On Politics: Trump called him ‘my African American.’ But he condemns the president’s treatment of black America
On the day that changed his life, Gregory Cheadle almost stayed in bed.
He was tired — he traveled a lot in his long-shot bid for Congress — but asked himself: How often does a candidate for president come to the far reaches of Northern California? And why pass up a crowd and the chance to hand out more fliers?
So Cheadle roused himself that June 2016 morning and secured a spot up close when Donald Trump swooped in for a rally at Redding’s municipal airport.
It was hot, the atmosphere was loose and Trump’s patter seeming more stand-up comedy than campaign spiel. He went into one of those sidelong digressions, about protesters and an African American — “great fan, great guy” — and, by the way, whatever happened to him?
It was then, Cheadle said, he raised his hand and jokingly shouted, “I’m here.”
Trump looked and pointed, his voice a throaty rumble. “Look at my African American over here!” he exclaimed. “Are you the greatest?”
Cheadle and those around him laughed; it was a hoot. He caught Trump’s attention again after the speech — “Uncle Don!” he hollered — and cadged a pair of autographs.
But many who watched the rally on TV, or saw that isolated moment rebroadcast over and over, were not amused. They were angry and outraged. “My African American,” Trump said, as if Cheadle were his slave, and they turned their anger and outrage on Cheadle when he failed to respond in kind.
“It was just a fun thing that happened,” he said on CNN, as #TrumpsAfricanAmerican blew up on Twitter.
In the days and weeks that followed, Cheadle was attacked on social media and harassed by people who dug up his phone number and email address. For a time he stayed home, too nervous to venture outside.
All, he said, because the media portrayed him as something he was not and never has been: a Trump sycophant.
Cheadle wrote in his own name rather than vote for the GOP front-runner in the California primary, four days after his Redding stop. And though he backed Trump in November, it wasn’t with any enthusiasm — it was almost entirely a vote against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Why can’t he go to a black city? Why can’t he trumpet black business? Why can’t he have more black people in his administration?
Gregory Cheadle, expressing his disappointment in President Trump
If anything, Cheadle is even less of a Trump fan these days, suspecting that prejudice has limited the number of blacks in his Cabinet. Trump’s promise to help the African American community, he said, was nothing more than empty rhetoric.
“I would like for him just to show an interest in black people,” Cheadle said over lunch in downtown Redding. “Why can’t he go to a black city? Why can’t he trumpet black business? Why can’t he have more black people in his administration?”
Cheadle calls himself a Republican, but his political views are a hodgepodge that don’t fit neatly in any basket.
Government, he said, is inept, save for spending taxpayer dollars. He’s a critic of Obamacare, and President Obama — “he didn’t do anything publicly to satisfy me he was for black people” — but thinks Republicans are just as bad as Democrats in kowtowing to moneyed interests.
“Look at our Congress, the Senate and House of Representative,” he said, his vegan black-bean burger sitting untouched. “Everybody is bought, and that I can’t stomach.”
He sees both parties pursuing racist policies: the Democrats, under President Clinton, cutting welfare to pay for prisons to incarcerate more African Americans. Trump invoking “law and order,” which, to Cheadle, is “code language for, ‘We’re going to arrest more black people.’”
The one time he rose to the president’s defense was discussing the violence in Charlottesville, Va., and Trump’s less-than-vociferous condemnation of the Klansmen and neo-Nazis involved. “I don’t know what response would have been perfect for the media,” Cheadle said. “No matter what he said, he’s going to be punished for it.”
Cheadle, 60, moved to Redding 16 years ago, to give his three kids more room to roam. He sells real estate for a living and, as a side business, designs and sells luxury playhouses. In recent years, he’s been one of those gadflies knocking about the fringe of politics, running repeatedly for Congress and never cracking 10% support.
He is trying a fourth time, again challenging Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa of Richvale — a nice fellow, Cheadle said, but typical of the ruling class. “He’s a multimillionaire,” Cheadle said. “Land passed down through generations. The only thing I’ve had passed down for generations is bills.”
Cheadle was one of eight children in a blended family. After his parents divorced, he divided his time between Oakland, where his mother was a secretary, and Cleveland, where his father shined shoes. He takes enormous pride in his education, including a law degree and a master’s in public administration. His “Cheadle for Congress” bumper sticker includes a silhouette of Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker.”
He likes telling his personal story, and it’s a reason he welcomes the attention that followed his encounter with Trump. It was painful, he said, being attacked for supposedly bowing and scraping — especially by African Americans who called him “Uncle Tom,” and worse.
But it was worth it, he said, to gain a platform: “It gives me a chance to talk about things that are important as a person who’s not bought by corporations, or corporate America.”
A few hours later, Cheadle was at Redding’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center, for a program celebrating the 1963 March on Washington.
The walls were filled with pictures of King and signs of uplift and exhortation. Community groups passed out literature from card tables, the Islamic Center alongside Temple Beth Israel. Hate-crime pamphlets from the Redding police fanned out near a petition to abolish Columbus Day.
Cheadle stepped to the lectern, before a cartoon mural of Redding, and delivered an abridged version of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. The audience was overwhelmingly white, like most in this rural region.
“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice,” Cheadle said, his voice deepening as he summoned some of King’s rolling thunder. “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
When he finished, many stood as the crowd delivered a long and loud ovation.
@markzbarabak on Twitter
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