PHILADELPHIA and HARRISBURG, Pa. — About a dozen journalists at 8 a.m. Thursday flocked to the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, where supporters of President Donald Trump were expected to stage a rally demanding that election workers inside the center stop counting votes immediately, part of a right-wing effort to falsely portray the results of the 2020 presidential election as fraudulent.
But when the journalists arrived at the rally, the pro-Trump activists there were sheepish. Across the street from their demonstration were dozens of loud, energetic counterprotesters flying “Count every vote” banners and blaring music from loudspeakers.
There was even a DJ. He wore a “Leave Philly alone” T-shirt, and when he put on Chic’s “Good Times,” his fellow counterprotesters broke into the Electric Slide.
This opposing, joyous pro-democracy demonstration cast the pro-Trump event in harsh relief. The demure “Make America Great Again” folks milled about, many maskless, struggling to explain unfounded tales of Democrats destroying ballots to skeptical, masked reporters.
They carried signs with misleading messages like “Count legal votes,” implying that there’s somehow a significant number of illegal votes being counted. The signs also bore the name and logo of the Super PAC that had astroturfed this demonstration: FreedomWorks for America, a conservative group with historic ties to dark-money billionaires that was also involved in this year’s anti-lockdown demonstrations over coronavirus prevention measures.
About 10 a.m., the pro-Trump crew became briefly animated when two prominent Trump campaign surrogates — former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi — arrived to hold a press conference.
But as Bondi tried to spin yet more disinformation about alleged voter fraud in Pennsylvania, the counter-demonstrators across the street turned up the music. Beyonce’s “Party” drowned out Bondi’s lies.
Since Election Day, progressive groups across the country have mobilized to demand that every vote be counted in the 2020 election, offering strong counter-programming to a coordinated effort by the Trump campaign, the larger MAGA movement and assorted far-right propagandists to delegitimize America’s electoral process.
Part of this right-wing effort involves a series of “Stop the Steal” demonstrations across the U.S. Some took place Thursday, and still others are scheduled for Friday and this weekend.
The demonstrations have largely been organized on Facebook, and on Thursday the social media giant took down the main Stop the Steal page, which had amassed about 360,000 followers. Facebook explained in a statement that members had been “creating real-world events” and threatening violence.
“The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” a Facebook spokesperson told HuffPost.
But many other Stop the Steal event pages on Facebook were still active Thursday, including one advertising a demonstration that day in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania capital.
About 50 MAGA enthusiasts gathered on the steps of the state Capitol around noon and chanted, “Audit the vote!”
“We are not here to count every vote. We are here to count every legal vote,” organizer Scott Presler, a prominent pro-Trump activist, told the crowd through a megaphone, implying there is widespread counting of illegal ballots, which there is not.
Rally attendees wore T-shirts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory movement and waved fascist “Thin blue line” flags. They chanted, “Stop the fraud! Four more years!”
Some people driving by the Capitol honked to cheer on the MAGA rally. Others, however, screamed “Biden 2020!” out of their car windows.
One Black woman yelled “Crackers!” as she drove by the MAGA crowd, which was predominantly white. Another woman drove by and just loudly laughed.
Symphany Jones, 25, stood across the street, a Black Lives Matter mask on her face.
“I’m not surprised, growing up in Pennsylvania,” Jones, who works with homeless youth in Harrisburg, said of the assembled MAGA protesters in her hometown, explaining that she’d met many people like them before in her life. “It’s disappointing but not a surprise.”
Jones was among a group of “Count Every Vote” demonstrators who showed up at the Capitol steps for a rally of their own. Unlike their pro-Trump counterparts, however, they had a permit.
Police told the “Stop the Steal” crowd they had to move, and so Presler led them on a march to the opposite side of the Capitol.
But deprived of the dramatic backdrop of the Capitol’s front steps, the rally quickly lost any momentum it had. Many demonstrators peeled off and returned to their cars.
The pro-democracy demonstration, however, was just getting started. As the sun started to set over the Susquehanna River, the crowd grew larger and larger. Organizers handed out banners and signs. Little kids held up letters spelling out “Count every voto” — ”voto” meaning “vote” in Spanish.
The demonstration was organized in part by Casa Pennsylvania, a Latino and immigrant advocacy group.
“We’re here today to make sure that, especially all these people that voted for the first time, get their voice heard by having their vote counted,” Liz Alex, who works with CASA, told HuffPost.
“We’re all here today not supporting a candidate or a party but a process, the durable, democratic system that we have to make sure that every voter gets one vote and that all of those votes are counted,” Alex added. “That’s critical, and that supersedes any party, any candidate.”
As the demonstration was almost underway, a young white man in a red MAGA hat and a QAnon shirt walked through the crowd. He was confronted by pro-democracy demonstrators and asked to leave. He refused. Police arrived quickly and arrested him.
A short time later, the demonstration commenced with a series of prayers and speeches by local clergy. As night fell, organizers passed around little flameless plastic candles.
The demonstrators then returned home. If they’d turned on their TVs, they may have seen Trump give a meandering, downcast speech so full of lies about voter fraud that cable news channels cut away.
They also would have seen that the votes in Pennsylvania were continuing to be counted, that Biden was gaining on Trump in their state and that political observers were growing more confident that the president would be defeated in the Keystone State, and thus lose the 2020 election.
Jesselyn Cook contributed reporting.