HOUSTON – Penny Davis left her home for downtown a bit early on Saturday.
She’s a volunteer here at the NFL Experience, the league’s annual Super Bowl interactive fan festival, so she wore the red jacket and the credential that goes with the uniform. She’s also upset about what’s going on in the world, so she put on her knit pink hat and marched with President Trump protesters before reporting for duty.
“I love my city and I love having a voice,” the 30-year-old said.
She didn’t have to go far out of her way. About 300-400 marchers filed from City Hall down Rusk Street all the way to the barricaded area next to where Uber and light rail drop off people for the NFL Experience. Located about eight miles from NRG Stadium, the site of Super Bowl LI, Davis carried a yellow sign saying, “Refugees are welcome here” amid the protesters, and then she went to help retrieve footballs thrown by kids.
Before she vanished into the mammoth crowd of fans, she had a question for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who has expressed support for Trump in the past: “Are you even paying attention?”
The bubble surrounding the sports world hasn’t been much of a shield this week, as anger and fear about the president’s decisions have lingered in this diverse city despite the usual revelry of fans in jerseys and partygoers in cocktail attire. As some walked in high heels toward the NFL Honors ceremony Saturday afternoon, Emery Mintz, 20, held up a sign saying “Tom Brady Supports Fascism.” He explained that he’s a Houston Texans fan and it was a way to “kill two birds with one stone.” Emery’s mother, Lauren, held a sign that called Trump a “so-called president” and Brady a “so-called quarterback.”
Only a few dozen feet away, Patriots fan Helen Gomes of Rhode Island watched quietly. “We’re with ’em,” she said of the protesters. “We’re very anti-Trump as well. He’s doing wrong.”
Not every fan agreed. One man in a Texans sweatshirt went to the window of his hotel bar and held up a cell phone photo of Trump as a way to respond to the marchers.
“What’s the point [of the protests]?” asked Jerry Betcheor, another fan in the same hotel. “It [Trump’s executive order] is already accomplished. ”
He wasn’t rankled by the marchers, but he had an issue with the distraction.
“It sets a little bit of a different tone,” he said. “People coming by being more or less negative. Interrupting everyone else’s time.”
One person’s inconvenience is another person’s opportunity. Protesters thought the spotlight of the Super Bowl was a terrific way to get their message out. It’s not often that a group in Houston can march directly into a hub of the world’s media.
“I think people should be protesting no matter what, but the Super Bowl is a spotlight,” admitted Davis, who said a family friend was detained at Bush International Airport last week.
Protests near major sporting events are not new; the Olympics had several last summer. But the marches around the nation over the past several days have competed with and to some extent overshadowed the buzz of the Super Bowl. That’s either an annoyance or a reassurance, depending on your view.
Here, the dual storylines have shown off two Houstons: the major American city capable of showing the world a good time, and the international destination where more than a hundred languages are spoken and some are quite afraid.
“People are getting ready for anything,” said Alfredo Becerra, a U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico and visited the Mexican consulate here on Friday. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Be prepared, you don’t know what’s going to happen.'” Becerra said he is worried about traveling back to Mexico with his wife, who is a legal resident, because he doesn’t know if he will be able to return.
“I’m a citizen,” he said. “Still, I’m concerned.”
The State Department says it’s complying with a federal judge’s ruling that barred Trump’s executive order limiting entry from immigrants with valid visas.
The discussions nationwide have been about what Trump will do, what Trump has done and what Americans should do, if anything. There’s uncertainty about all three. William Stock, the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the amount of calls he has received from religious groups and civic leaders has been “unprecedented.”
“It’s been difficult trying to sort out rumor from fact and policy,” he said. “That’s been very difficult. It’s been difficult to see government agencies put in a very bad position.”
Super Bowl Sunday won’t provide a complete respite either, as Trump will be interviewed by Fox’s Bill O’Reilly in the hours leading up to the game. There’s also wonder about whether Lady Gaga will make any kind of political statement during her halftime show.
Whatever one’s politics, the hope is for peaceful protests and a secure Super Bowl. Relations between demonstrators and Houston police were cordial on Saturday, even friendly. One officer waved hello as marchers went by, and a few discussed the best parade routing with leaders. Several protesters thanked officers on their way out.
“We just don’t want to be part of the story,” said one policeman.