, stood near the hotel in hopes that the president might see her sign with the words: “Show us your taxes!!!”

“I’m out here because he paid no taxes, and I’m 78 years old, and I’m still paying taxes,” Parker said. “He’s supposed to pay taxes. Everybody pays taxes, so what’s his problem?”

Trump’s uncouth talk also soured Parker.

“This talk that he talks – he has divided this country down the middle. It’s not right,” she said. “Here he comes with all this rhetoric, talking about what he do to women and what he grabs. What kind of person is that? Does anybody want that kind of president? I think not.”

Erik Lipson does. He was one of a few Trump supporters who tried to catch a glimpse of Trump when he arrived for the retreat. “I can only imagine how lonely it must be being such an insurgent,” said Lipson, 55, of Northern Liberties, about Trump. If he could talk to the president, Lipson said, he’d tell him: “Keep up your faith of making things great again.”

Bill Donohue, 60, a lifelong Democrat from North Philadelphia who voted for Trump, agreed: “There were things about Trump I had some reservations about – he’s got diarrhea of the mouth, he’s rude, he’s crude. That was problematic. But what he does is more important than what he says. When I was listening to what he was saying that needed to be done, that was the key thing, because he was right on the money, specifically about saving jobs. He already has saved thousands of jobs.”

But Trump supporters were definitely in the minority Thursday, at least on the streets of Philadelphia.

As evening fell, about 1,000 protesters hit the pavement again in a rally organized by Black Lives Matter. The demonstrators started at Rittenhouse Square, marched to the Loews Hotel, and then marched around Center City streets during rush-hour. 

The second massive protest of the day drew a younger, more diverse crowd, who mostly marched in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, sanctuary cities, refugees, and other issues affecting people of color. 

“Keep punching Richard Spencer!” some chanted. Later, they shouted: “No walls! No registry! F*** white supremacy!”

Some others marching were there to support the ACA . They took part in a a so-called “die-in,” near retreat site, where protesters fell to the ground as a demonstration against getting rid of President Barack Obama’s health law.

It’s this issue that brought out Elise Smith of Bucks County, who was being pushed in a wheelchair by her friend, Daniel Julius.

“If they get rid of pre-existing conditions, or I would either be un-insurable, or I would not be able to afford the payment. That’s it. It’s ACA, or nothing,” Smith said. 

For Valerie Koselnick, it’s personal. She’s currently covered under an Affordable Care Act health plan.

“It is unconscionable, unethical, immoral to repeal the ACA, when there’s no clear plan with how President Trump is going to fix it,” Koselnick said.

Virgine Adam, a medical writer in Center City, says a Trump presidency is taking the nation in the wrong direction. “People in my generation have kind of taken it for granted that the world was a peaceful, democratic place, and now we’re confronted with the fact that it might all crumble,” said Adam, 33. “We all have to keep doing this, and showing the world we are not happy with what’s taking place.”

Near the Loews Hotel, Police Commissioner Richard Ross watched the protesters with other police officers. As of 5 p.m., he was pleased there were yet to be any protests or clashes.

“By and large, everyone has been peaceful and cooperative with us. You know the template we take, pretty much hands-off and respectful of everyone’s right to demonstrate and protest,” Ross said. “A lot of these folks have been great. They’re just exercising their constitutional right, and we don’t have a problem with that.” 

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