HUNTINGTON — Thousands of people gathered outside the Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Huntington on Thursday, awaiting President Donald Trump’s arrival for a rally.
The first visitors arrived early Wednesday afternoon. While there were no clear estimates of people waiting outside, the 9,000-seat arena was near capacity minutes before the president’s speech started.
Organizers said people traveled from as far as New York to attend the rally.
Visitors initially were lined up at the arena, with local Republican Party organizers telling them where to stand. But at around 2 p.m., two hours before the arena was to open, people ran toward the doors, forming a large crowd in front of the entrance.
Huntington police officers said they weren’t sure why the crowd mobbed the doors, but there were no injuries reported.
Leslie Robinson, of Roane County, woke up early to make the drive to Huntington. He arrived at the arena early and stood wearing a military uniform in the 80-degree heat.
He said it’s worth it to see the commander-in-chief. Robinson said he had been in and out of the military for more than four decades.
“This gentleman, I think he really wants to do well for our country,” Robinson said of Trump. “I want to support that.”
Celia Hatfield, of Salt Rock, brought her 11-year-old granddaughter, Madison Tooley, to the event. They wore matching denim hats with “USA” written in rhinestones.
“It’s very rare that you get to meet the president,” she said, “especially one that we are all excited about.”
Hatfield said she would be listening closely to Trump’s policies.
“We want to see what he can do to help the economy around here in West Virginia,” Hatfield said. “I see a lot of people that don’t have jobs and are struggling. I hope he can bring more jobs to this area.”
At least 400 people protested across from the arena, holding signs and chanting. The protests were organized by several groups, including the March for Science in Huntington and the Women’s March in Charleston.
Austin Johnson, 16, drove with his friends from South Point, Ohio. They held multiple signs, including a Bernie Sanders campaign sign and others that read, “Tweet women with respect” and “Make racists afraid again.”
“Whenever Trump is violating human rights and trying to tear apart families, it’s time for everyone to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Johnson said. “We need to come together as one and fight back.”
While he and his friends aren’t old enough to vote, they said Trump’s policies have hit them firsthand. He said some visitors at the rally screamed at him and other teenagers, but he refused to be afraid.
“This election has sparked outrageous communications between my friends and even my family,” Johnson said.
Nancy Bandy, of Huntington, said she joined several political organizations after the election because she was appalled by Trump’s comments during the campaign.
“How can that man be my president?” she said. “He just cares about himself.”
In Republican-trending West Virginia, Bandy said she sometimes feels out of place. She said she’ll try to share her opinions, but the only way she thinks she could be heard is protesting with others.
“It helps to belong to a group that believes the same things you do,” Bandy said. “It can, at least, make you feel like you’re not alone in the world.”
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