Trump’s First State of the Union: All the Subtle Messages and Protests You Missed

From purple ribbons to African kente cloths, attendees’s sartorial statements were subtle but omnipresent.

State of the Union
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Regardless of your stance on his administration, long before Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night, the evening adopted a funereal tone—at the very least because of the Democratic Women’s Working Group’s plan to show support of the #MeToo movement and the anti-harassment and assault initiative, Time’s Up by dressing in all-black, which even those like Megyn Kelly participated in when covering the event, too. Unfortunately, the statement was a bit lost in the sea of men obliged to wear black suits, though it definitely succeeded in making provocations—some women of the G.O.P., for example, responded by calling for others to show up in red, white, and blue.

As she no doubt knew before hand, regardless of what Melania Trump wore, she was already bound to face scrutiny: The night marked her first public appearance with her husband since the rumors got out about his past relations with the porn star Stormy Daniels, a speculative fire Melania added fuel to by breaking with tradition and showing up to the event separately from the president. She also caused a stir by arriving in an all-white Dior pantsuit—one that could have been a blatant rejection of the all-black movement, or a nod to the suffragists and more modern-day figures like Kesha and, of course, Hillary Clinton.

Melania Trump arriving to the State of the Union in a white Dior pantsuit.

Mark Wilson

Ivanka Trump, on the other hand, seemed to pay homage to both parties: Her Oscar de la Renta dress was both black and white—and, of course, red and blue. Tiffany Trump, on the other hand, sported a white blouse and a black skirt. Unsurprisingly, then, all of the Trumps skipped out on the more explicit political statements a large portion of those present opted to make, speaking for the dozen-plus Democrats and five Supreme Court justices who decided to make their stance on Trump known by skipping out on the evening altogether. Take an up-close look at exactly what and how they were protesting, here.

Time’s Up Pins

They may have gotten lost in the sea of black, but many Democrat women took the lead of A-listers at the Golden Globes in affixing Time’s Up pins to their ensembles. House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s was perhaps most prominently displayed; she spent the night looking remarkably somber in a black dress next to Democratic whip Steny Hoyer, who also wore a Time’s Up pin.

Members of Congress wearing red Recy Taylor pins at the State of the Union.

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Red “Recy” Pins

Ever since Oprah Winfrey called attention to her in her memorable speech at the Golden Globes, Recy Taylor, who died at the end of 2017, has become a symbol of the ongoing, and at times lethal, effects of racism in America. Six white men gang raped Taylor when she was on her way back from church in 1944, yet managed to escape any legal repercussions—a story that, decades later, as more and more keep up Taylor’s early activism in bringing justice to victims sexual assault, seems to be resonating more than ever. Indeed, Taylor’s niece and granddaughter were both present on Tuesday night thanks to New Jersey Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman and Alabama Representative Terri Sewell.

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Their presence was hardly the only nod to Taylor in the crowd: Coleman also ordered 200 red pins emblazoned with the word “RECY,” which were unmissable on the chests of many Black Caucus members, as well as what seemed like all members of the House Democrats.

Representative Judy Chu, center, giving a “thumbs down” during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union, surrounded by women wearing African kente cloths and pins dedicated to Recy Taylor and Time’s Up.

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African Kente Cloths

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore brightly colored kente cloths in traditional African patterns “to honor the countries POTUS proclaimed “s-holes” last week,” as North Carolina Representative Alma Adams put it on Twitter, referencing Trump’s comments about immigration in regards to those hoping to move to the states from countries like Haiti (whose people Trump has previously remarked “all have AIDS”).

Men like South Caroline Representative James E. Clyburn—who looked unabashedly bored and upset during the entire proceedings, and was also decked out in Time’s Up and Recy Taylor pins—took part by wearing a kente tie, while many women wore sashes, including the California Representative Judy Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to the U.S. Congress—who notably gave a thumbs down during Trump’s address. (The Caucus members also notably did not clap or make eye contact with cameras when they panned to them after Trump announced how proud he was that African-American employment rates have risen.)


It was the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who headed up the move to wear sizable yellow migrating butterfly stickers in a show of support for immigrants, refugees, and Dreamers, but they were joined by others like Nancy Pelosi, and Judy Chu, who’s repeatedly rejected the use of the phrase “chain migration.” Chu also helped organize the attendance the largest group of Dreamers to ever attend the State of the Union so that, as she put it, “Donald Trump can see their faces. They are our future, and they should not be used as leverage to end our family immigration system.” (More than 20 House members brought along DACA recipients as their plus-ones.)

Purple Ribbons

Though Trump declared the opioid crisis a “public health emergency” last year—a year after which overdoses became the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and which now, in America alone, has led to the rate of around 90 deaths per day—his administration has done little to concretely address it ever since. That hasn’t been lost members of Congress: On Tuesday night, at least a dozen of them, including Bernie Sanders and New York Senator Chuck Schumer, wore purple ribbons to take advantage of what New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, whose office distributed the ribbons, called an “important opportunity to send a message that more needs to be done to address this crisis.”

Trump did indeed bring up the opioid crisis on Tuesday night, but not in any sort of medical terms, instead keeping the focus on law enforcement. “We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge,” he said, failing to make any real promises—and no doubt encouraging some Congress members to hang on to their purple ribbons for at least just a bit longer.

Related: Outrage, Boredom, and Turn It Off: How Celebs Reacted to Donald Trump’s State of the Union on Twitter

How Celebrities Protest in the Streets: A Visual History of George Clooney Getting Arrested, Kanye Occupying Wall Street, and More

Emma Watson attended her first-ever march when she made it to the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year—and brought along her mom, who dutifully wore a pussy hat. Though Watson is a United Nations Women Global Goodwill Ambassador and often speaks up about gender inequality, this time around, unlike the other celebs in attendance, she stayed on the streets instead of onstage, opting to yell instead of use a mic.

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Muhammad Ali, who was sentenced to five years in prison and had his championship title revoked after he refused to serve in Vietnam, also protested with members of the Black Panther Party in New York in 1970.

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In late September of 2001, Brooke Shields, Glenn Close, Bebe Neuwirth and more Broadway stars, some even in costume, rallied in midtown Manhattan to support the New York entertainment industry, when Broadway and the city’s tourism in general took a hit after 9/11.

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If you couldn’t tell by the fact that he founded his eponymous nonprofit group dedicated to promoting environmental awareness at age 24, in 1998, Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s also starred in a climate change documentary and even flown commercial to his annual foundation fundraiser, is so dedicated to environmentalism, he recycled a manila folder to use as a sign when he showed up at the Climate Change March in Washington, D.C. earlier this year.

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Meanwhile, back in the capital, Jessica Chastain, one of the industry’s most outspoken voices and advocates of women, passed out buttons to the hundreds of thousands gathered at the Women’s March.

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Despite the snow, Laura Dern also took part in the Park City Women’s March while at the Sundance Film Festival, regretting not being able to make it to the capital but grinning all the while.

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In 2011, Kanye West and Russell Simmons both made it all the way downtown to Zuccotti Park to take a peek at Occupy Wall Street, apparently in support of the movement. “I love how sweet and tolerant he was to the crowd,” Simmons, who in fact made several appearances, later tweeted of West, who unlike Talib Kweli and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, refrained from performing. Simmons also spoke up for a silent, stony-faced West at the protest: “Kanye has been a big supporter spiritually for this movement … He wants to give power back to the people. That’s why we’re here.”

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Before attending the Women’s March on Washington and marching arm-in-arm with Jesse Jackson, Cher attended another rally in New York a few days earlier, where she called Trump “this unbelievable narcissist” and went off about “those assholes in Washington.” “I tried not to have a potty mouth, but it’s just me, okay? You must never give up, because the thing that will help us, that will get us through this is anger,” she said in a real-life extension of her long stream of all-caps, emoji- and anger-filled tweets.

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A Cate Blanchett sighting might be rare in the U.S., but the actress marched along her fellow Australians (and husband) in 2006 in the Walk Against Warming rally.

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Madonna didn’t get to do too much marching at the Women’s March on Washington—she kept it mostly backstage, hanging with Gloria Steinem and Amy Schumer—but she did deliver a powerful speech to the hundreds of thousands present. “The revolution starts here,” she told the crowd, after lamenting that “it took this horrific moment of darkness to wake us the f— up.”

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Here, in 1971, Jane Fonda was picketing a Safeway in Denver with the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee in protest of the chain’s lack of support for unions, but that was hardly the only time she’s taken to the streets: Starting with supporting the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panthers in the ’60s, she’s long made a name for herself as a political activist as well as an actress, to the point that she and her husband were at one point monitored by the NSA. Still getting arrested en route from an anti–Vietnam war fundraiser in Canada and infamously earning herself the nickname Hanoi Jane haven’t stopped her: She also showed up at the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year.

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George Clooney was arrested—alongside his father, Nick Clooney—during a demonstration outside the Embassy of Sudan in Washington, D.C. at a rally held by Amnesty International and the nonprofit United to End Genocide to call for humanitarian aid for the thousands facing governmental violence and starvation in South Sudan in 2012. After paying his $100 fine to avoid a court appearance, Clooney, who’d recently visited Sudan, then met with President Obama to discuss the crisis.

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In 2014, Alicia Keys organized a protest in New York to raise awareness about the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls that Boko Haram had kidnapped for six months at that point, which her husband Swizz Beatz dutifully attended.

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Marlon Brando joined the Congress of Racial Equality to protest an all-white housing area in Torrance, California in 1963, a full decade before he boycotted the Academy Awards and asked Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather—who asked the crowd for better treatment of Native Americans—to accept the Best Actor award for The Godfather in his place.

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Before he made a splash at this year’s March for Science, Bill Nye, aka the Science Guy, showed up in a bowtie to New York’s take on the Global Climate March in 2015 to talk environmental advocacy on the steps of City Hall, as Mayor de Blasio was gearing up to head to the Paris Climate Summit.

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Liza Minnelli, Joey Gray, Patti Austin, Lily Tomlin, and Cleve Jones were just some of the celebs to march at the forefront of an AIDS candlelight Memorial March past the White House in 1992.

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Rarely afraid of, well, just being Miley, Miley Cyrus showed up to L.A.’s Women’s March in a smiley face-covered unitard, declaring her nonprofit the Happy Hippie Foundation’s support for fellow nonprofit Planned Parenthood while marching alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

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Woody Harrelson has been arrested multiple times, but the time in 1996 that he scaled the Golden Gate Bridge with members of the group Earth First! to hang a banner in defense of redwood trees was definitely the most scene-stealing.

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Last year, after a sniper killed several police officers in Dallas at a protest following police killings of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Snoop Dogg and The Game led a peaceful march to the Los Angeles police headquarters in an effort to promote unity amongst people of color.

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Susan Sarandon, Christopher Reeve, Alec Baldwin, and Robert Kennedy Jr. all got together in 1995 in favor of protecting New York City’s watershed before an EPA hearing on the safety of the city’s water.

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Shailene Woodley and Rosario Dawson both protested the Dakota Access Pipeline in New York’s Union Square last summer. Woodley ultimately made it out to North Dakota in October, too—and was arrested for criminal trespassing and engaging in a riot. She pleaded guilty—and wrote a personal essay for Time saying she hoped the publicity would spur others into action.

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The night before Trump’s inauguration, Cynthia Nixon joined thousands of New Yorkers and plenty more celebs outside Trump Tower to promise her continued attention to causes such as healthcare, climate change, social justice, and immigrant rights throughout the president’s term.

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Alicia Keys and __Janelle Monae also made it to the Women’s March on Washington, where both also spoke out and performed. (The latter also invited the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, as well as more murdered at the hands of the police, up onstage.)

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Like any good star of an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, Olivia Wilde joined Mark Ruffalo and Michael Moore at Trump Tower, a few months after taking care to rid of her Melania-like hair.

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Scarlett Johansson joined the scads of celebrities speaking out at the Women’s March on Washington, but chose to focus her speech specifically on Planned Parenthood and women’s healthcare. (Before it was cut short by a sound outage.)

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At the Sundance Film Festival during the Women’s March, Charlize Theron still took part in the action in Park City, Utah, carrying a banner and crying while marching alongside other celebs like Laura Dern, John Legend, and Chelsea Handler.

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Before showing up to the L.A. Women’s March, too, Jamie Lee Curtis became an early advocate of the #NotMyPresident hashtag, speaking out immediately after the election results.

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Back in 1996, Jesse Jackson gave Bruce Springsteen a hug at a rally opposing prop 209, which would end affirmative action based on race and gender in state and local government, in front of the Federal building on Wilshire Blvd. where Springsteen also spoke and performed.

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Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Bella and Gigi Hadid, who are both not only supermodels but proudly Muslim, managed to sneak into New York’s #NoBanNoWall march in response to Trump’s moves to build a wall bordering Mexico, and to place an indefinite ban preventing Muslims from seven foreign countries from entering the U.S.

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Over the years, Mark Ruffalo has spoken up—and hit the streets—in support of reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and the environment, and against fracking, with the latter to the point that he claimed in 2010 to have been placed on a terror advisory list. It’s no surprise, then, that he not only showed up at Occupy Wall Street to speak out against fracking the next year, but also just this week led a protest with Michael Moore against Donald Trump, whom he’s gotten increasingly real about, and in remembrance of Heather Heyer, who was recently murdered by white supremacists.

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