PITTSBURGH, PA—As President Donald Trump visited the Tree of Life synagogue, where a gunman killed 11 people in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, a throng of protesters snaked through the neighborhood, filling Squirrel Hill with activity for the first time since the massacre on Saturday.
At one point, a line of police vehicles separated Trump and first lady Melania Trump and their motorcade from people holding signs reading “Hate Has No Home in Pittsburgh,” “Make America Kind Again,” and “Trump’s Lies Kill.”
The demonstrators filled several blocks and organizers in front of the procession kept in constant communication with police to route through the neighborhood. The crowd marched across several city blocks, walking from one intersection to a spot as close to Tree of Life as police would allow and then taking a residential street to Forbes and Murray, the neighborhood’s main nexus, to continue the rally outside Sixth Presbyterian Church.
The march was equal parts protest and grieving ritual. Guitarist Julie Newman and singer Sara Stock Mayo led the group in song with a bullhorn and other portable amplifiers: “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” and “Ozi v’zimrat Yah” were sang in repetition, with some words in Hebrew and some in English. Marchers were guided by a set of instructions passed out beforehand. “And if we build this world from love / Then God will build this world from love” rang out across the neighborhood. Newman also led an impromptu singalong of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
When the crowd reached the part of their path closest to Tree of Life, just after the Trumps scattered white roses outside, one organizer (group leaders declined to give out some of their compatriots’ names because of “safety concerns”) led the group in a take on the ritual kriah, the tearing of a small symbolic piece of clothing worn throughout the Jewish mourning process, shiva. “Kriah is the tearing of one’s clothes or cutting a black ribbon,” she explained. “This rending is an expression of grief to show we are not whole because of the loss of life.”
In the most poignant moment, neighbors paired up, holding the black paper with each pinching an end. They paused for a moment in mid-rip and then tore it. Afterward, many embraced in hugs.
With most of the main streets of the neighborhood closed to car traffic, a group sat in a circle on Forbes Avenue, replicating the ritual of sitting and accepting visitors after a death in a family.
The sun shone in the neighborhood for the first since Saturday. In the 72 hours after the mass shooting, a constant patter of rain has pelted the stunned residents and the amassments of flowers left on street corners. The skies were clear today. Police cars, with their lights flashing, moved slowly ahead of the procession. Such cruisers and flickers of red and blue have been omnipresent in Squirrel Hill since Saturday, but today they guided a path instead of just blocking roads in front of the crime scene.
It was an unprecedented response to a sitting president visiting the scene of a national tragedy. A former rabbi and president of Tree of Life had asked Trump not to come and Mayor Bill Peduto told the president to wait until after the funerals for the 11 people murdered. Congressional leaders from both parties, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Peduto all declined to accompany or meet with Trump, who was joined by his wife Melania, daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner as they visited the synagogue and then the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where he met with four wounded officers and Peg Gottfried, the widow of Richard Gottfried, who was shot down Saturday.
Many residents of Squirrel Hill, a Jewish enclave, expressed opposition to the president’s visit over his embrace of nationalism and what they see as his failure to denounce white supremacist activity with ideological roots parallel to the anti-immigrant rants the alleged gunman—who disdained Trump as insufficiently nationalist—left online.
“I’m here today because the events that took place are a tragedy,” said Christian Carpenter, 20, a University of Pittsburgh student, “one such that we’ve been seeing for far too long in this country.” He added that it was “disrespectful” for Trump to show up against the expressed wishes of the city’s mayor and some of its Jewish leaders.
“I’m not a fan of what he does and what he thinks about our country,” said his companion Zoe Pawliczek, also a 20-year-old Pitt student. “I think it’s important everybody stand up and show what they think and I don’t think he should have visited Pittsburgh. I think he should have respected everyone’s wishes. I think it’s a really important time to show respect and love to everyone and that’s not what he does.”