A few days before South Bend, Indiana Mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was set to deliver the keynote address for the Dallas County Democrats’ annual Johnson-Jordan Dinner on Friday, the militant anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ extremist Randall Terry published a brief press release on his website, announcing his intention to hold a protest outside of the dinner. Throughout the past two months, Terry, along with a handful of his supporters, have sporadically appeared at Buttigieg campaign events, targeting the 37-year-old Democratic phenom because of his sexual orientation and his marriage to husband Chasten.
Because I was already scheduled to be in Dallas this weekend, my brother and I decided to purchase tickets to the dinner. I’d actually stumbled across Terry’s announcement the night before; it appeared in a Google News alert I’d set up for Mayor Pete (I have similar news alerts for about a dozen other candidates). Terry wasn’t exactly being coy about his plans. Along with his brief statement and a pitch for donations, he later included a photograph of the protestors standing in front of his van, which is wrapped with statements of condemnation against abortion and marriage equality.
Various national and Texas media outlets have reported, briefly, on what occurred during Buttigieg’s speech last night: Five separate protestors managed to sneak into the formal dinner, four of whom shouted over him with homophobic slurs, coordinating the timing of their interruptions to ensure maximum disruption.
After a Dallas reporter tweeted a video of a female protestor being escorted out of the room (the only protestor who shouted condemnation of abortion and not homosexuality, though the reporter noted the others were focused on condemning Buttigieg for being gay), fellow presidential candidate and native Texan Beto O’Rourke responded through his Twitter account: “Texans don’t stand for this kind of homophobia and hatred. Mayor Pete, we are grateful you came to Texas and hope to see you and Chasten back again soon.”
As luck would have it, my brother and I were randomly assigned to sit at a table in the back center of the room, directly in front of the press and only fifteen or twenty feet away from three of the five protestors. Here is a brief video my brother recorded of one of the protestors being escorted out of the room:
Based on what I observed, there were a few things that- in hindsight- could have been done to prevent Terry and his followers from sneaking into the ticketed dinner and shouting homophobic slurs at their keynote speaker, and perhaps what happened in Dallas can be a cautionary lesson for organizers and planners of future events.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Because we arrived nearly an hour before the dinner began, I’d actually already seen all five of the people who snuck in; they were among the group of about dozen protestors who stood on the right-of-way directly in front of the hotel’s entrance. They weren’t wearing disguises or attempting, in any way, to conceal their identities. In fact, I was struck by how strange it seemed that one of the women gathered outside was wearing a formal-looking dress.
Although Buttigieg has emerged as a top-tier candidate, his campaign operation is still rather lean. They only had one “advanced planner” staff member in Dallas last night. Had there been more, presumably, it would have been more likely that someone who had seen Terry’s group at prior events could have cautioned security and the hosts not to let them inside of the venue.
The Buttigieg Bump
That said, because of how quickly and how highly Buttigieg’s star has risen in the past three months, it was impossible for organizers to have known in advance exactly how popular this year’s event would prove to be. According to Carol Donovan, the chairwoman of the Dallas Democratic Party, Buttigieg had generated more interest than any other previous speaker in the organization’s history. Last night, there were nearly 700 guests in attendance. By contrast, last year, Cory Booker had drawn 500 guests, their previous record.
Two hours before the dinner began, photojournalist Marcus DiPaola tweeted that there was already a line of people assembled outside of the hotel, hoping to earn a spot on a wait list, in the event of no-shows. Another party official told me privately that they could have sold twice as many tickets as they had, but because the venue had already been reserved months in advance, it would have been a logistical nightmare for them to abruptly change locations.
As it turned out, it still ended up being logistical nightmare.
The surge in interest resulted in a chaotic scene at the venue’s entrance. Most guests hadn’t actually received tickets, so they crammed into make-shift lines in front of fold-out registration tables. Anyone who didn’t have a ticket and wasn’t interested in the airline chicken they were serving simply had to walk around the line to make their way inside. No doubt, that’s exactly what the five protestors realized. Only one of them appeared to have actually reserved a seat; the others clustered in the back of the room.
City of Hate or City of Love?
To many of those in attendance, the repeated interruptions of Buttigieg by aggressive and bigoted protestors was an embarrassing and painful reminder of the worst moment in Dallas history, when another presidential campaign came to town on November 22, 1963.
My brother and I were seated next to two public school teachers, who told us that this was the very first time they had ever attended a formal dinner hosted by a political party. Both of them were women in their mid-forties, and both of them said they were there because Pete Buttigieg inspired them.
After the fourth interruption, one of the teachers asked me if this was a commonplace occurrence at events like these. “Not really,” I said, and then, almost at the same time, we both said aloud, like a rhetorical question, the same thing: “City of hate,” the moniker that Dallas earned after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
It is impossible to overstate the collective psychic wound that New Orleans native Lee Harvey Oswald inflicted on the city of Dallas. Nearly 56 years later, it still lingers, though Dallas has invested a fortune in rebranding itself as a “city of love,” purposely confronting and repudiating its shameful reputation.
The truth, though, is that Randall Terry isn’t from Dallas; he lives in Washington, D.C. And it’s more likely than not that the people who snuck into the Buttigieg event to protest his basic existence as a human being were not from Dallas either.
In other words, in America today, this could’ve happened anywhere.