Donald Trump finds a supportive crowd in New York’s Harlem neighborhood

For Moses Hendrix, the first sign that something was happening in his area of ​​Harlem was the appearance of the “big white Terminator boys” a week ago. They were browsing the Sanaa Convenient Store on the corner of 139th Street and Broadway, owned by his friend, Maad Ahmed.

So he called Ahmed, who told him a secret: “Trump is coming.”

“I said, ‘Get the fuck out of here. Why would Trump come here?’” Hendrix recalls.

But he did, Tuesday night, on an unexpected outing after the second day of his criminal trial in Lower Manhattan.

Sanaa, a bodega not much bigger than a storage room, was the focal point of the city’s racist law-and-order tension two years ago after a Latino employee, Jose Alba, stabbed to death a black customer who he was attacking. The employee was accused of murder and then, after cries of indignation, released.

For the former president, this week’s visit was an opportunity to turn his legal troubles into a campaign event. As cameras and cheering crowds watched, a tough-talking Trump promised to “right New York.” It was also the ideal backdrop to reaffirm his claim that Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, was prosecuting him at the expense of real victims of crime and violence.

Maad Ahmed, owner of Sanaa convenience store
Maad Ahmed, 36, is the owner of the Sanaa Convenience Store on Broadway and 139th Street in West Harlem, New York. ©Lauren Crothers/FT

Two days later, Harlem’s west side was still buzzing. “That’s the cellar!”- that’s the cellar! a woman said to a friend as they passed.

It turns out that many in the spiritual home of black New York – even though it is a neighborhood increasingly populated by Latinos and Middle Eastern immigrants – were at least sympathetic to Trump, if not outright supporters. Many expressed discontent with the economy and immigration, as well as a fondness for a New York icon who – despite being born rich – had somehow made herself a symbol of the hustle and grit of outsiders.

“Trump is really popular,” said Federico Rosario, a 40-year-old father of three who works in the insurance industry. “If you ask me, the country was better when Trump was there [in the White House].”

The sharply dressed Dominican native rejected claims that Trump, who broke bread with white nationalists at his private club and described immigrants as rapists, was racist. He was simply outspoken in a way that other politicians refused to be.

Anthony Hayes, 43, a security guard who works in Midtown Manhattan but was born and raised in Harlem, agrees. “Ultimately, I think he’s going to be president,” Hayes said, expressing frustration with the post-pandemic plague of shoplifting and petty crime.

Not everyone praised Trump. “Very mad” – very crazy – observed an elderly woman, shaking her head.

Julie Puello, 30, a self-described Democrat who moved to New York five years ago from the Dominican Republic, also had a visible distaste for Trump’s combative personality. However, Puello understood her appeal to many in the neighborhood. Even newcomers like her were unhappy with the wave of immigration and the perceived benefits the newcomers were receiving at their expense.

“It’s a headache,” he said of the issue.

The crowd awaits Trump's arrival at the convenient store in Sanaa
The crowd awaits Trump’s arrival at the convenient store in Sanaa ©Adam Gray/Reuters

Trump’s relationship with black New York is more complicated than his enemies might suggest. He was once a mainstay of hip-hop songs by artists including Ice-T and Lil Wayne. In that world, and before his political days, he was deployed like Cristal or a Mercedes-Benz, a sign of material success. “Back then, you wanted to be like that guy because he’s rich,” so Hayes said.

Trump has long been friends with Don King, the promoter of black boxing, with whom he organized a series of fights with Mike Tyson in his casinos in Atlantic City. In 2017, King told Politico: “I say, ‘Mr. President, he knows what it’s like to be a black man. . . No matter what you say or do, you’re damn guilty.’”

At recent campaign rallies, Trump has stepped up his appeal to black voters by expressing regret that they would be hit hardest by uncontrolled immigration. “Honestly, it should be 100% black [that] I vote for Trump because I have done more for black people than any president other than Abraham Lincoln,” he said at an event in Georgia in March. “It is true.”

But Trump is also the man who, to this day, refuses to apologize for buying a full-page ad THE New York Times in 1989, asking the state to reinstate the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of young black and Hispanic men who were wrongfully imprisoned for the rape of a jogger that set the city alight.

“I’ll never forget it,” said Hendrix, 52, who grew up in Harlem and now owns a clothing store, Feared Voices, that sells baseball caps and clothing. (He wore an obligatory Knicks hat.) Nor has Hendrix forgotten how Trump encouraged the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama, the first black president, was not an American citizen.

“We were like, ‘Wow. What period is Trump in right now,’” he said, recalling his reaction. “He WAS cool once.”

Yet it would be a mistake for Democrats to assume that, on racial issues, Hendrix also had a lot of sympathy for Biden. One of his cousins ​​spent 22 years in prison for a crack cocaine crime under tough criminal sentencing guidelines the then-senator championed in the 1990s.

As a small business owner, his biggest concern appeared to be Biden’s economy, whose robust revenue numbers did not appear to reflect the situation on the ground in Harlem. “Tell that to me, I’ve got a load of inventory here that I can’t move,” he said.

Ahmed, 36, also feels the precariousness of the economy. “This type of business, if you don’t keep up with things, you lose them,” he said, standing in his cramped store amid an explosion of colorful wrappers and advertisements for chips, candy, sodas, lottery tickets and similar.

Pinned to the entrance was an American flag, and taped to the safety glass near the register was a handwritten sign that read, “It is haram buy from thieves.” It was a message that the Sanaa Convenience Store would not participate in a local racket in which goods stolen from big pharmacies, such as CVS, are resold in bodegas.

Eight years ago Ahmed fled the war in Yemen with his wife and two children. Two days ago he hosted the former American president in his humble bodega. He seemed more embarrassed than happy with all the attention.

He was dismayed, he said, when Trump issued an executive order banning travelers arriving from six Muslim nations, including his native Yemen, soon after taking office in 2017. But he now appreciates the former president’s campaign against illegal immigration.

“If you want to come to this country, you have to have documents,” he said. “He’s doing the right thing.”

Then he added: “I think he’s better than Biden. Stronger than Biden.”

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