When high school senior Thomas Hill learned that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump was speaking just across the river from his hometown of Augusta, Georgia, he wanted to take the opportunity to confront the increasingly popular candidate on his rhetoric painting Latino immigrants as criminals. A few hours later, video of his ejection from the rally, and Trump honoring the men who roughed him up, went viral.
“I have so many friends who are immigrants here, and I’m Puerto Rican,” the 18-year-old told ThinkProgress. “Trump’s policies about immigrants are really scary. I have always said that if you have a problem with something you should exercise your right to protest, so I thought I needed to practice what I preach, and let [Trump] know that people do oppose him.”
Armed with only a homemade sign reading, “Keep America Great, Keep All Immigrants,” Hill joined hundreds of others at Trump’s rally in North Augusta, South Carolina on Tuesday. As he waited in line for nearly an hour, a campaign volunteer informed the crowd that should they see or hear protesters, they should not touch them, but instead should drown them out by chanting Trump’s name. This has become a standard message at Trump rallies, following several instances of supporters violently attacking demonstrators.
Yet Hill says the warning did not deter the two men who grabbed him during the rally after he silently raised his sign.
“I held my poster up for about five minutes before someone came behind me and ripped it out of my hands,” Hill told ThinkProgress. “When I attempted to put what was left of the poster up in the air, he pulled my arm, then grabbed my hoodie and started to choke me with it. I pulled him in towards me just to prevent him from choking me.”
Hill said no one intervened on his behalf during the scuffle, until a second man grabbed his sweatshirt.
“He kept screaming at me that he was an off-duty cop and I had to do what he said,” he recounted. “I didn’t see a badge and kept asking him for one. I put my hands up and asked him to let me go, but he refused. Finally, security arrived and walked me out of the room.”
A video of the incident appears to match Hill’s description, though the off-duty officer appears to help Hill by pulling the first man off him. Other attendees nearby smile and laugh at the violent scuffle.
As Hill exited the room, flipping off the jeering audience, Trump invited the two men who grabbed and choked him on stage, praising their “courage” and giving them a chance to address the crowd.
Hill said he wasn’t planning on giving the middle finger to crowd, but hearing his attackers complimented made him “a little upset.”
“The fact that they were honored really got to me,” he said. “I was upset that violence like that was being condoned. I was expecting to be attacked, but I wasn’t expecting Trump himself to kind of say thank you to these guys.”
As Trump’s popularity grows in South Carolina, where he is expected to place first or second in Saturday’s primary, Hill says he’s seen the candidate’s influence on public discourse around immigrants and people of color. In nearly every campaign speech, Trump has linked immigrants to terrorism, crime, sexual violence, job loss, and heroin trafficking, and Hill says he has started to hear people in his community repeat these talking points.
“A lot of people are just scared by ISIS and crimes committed by illegals, even though crimes are committed every day by average U.S. citizens,” he said. “I think the fearmongering [Trump] has been doing has really gotten to people. It’s been kinda scary, to be honest, seeing so many people I know who aren’t even racist or that conservative slowly start to listen to him. Since he’s become more popular, I’ve heard more and more people talk about how illegals are stealing jobs and need to be dealt with.”
Though Hill was quickly removed from Trump’s rally as the crowd enthusiastically booed him and cheered his attackers, he told ThinkProgress he still believes he made an important impact.
“When the protests [against Trump] were more prominent, early on, that seemed to jar people. They thought, ‘Oh, people do oppose him. I should listen to what they have to say too. But now he’s gotten more powerful and people are believing him more. I’m concerned what he’s saying could become widely accepted if we don’t speak up now.”
This post has been updated with a video of the incident.