Surrounded by a ring of TV cameramen, Juan Escalante, a DREAMer wearing a red hoodie, strode into NBC headquarters at Rockefeller Center in New York on Wednesday night. He was carrying a cardboard box containing a petition with 522,080 names calling for the network to disinvite Donald Trump from “Saturday Night Live.”
A few minutes later, Escalante, 26, walked out the doors of 30 Rock, empty-handed.
“I was met with indifference,” he said. “NBC and ‘SNL’ are providing a larger microphone for Donald Trump to continue to share his anti-immigrant and anti-Latino attacks.”
It was the climax of a small but passionate rally at which about 50 protesters denounced NBC for inviting the controversial presidential candidate to host the comedy show this weekend. “SNL! Escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” they chanted, waving signs that said “Dump Trump” and “Racism is not a joke.”
The program is expected to be a big hit for the network, which has previously cut its business relationship with Trump over his comments portraying Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers.
“Donald Trump is not just making a guest appearance at the show,” Escalante, an activist with the immigration group America’s Voice, told me as he chugged a bottle of water between protest chants. “NBC is putting him front and center to boost their ratings.”
Escalante, who organized the petition drive, was one of several undocumented activists who participated in the protest—his family came to the U.S. legally from Caracas, Venezuela, but fell out of status after some bad advice from an immigration attorney. He’s covered under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
He said he wouldn’t be watching on Saturday night. “We can just turn off our TVs, but I don’t think it ends there,” Escalante said. “Nothing that he says about mass deportation of 11 million immigrants in this country is funny. Nothing about being called a murderer or a rapist is funny for me.”
“Donald Trump is the only one who’s laughing because people are paying attention to him,” he said.
On Thursday, advocates plan to start calling potential “SNL” advertisers to encourage them to back out. Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, told reporters that Trump was newsworthy and belonged on news shows. “But ‘Saturday Night Live’ is not a news organization. It is a cultural pop giant,” he said. “And by having him on and going ha-ha-ha and hee-hee-hee, all they’re doing is legitimizing his views.”
They’re going for ratings above substance, he argued—NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” raked in its best ratings in two and a half years when Trump was a guest earlier this year. But Nogales said it wasn’t worth it. “Wake up. Are you willing to lose the Latino community, 18% of the U.S. population, to get a fast, quick rating bump?” Nogales said.
Several protesters said the ‘SNL’ invitation was hypocritical for NBC. They also cited recent attacks on Latino protesters at Trump rallies as reasons why The Donald should be booted.
NBC has repeatedly declined to comment on the controversy.
Protester Luis Torres, 33, whose parents are Mexican immigrants, admitted he was a big fan of “SNL.” That’s one of the reasons he came to the rally.
“The American public gets their news from these kind of programs,” he said. “Candidates use ‘SNL’ to humanize their candidacies and show they’re relatable. We cannot keep giving people like Donald Trump a platform to spew their racist, xenophobic message.”
Meanwhile, two counter-protesters, boxed into their own section of the sidewalk by police officers, unfurled a poster calling for an end to sanctuary cities. “Listen to what Trump is saying!” one of them shouted.
At times, the protest took on a carnival-like atmosphere. One demonstrator donned a papier-mâché vampire head, with dollar signs for eyes. Another woman came dressed in what she described as a “naughty nun” outfit that, as she put it, “showed a little skin.” She held a cross, a Bible, and a pink sign reading “NBC REPENT.”
“They probably won’t repent, but at least we can publicly shame them a little,” the nun, Marni Halasa, told me.
Across the street, Angel Morales and Roberto Sanchez, two Puerto Rican truckers from Florida, watched the protesters (and especially the nun) with interest. But like many passersby, they were most interested in getting a glimpse of The Donald—rumors began circulating in the crowd that he was about to exit the building, maybe after a practice run of the show.
“I want to take a look at our next president,” Morales said, chewing on a straw, explaining that while he doesn’t agree with everything Trump says, he likes that he speaks his mind. “He’s trying to fix this country.”
Sanchez laughed. “He’s basically like Pablo Escobar,” he said. “He’s got 10 billion now. If he becomes president, he’s gonna have 100 billion.”
The truckers and the other spectators were disappointed. By the time the protesters and TV cameras packed up around 8 p.m., there was no sign of Trump.
It was just another night in New York City. A few blocks to the west, a group of protesters stood outside the News Corp. headquarters, holding up Black Lives Matter signs and chanting slogans about killer cops.
The news ticker running across the face of the building scrolled above them in bold red letters: “Donald Trump leads all Republicans in new Quinnipiac U poll…”