Summit highlights two different sides of Florida seaside community
Supporters and opponents of Xi and Trump line the streets of Florida resort town
The first meeting of US President Donald Trump and his guest President Xi Jinping ended with a flourish of friendship.
While the summit in Palm Beach signalled a warm reboot of Sino-US relations, the logistics of two large government delegations on a small barrier island ended up heightening differences between two sides of the Palm Beach area.
And ironically, the day ended with Trump’s announcement of what appears to be a new US battlefront in the Middle East.
Starting at 8am on Thursday, the roads near Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, where the two presidents are meeting, and the Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa, where the Chinese delegation is staying, were closed to anyone without identification proving they live in the neighbourhood.
The roads in Palm Beach, a barrier island connected to the larger city of West Palm Beach by bridges over Florida’s intracoastal waterway, don’t usually see much traffic.
“All the captains of American business come here where they have their retirement homes,” said Kelly Dewar, 53, a local limousine driver, as he dined on steak at a local restaurant. “The police force here is very well funded and they do a pretty good job of keeping out anyone who doesn’t live here.”
A stroll through the seaside neighbourhood allows for glimpses of warmly lit mansions set behind manicured hedges and ivy-covered walls.
Many of the homes resemble smaller variations of Mar-a-Lago, built nearly a century ago in the Roaring Twenties in the Spanish Colonial Revival style popularised by American architect Addison Mizner, who made Palm Beach his home.
At night, the only sounds are the chirp of crickets and the churn of waves washing up on the beach, punctuated by the hum of jets on the West Palm Beach airport flight path.
With its 7-Elevens, laundromats, and liquor stores open late, West Palm Beach isn’t as exclusive.
The additional restrictions and heightened vigilance on Palm Beach traffic will be in place until Xi’s delegation leaves on Friday evening.
The Palm Beach police department “has been working closely with the US Secret Service and the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office to coordinate and prepare for the visit”, the municipality said in a notice on its website. Other measures include restrictions on access to public beaches and some public facilities.
On top of that, the shoulders of the Southern Avenue Bridge over the waterway – as well as the final leg of the trip from the airport to Mar-a-Lago – have been blocked off for construction work. That made it impossible for protesters to gather on the road just outside of Mar-a-Lago’s wrought iron gates.
By mid-morning on Thursday, several hours before either delegation arrived for the summit, pressure began to build in West Palm Beach. Protesters and supporters of the summit clashed on the mainland side of Southern Avenue.
More than 100 Vietnamese carrying their country’s pre-1975 banner, yelled at a smaller group of Chinese wearing red shirts and waving US and People’s Republic of China flags, demanding that the Chinese government relinquish claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
They also accused Chinese companies in Vietnam of violating environmental regulations.
“We don’t expect that our grievances will be heard during the meetings here, so we want to do whatever we can here to express our opposition in the only way we can,” said Hoang Truong, a 55- year-old Vietnamese citizen who came to the United States as a refugee at the age of 15.
Yu Hua, a 32-year old Chinese citizen living temporarily in Florida, came out to the presidential motorcade route to show her support for the summit.
Straining to be heard over the anti-Chinese chants, Yu said, “We just want to see the US and China get along for the good of world peace.”
The crowd included a smaller number of Trump supporters such as Craig Smith, a disabled military veteran, carrying giant banners emblazoned with the president’s name, and a smattering of anti-Trump protesters.
Eventually, central West Palm Beach ground to a standstill when the police blocked off Southern Avenue for the two presidential motorcades, bisecting the city’s south side with no way to cross.
“There’s usually some kind of commotion when Trump is in town, but this is over the top,” said one woman stuck in traffic. She declined to give her name out of concern that her comments would be seen and shared.
Residents of both sides of the intracoastal waterway are accustomed to ruckus sparked by Trump.
Before he became president, Trump often tangled with neighbours and local authorities.
For example, he tried to get West Palm Beach’s airport authority to redirect its flight path away from Mar-a-Lago, an effort that didn’t go his way until after his inauguration when the Federal Aviation Administration mandated redirection while the president was in residence.
Trump also had to settle a dispute with the township of Palm Beach over the size and height of a flag flying over Mar-a-Lago.
“He’s generally not well-liked here because of his dealings with Palm Beach, whether it’s residents, whether it’s government, whether it’s airport officials, et cetera, there’s a plethora of people who he’s had dealings with in this area,” said Dewar, the limo driver.
“But we see all kinds of characters in Palm Beach, some with more notoriety, so there’s very much an acceptance even if some people don’t like him.”
As Trump, Xi and their wives were introduced to each other and settled in for dinner at Mar-a-Lago, restaurants on Palm Beach filled with patrons pulling up in Maseratis and Porsches, leaving their cars with valets. Meanwhile, the sounds of laughter and the clinking of silverware on fine china filled the air.
No one seemed distracted by geopolitical events, whether local protests, trade deficits or US missile attacks on Syrian military bases.