Politics

Joe Biden Visited Houston On Friday. Protestors Were There To Greet Him

Where the president goes, so do demonstrations. And Houstonians showed up to the Houston Food Bank to have their voices heard.

Demonstrators outside the Houston Food Bank on Feb. 26, 2021, during a visit from President Joe Biden. Protestor Yosef Kidane, part of Houston’s Tigray community, said they were demanding action to help the Ethiopian region that has seen atrocities in recent months.

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President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden made their first visit to Houston since the election on Friday, making a stop at the Houston Food Bank, where they helped pack food and water for people still struggling from last week’s winter storm.

But outside the food bank, demonstrators were waiting.

They were there to protest human rights abuses. They were there to protest immigration policies. And some were even there to protest the very legitimacy of Biden’s presidency, spouting conspiracy theories about a stolen election.

Yosef Kidane, joined by other members of Houston’s Tigray community, showed up to bring attention to atrocities in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian and Eritrean forces took control of the town of Axum in the Tigray region last year, committing what Amnesty Internation has called war crimes, the Washington Post reported. One massacre by Eritrean troops may even be a crime against humanity, according to a report from the human rights group.

A demonstrator holds a sign outside the Houston Food Bank during President Joe Biden’s visit on Feb. 26, 2021.

Hundreds were likely killed in November when Eritrean soldiers conducted house-to-house searches and shot civilians on the street, according to the Post.

“Imagine that happening to a place like Houston for three months,” Kidane said. “We have a population of 6 million people who are really unaccounted for in this world, and no one’s really paying attention to us.”

Kidane and others demanded action from the Biden administration, with people chanting things like “stop the Genocide,” “stop the hunger,” and “Eritrean troops out of Tigray.”

As the largest financial contributer to the United Nations, Kidane said the administration could pressure the U.N. to deploy more resources to the Tigray for humanitarian aid. Protestors also called for the removal of occupying forces from the region.

“He needs to act immediately,” Kidane said. “Not give any concerns, not give any statements, but actually go into action.”

A man in a Donald Trump mask protests outside the Houston Food Bank during President Joe Biden’s visit on Feb. 26, 2021.

Across the street, a very different kind of demonstration was taking place.

People carried Donald Trump flags that said “Keep America Great” and “The Rules Have Changed.” A white hearse parked nearby displayed an open coffin with a prop “mail-in ballot,” in reference to conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential eleciton.

“We wanted to basically let everybody know that we still feel that the president is Donald Trump, and we wanted to show our freedom to get out here and do our rights to let everyone know that we support Trump and we feel like the election was stolen,” said Protestor Derek Smits.

The now-debunked lie from former President Donald Trump — that millions of votes were stolen or not counted in key states across the U.S. — has been cited as a main cause for the Jan. 6 insurrection, in which pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to derail the certification of the election results. Trump was impeached in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year in connection with the D.C. insurrection, though he was later acquitted by the Senate.

Donald Trump supporter Derek Smits waves a flag in support of the former president outside the Houston Food Bank during a visit from President Joe Biden on Feb. 26, 2021. Smits said the crowd was there because they “feel like the election was stolen.”

A recent poll from the Texas Tribune and the University of Texas found that just 52% of registered voters in Texas thought national election results were either “very” or “somewhat” accurate, while 30% think the results were “very inaccurate.”

For weeks, Trump and others — including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — attempted to overturn the results of the election, with unsubtantiated claims of fraud. It was later revealed that Paxton’s failed lawsuit originated with lawyers close to the Trump campaign.

In total, Trump and his supporters lost 86 lawsuits alleging fraud in states across the country.

Asked what he wants from the president, Smits said he wanted the president to “put America first.”

A Donald Trump supporter stands beside a casket outside the Houston Food Bank during President Joe Biden’s visit on Feb. 26, 2021. Inside the casket was a fake “mail-in ballot,” referencing a debunked conspiracy theory that millions of votes were stolen or not counted during the presidential election.

“He doesn’t necesarily have to be a Trumper, but (if he) would have the policies that Trump had, all these people right here would be all on board with Biden,” Smits said.

Smits said he was “pumped up” about the energy from the pro-Trump crowd, and even showed support for the demonstrators directly across from him.

“You see people across the street who don’t have the same feelings that we do,” Smits said. “But that’s OK, because that’s their right.”

That support did not extend to a pair of counterprotestors from a local immigrant civil rights group, who showed up later in the day.

Two members from FIEL Houston showed up in the afternoon in response to the pro-Trump demonstrators, prompting a shouting match between the two sides. Smits began to insult the group and hurl obscenities, as FIEL Executive Director Cesar Espinosa announced “Trump lost” over a bullhorn.

Members of FIEL Houston confront Donald Trump supporters outside of the Houston Food Bank during Joe Biden’s visit on Feb. 26, 2021.

The spur-of-the-moment decision to show up meant just Espinosa and one other FIEL member were in attenadance around 2 p.m., but the men nonetheless said they wanted to make an effort to confront the Trump supporters.

“Just like our commitment was from the very beginning of the Trump presidency, we were going to show up to wherever these folks are to try and shut them down, and to try and educate them on all of the bad things that President Trump has done, and everything bad that he stands for,” Espinosa said.

Despite giving Biden “the benefit of the doubt,” Espinosa said he was disappointed in the administration’s decision to reopen border shelters for teens that previously operated under the Trump administration, used to house unaccompanied minors crossing the border from Mexico.

The Biden administration has pushed back against such criticism, arguing that while the facilities are the same, they differ in how they’re run. Unlike the previous administration, a facility in Carrizo Springs is run by the Department of Health and Human Services, and offers both medical care and education for kids.

FIEL Executve Director Cesar Espinosa uses a bullhorn to tell protestors “Trump lost,” outside the Houston Food Bank during President Joe Biden’s visit on Feb. 26, 2021.

But Espinosa said those changes weren’t good enough, and argued that the facilities should be shut down for good. He also expressed hope that local leaders meeting with the president on Friday would press him on the issue.

“The great majority of kids that are coming over — a lot of them teenagers, a lot of them pre-teens — are coming over because they have family here in the United States, so it doesn’t make sense for us to continue to detain them,” he said. “They can definitely see their day in court outside of detention.”

Still, Espinosa said Biden’s Friday visit was important for a region still reeling from the impact of last weeks severe winter storm.

“Many people lost their lives, many people lost everything,” Espinosa said. “It’s important that he’s here, so he sees the damage firsthand. But more importantly, that he takes a snapshot of Houston, so that he knows what he’s dealing with in terms of population shift, in terms of demographic shift, in terms of language shifts in the United States in the short term.”

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