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Chaotic start to Trump presidency roils Florida

A crowd of protesters march down Eighth Avenue returning to Centennial Park in Ybor City in Tampa on Jan. 29. 

Concerned citizens met to protest and march against the executive order Donald Trump signed calling for a ban on Syrian refugees indefinitely, suspending all refugee immigration for 120 days and blocking citizens of seven majority Muslim countries for 90 days. (CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times)
A crowd of protesters march down Eighth Avenue returning to Centennial Park in Ybor City in Tampa on Jan. 29. Concerned citizens met to protest and march against the executive order Donald Trump signed calling for a ban on Syrian refugees indefinitely, suspending all refugee immigration for 120 days and blocking citizens of seven majority Muslim countries for 90 days. (CHARLIE KAIJO | Times)
Published Feb. 3, 2017

At first there were small flashes of discord, an unsurprising coda to a bitter election.

As Donald Trump was sworn in Jan. 20, a couple hundred people took to the streets of Miami. "Putin won it," read a sign as Back in the U.S.S.R. played. A few dozen protesters gathered in Tampa.

The following day, the crowds exploded. In Miami, 10,000 people showed up for a women's march. Twice as many assembled in St. Petersburg, the largest demonstration in city history. As rain fell in Tallahassee, 14,000 marched. Thousands more marched in Jacksonville, Sarasota and Orlando.

Days later, the unrest flared again as Trump ordered an immigration crackdown. People stormed county hall in Miami-Dade. They demanded college presidents speak up, and rushed to airports.

The first two weeks of Trump's presidency have been chaotic and divisive and the tumult is rolling across Florida. It's a sudden reversal for a state Trump won and where he maintains a broad base of support for his disruptive style.

For those affected by Trump's actions, however, it has been deeply personal, activists reanimated after a crushing defeat, their ranks swelled by people pulled into the political arena for the first time while others are skittish about speaking out.

"I'm censoring myself when I want to be screaming from the rooftops," said Bill Harting, 46, of Clearwater, whose wife is a green card holder.

The activism is notable, an array of political experts say, because of the intensity, something not seen since the 1960s.

"Every president has had a honeymoon. There has been nothing like this," said Florida-based pollster Brad Coker, cautioning it's too early to draw conclusions. "A big chunk of people in the middle are sitting on the sidelines right now waiting for the food fight to stop. If it's still a roller coaster in April or May then politically things will get interesting."

Trump's detractors will ensure the fight continues this weekend with a large demonstration planned as he visits his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach — a fresh illustration of the polarization seen across the country.

"Regardless of political persuasion, this should concern you," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a veteran Republican strategist and outspoken Trump critic in Tallahassee who returned from Vietnam in December 1968 to see protesters clashing with police. "It hasn't reached that magnitude. But this is not business as usual.

"At the risk of being melodramatic, I feel like we are at a pivotal moment in the history of the country," he added. "The president is determined to bull his way through, to teach people a lesson, to show them the new world. A lot of things are going to be broken in the process, even if he succeeds."

Like the Women's March in Washington, the mirror events in cities across the country on Jan. 21 were spurred by Facebook and other social media. "Bernie Sanders talked about how the only way things are going to change is if people demand it," Gale Erin, 63, of Port Orange told the Orlando Sentinel that day, noting she had never attended a political rally. "That's what the tea party did. So the Democrats are going to have to do that, and it will work."

That remains to be seen but Trump has continued to fan the opposition. When he called for a crackdown on "sanctuary cities" that protect undocumented immigrants, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez responded by ordering jails to hold immigrants for federal authorities. "Right decision. Strong!" Trump responded. Angry crowds have gathered outside county hall in protest, accusing Gimenez of selling out the immigrant community.

Larger demonstrations surfaced following Trump's executive order calling for an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees and a temporary restriction on people from Muslim-majority countries. People showed up at airports in Miami, Orlando and Tampa, angry and tearful.

"Something changed after Nov. 8," said Juan Cuba, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democrats. "I don't think people saw how fragile our democracy is. They are angry, they are scared and the first days of the Trump administration have really showed what's at stake."

Cuba, 31, was rethinking his place in politics after the election. "But to see people go to the streets has been inspiring and has given me hope we can fight back."

Trump's immigration moves caused turmoil on colleges campuses, still reeling from an election that saw racist vandalism scrawled on dormitory walls and anti-Semitic fliers circulated at the University of Florida. Students have rallied and marched across the state to disavow Trump's platform and to demand a response from college leaders.

A Trump supporter said he was tackled during a march at UF, and after fraternity members waved a Trump flag at marchers, their house was spray-painted with swastikas. In late January, a man wearing a swastika armband on UF's campus sparked protests and had his jacket torn off and burned.

University presidents have responded to student outcry in mass emails and letters, including pleas for Trump to denounce acts of hate done in his name and to shield undocumented students who arrived in the United States as children. (For now, the "Dreamers" are not under threat of deportation as the Trump administration has signaled serious criminals are targets.)

"Speak up, Judy," USF students implored president Judy Genshaft, who waited several days before releasing a tepid statement about Trump's travel ban. At USF, 123 students from the list of seven banned countries are enrolled for the spring semester. Genshaft and other leaders have urged affected students to stay put and have sought to reaffirm the importance of diversity to the university mission.

That won't help Mehdi Zeyghami, a 34-year-old Iranian getting a Ph.D at USF. He had returned home to care for his mother after open-heart surgery and was due to return. Then came Trump's order and his visa was denied. "I feel like I'm losing everything," he told the Times in a telephone interview last week.

Trump's actions have reverberated in less dramatic ways. His continued false statements that millions of illegal votes were cast nationally for Hillary Clinton have put elections officials in a defensive posture. "It undermines voters' confidence in the process," said Seminole County elections supervisor Mike Ertel, a Republican. "Too often a charge unanswered is a charge believed. Yes, there is voter fraud, but three to five million illegal votes were not cast in this election."

Trump's rhetoric toward Mexico led to the cancellation of a visit from President Enrique Peña Nieto and a meeting of Mexican and Florida business leaders set for later this month in Orlando was abruptly canceled. What's more, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio fretted that changes to a visa waiver program could hurt the state economy.

Through it all, Trump can count on his supporters, who praise him for keeping campaign promises. "It seems like he has a lot of energy and his executive orders have been great," said Chris Happel, 20, who studies political science at USF.

He said he sympathizes with people held up by the immigration order but understands where Trump is coming from. "We live in a dangerous world so unfortunately we have to take actions that limit who comes into the country." The news media and critics are unfairly rushing to criticize Trump, he said. "I don't see him as an authoritarian figure or a nationalist or anything like that. I think it's pretty ridiculous that anyone would think that."

Rebecca DeBoer, 70, of Tampa served as co-chair of Trump's campaign in Hillsborough County and is similarly pleased. "I have no problem with peaceful protests. That's what this country was made of. But the things I saw with the women's march, all the pink vaginas on them, I was appalled and embarrassed. Us older women have worked hard to have credibility and be looked up to. … These groups are taking women back 50 years."

She sighed when asked what she would say to Trump critics who call him a threat to American democracy.

"I would tell them I know just how they feel," she said. "I felt the same way under eight years of Barack Obama and we all lived through that. I hope they'll do what I did, and that's put country first, put their fellow citizens first, put their head down and start working and making it a better country for those of us already here."

Times staff writers Tony Marrero and Claire McNeill and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.