'Impeach this': Trump backers, foes joust before rally in Battle Creek

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Battle Creek — Supporters of President Donald Trump clashed with impeachment supporters Wednesday outside Kellogg Arena but stayed civil in the frigid weather before the president's Christmas-themed rally here.

Greg Leffew, who works in a steel plant, wore a red “Make America Great Again” ball cap. Hog farmer Diane Pridgeon’s blue hat bore the caption: “Make lying wrong again.”

On a bitterly cold night, with a divisive impeachment vote looming, they were among a group of Trump’s supporters and critics who huddled over a fire pit in Wave Square, a small park in downtown Battle Creek, two blocks north of Kellogg Arena, where Trump was set to hold a rally.

“I’m not about fighting with people just because they don’t agree with me,” said Leffew, 25 of Monroe.

Pridgeon, 70, who runs a pig farm with her husband in Montgomery, Michigan, agreed. 

“There’s plenty of room to engage in conversation without fighting,” she said. “This is what we need as a country.”

Tony Garn, 50, was among a group of five who drove from Coldwater to protest Trump. He said he enjoyed sharing a fire with supporters of the president.

“Hey, man, we’re all human beings — we all got to stay warm,” said the disabled Army veteran, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division in Operation Desert Storm.

The group dispersed after about 20 minutes later and followed several hundred anti-Trump protesters as they marched up Jackson Street toward the arena. Both sides joined larger pro- and anti-Trump groups and began hurling slogans and insults — and jokes — at each other. The atmosphere was like a high school football game between rivals.

Linda Bradley, Grand Haven, 55, came to protest Trump and ended up having a cordial conversation with a member of the right-wing group Proud Boys that ended with a smile and a fist bump.

“We were just talking about our philosophies, and what we feel about the system, and why we’re in the situation we’re in right now,” Bradley said. “We both believe that it’s corporate influence. We have a lot of things in common, but he’s willing to vote against the system by putting Trump in power, and I’m not willing to vote against the system to put someone in power who’s going to further tear it down."

Linda Bradley, Grand Haven, 55, came to protest President Donald Trump Wednesday and ended up having a cordial conversation with a member of the right-wing group Proud Boys that ended with a smile and a fist bump. December 18, 2019

The six hours of impeachment debate finished after 8 p.m. and the House voted to impeach Trump on at least one of the two articles of impeachment around 8:35 p.m. A vote was pending on the second article. 

"It's b------t. Impeach this," said Nina Horbath, 60 of Rockwood, when asked what she thought of the impeachment proceedings. She said she came for "the fun, the camaraderie" and to support Trump.

Dave Roderick, 46, Bronson and Doug Kaylor, 61 of Gaines, struck up a conversation. 

"I’m here for the Constitution. I don’t care about the politics," said Kaylor, who was wearing an "Impeach Trump" shirt. "If you can’t support the Constitution and stop this foreign influence, then it’s a lost cause.”

Roderick said he was attending the rally "to witness one of the biggest moments in United States history.”

Michigan Democrats held a quick press conference where Chairwoman Lavora Barnes accused Trump of breaking promises to residents of the state that he carried by 10,704 votes in 2016.

"We’re working every day, putting boots on the ground and knuckles on the doors to hold this president accountable for his broken promises," Barnes said. "It worked in 2018 when Democrats throughout this state swept into office riding a blue wave of Michigan voters who rejected this failed president. And it’s going to work in 2020.”

Thousands of people wait in line to get inside Kellogg Arena for a rally for President Donald Trump, in Battle Creek, December 18, 2019.

Scott Tefft, 57 of Livonia, said Democrats are "outnumbered" at the Battle Creek rally, but impeachment is the right course.

"History is in the making," Tefft said, adding that impeaching Trump is "revenge for Clinton’s impeachment (in 1999). ... Two wrongs do make a right."

But rally attendees weren't buying the arguments. 

"The last president  to come this way was George W. Bush," said Ben McCloud, 25, of Battle Creek. "I think this is interesting, especially when he’s being impeached. It doesn’t sound like there’s much to (the impeachment); it seems pretty partisan.”

Bishop Tino Smith, director of the Kingdom Builders Worldwide church and community center in Battle Creek, said he was pleased to be invited to the rally.

“I’m here as a non-partisan," said Smith, 54. "If the president comes to our city, and I’m invited, I think I should come to that. I might not support everything about him, but if he can help bring some government programs to our city, it’s worth having that conversation.”

Linda Pascoe of Battle Creek, a lone protester in favor of impeachment, yells at Trump supporters waiting in line for a rally for President Trump.

Kiana Longnecker, 35, of Newaygo said she was attending "to spend time outside with my fellow Americans and the wonder of the president of the United States 

The Republican president typically draws huge crowds to his rallies, and the piercing cold on a sunny day seemed to prove profitable for at least one nearby pub and eatery.

Griffin's Grill & Pub was doing a brisk business a few blocks from the arena.

"We don’t know quite what to expect today, but we will be ready for it,” said Paul Conkey, owner of Griffin’s Grill & Pub.

Conkey ordered T-shirts for his staff to appeal to both Republicans and Democrats. On the front of the shirts is the GOP elephant symbol with the phrase “Be polite even if you are right,” and on the back, the Democrat donkey with “Do not shout because you are left out.”

“We have people who work here from both sides,” said Conkey, who bought the pub 14 years ago. “We have a couple rules here: We don’t talk politics, and we don’t talk religion. We come here to get away from the craziness.“

Paul Conkey, owner of Griffin’s Grill & Pub near where President Trump will speak Wednesday, ordered T-shirts for his staff to appeal to both Republicans and Democrats. On the front is the GOP elephant symbol with “Be polite even if you are right." On the back, there is the Democrat donkey with “Do not shout because you are left out.”

The pub’s many television sets were tuned to Fox News and CBS broadcasting the impeachment, along with ESPN. Conkey said the TVs are usually tuned to sports, which he said is neutral — “as long as it’s not Ohio State,” he joked.

“Sometimes customers will complain that the TVs might be tune to Fox News or CNN,“ Conkey said. “But that’s just what happens to be on at the moment. We stay down the middle here.”