Splitting Granite

Trump visit divides Granite City by party and by coffee shop

 A poster awaits protesters at Civic Park in Granite City, while a merchant in Trump memorabilia sets up shop at Daylight Donuts. (One Illinois/Ted Cox Photomontage: Zachary Sigelko)

A poster awaits protesters at Civic Park in Granite City, while a merchant in Trump memorabilia sets up shop at Daylight Donuts. (One Illinois/Ted Cox Photomontage: Zachary Sigelko)

By Ted Cox

The nation is torn, and the state is torn — politically as well as socially. It's one of the few things we can all agree on these days. Maybe the only thing.

But when a divisive figure like President Trump comes to a small town like Granite City — historically an industrial, working-class town of 29,000, just across and up the Mississippi River from St. Louis — the places where the social fabric is torn become especially noticeable.

Because we all make decisions every day about what we eat, what we buy, where we go. It's how we define ourselves. And those choices are weaponized in the current political environment, a phenomenon cast in relief in a small town where the choices are relatively few and the cultural divides are particularly acute.

On Thursday, as President Trump was planning to speak at an invitation-only event within the confines of the U.S. Steel Granite City Works, a protest was organized at Civic Park, kitty corner from the City Hall. It's a small, triangular park in the city center, and across the street sat a small, funky coffee shop with an "Alice in Wonderland" motif to the wall art called Kool Beanz, which really wouldn't be all that out of place in Chicago's Wicker Park.

Kool Beanz got caught in the crossfire, though, when the owner talked with a local TV station about the city and the protest. She lauded "an awesome town full of a lot of hardworking people," but also said of the planned protest that she was "hoping that doesn’t overshadow his visit and that it brings a lot of good positive attention to our city,"

Kool Beanz was already suspect for its geographical position close to the park protest and its cool vibe. Google "Kool Beanz Granite City Trump," and the second item the pops up is a Topix discussion thread beginning, "Another Good Reason Not to Patronize Kool Beanz." Yet, according to another local business owner, the conciliatory comments on TV made Kool Beanz suddenly suspect by those on the left as well.

Meanwhile, a counter-protest in support of the president was being organized at Jerry's Cafeteria (notice, not "by" Jerry's Cafeteria), a more conventional coffeehouse around the corner. That made the business a target of the left. The owner of that business was quoted in the same TV story as welcoming Trump, saying, "I think it’s great any time you have somebody of that stature coming to your area. It’s going to create a big buzz and get people out in the street moving."

Retired steelworker Gary Gaines made a point in an interview on Wednesday of insisting that the Jerry's Cafeteria owner is "a good guy" who's "taken some heat over this maybe unfairly."

On Thursday, ahead of the Trump speech and the protest, into Kool Beanz walked Kari Schipkowski and her daughter Heidi — she in a bright red Trump/Pence 2020 T-shift, and her daughter in a red "Deplorable Me" T-shirt, a mashup between the animated movie "Despicable Me" and Hillary Clinton's comment about Trump supporters being "a basket of deplorables." They'd already attracted the attention of a TV reporter for an interview outside, but were willing to sit for another.

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"I think it's a ridiculous thing myself."

Kari Schipkowski on the political divide (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Asked about the cultural divide, Schipkowski said, "I think it's a ridiculous thing myself." Asked what unity and a potential reconciliation might look like, she said, "All moving forward together. Trying to make things better together, instead of continually opposing each other just to be against each other."

She urged, "More concern, more kindness, more patience, more tolerance."

Yet, as those are not qualities typically associated with Trump, what could the president do to further those ends? "I don't know," Schipkowski said. "I think he's pretty awesome. I'm thoroughly impressed that he took the time" to come to Granite City. "He actually helped bring our mill back, which is the heart of our town. And I'm thoroughly impressed that he's taking the time out to come to our little-bitty town."

Oddly enough, Trump was to sound very much the same message hours later in his speech at the Granite City Works. The theme of it was that it's us against them, and unity is on our side, meaning his side. While touting the effects his protectionist tariffs had in reopening the mill, he tried to bring farmers who've been hurt in retaliatory tariffs in on his side by saying they had been attacked as a proxy for him: "China was trying to hurt the American farmer because that way they would hurt me."

Whether that succeeds as a political tactic remains to be seen. Although Trump only hinted at the $12 billion he's proposed in handouts to farmers who've seen prices drop for crops and livestock, Lynn Rohrscheib, Illinois Soybean Growers chairwoman and a soybean farmer from Fairmount, rejected it out of hand in a statement earlier this week, saying, "If trade is our problem, aid handouts are a poor solution." Others have pointed out that, with the growing federal deficit in the wake of the tax cuts imposed late last year, the government would have to borrow that $12 billion from China to alleviate the pain caused by Chinese retaliatory tariffs.

In short, unity behind Trump in an us-against-them battle is a hard sell to those who consider themselves on the other side to begin with.

"I can't even see that," said Sheila Scheffer of Sauget, an early arrival for the Civic Park protest, wearing a "Shame" T-shirt and brandishing a sign reading, "Treason 45 Impeach Liar." "I can't even see unity. If we were to get a different president with a different ideology, how would he — or she — reconcile everything that's happening right now? This is years and years and years worth of damage that's being done to our once-great nation.

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"I can't even see unity."

Sheila Scheffer (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

"It's where we are. It might not be a good place, and most of us don't want to be in this place. But what are our options? We have a Congress that's failing us — both sides, both parties," she said, adding, "I don't see any sign of reconciliation, because people I know, we've all unfriended each other. We don't talk. We're so divided — my family, their families. And I can't see how they feel that way. They don't know how I can feel this way. It's not anything we manufactured. This is in us."

Dakota Tostado, an 18-year-old from Collinsville who attended the Civic Park event as really his first experience in public protest, said he'd found a sense of unity there, even in the face of people driving by and shouting either, "Go Trump!" in defiance or, let's just say, a more scatological directive for the president in support. But he said there was no denying how far apart people are right now.

"It shows you what can really come out of people at times like this, how people feel," he said, "and unfortunately that's not all positive."

Outside Kool Beanz, before the protest, the owner of another local business shook her head over how unfair it was for the coffee shop to get caught in the middle. She declined to give her name or the name of her business, precisely because of the possible public response. She said only, "We want our city to still be here and still be talking at the end of this."