ST. LOUIS (AP) — Protesters repeatedly interrupted Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump at a campaign rally on Friday, with the billionaire promising from the stage that police and security would be "gentle" as they removed them.
"They're allowed to get up and interrupt us horribly and we have to be very gentle," Trump said. "They can swing and hit people, but if we hit them back, it's a terrible thing."
But Trump was also critical of the protesters, all of whom appeared to leave peacefully from the event at the city's regal Peabody Opera House. "These are not the people who made our country great," he said, riffing on his campaign slogan.
As Trump attempts to unify a fractured GOP around his candidacy, images of his supporters attacking protesters and allegations that he's inciting violence have cast new attention on the divisive nature of his candidacy.
Trump had to answer questions at Thursday night's GOP debate about video that showed a supporter punching a protester at a rally this week in North Carolina. It was the latest in a string of scuffles at his often heated rallies, at which protesters frequently clash with supporters and security.
Friday's gathering in St. Louis was his first public campaign event since Wednesday's rally, and Trump lashed out at the criticism.
"You know, they talk about a protest or something. They don't talk about what's really happing in these forums and these rooms and these stadiums," Trump said. "They don't talk about the love."
He added that he and his supporters aren't angry people, but they "do get angry when we see the stupidity with which our country is run and how it's being destroyed."
Earlier Friday at a news conference in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump applauded his supporters who have taken on protesters who he says have gotten physical at his rallies.
"The audience hit back," he said. "And that's what we need a little bit more of."
Later Friday, Trump will hold an evening rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago — a civil and immigrant rights organizing hub with large minority student populations.
Trump's visit has already created waves on the campus. Dozens of UIC faculty and staff petitioned university administrators to cancel the rally, citing concerns it would create a "hostile and physically dangerous environment" for students. Chicago police plan a heavy presence.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, student activists and longtime Chicago organizers are all planning to protest outside the university venue over issues that include what they called Trump's disparaging comments, particularly about Muslims and Mexicans.
"Donald Trump's campaign, it incites hatred and violence with the things he says with marginalized groups that are very prevalent UIC," said Casandra Rebledo, a 19-year-old nursing student. "This is something we feel is a form of empowerment."
Gutierrez said he had no plans to enter the event. Instead, he would rally in a parking lot outside with a message focused on welcoming all.
"We're not going to let Donald Trump take us back to the 1950s," said Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat, who has long rallied for immigrant rights. "We've worked too hard."
Organizers of a student-led group, who expected hundreds of participants, planned to meet on campus and march to the arena where Trump will speak and set up shop in a nearby parking lot. Members of Black Lives Matter Chicago, which has held largely peaceful smaller protests following a police-involved shooting in Chicago, also planned to participate.
Chicago police said they were coordinating with the Secret Service, university police and fire department officials on logistics.
"People can expect to see a very visible police presence," police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a statement.
The renewed attention on Trump's rallies comes after a white Trump supporter was charged with assault Thursday after video showed him punching a black man being escorted out of the venue by sheriff's deputies at a campaign rally Wednesday in North Carolina. Last year, video captured Trump supporters physically assaulting Mercutio Southall Jr., an African-American activist, at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama.
At past events, Trump has said he'd like to punch a protester in the face and promised to pay supporters' legal fees if they get into trouble. During Wednesday night's rally in North Carolina, he recalled a past protester, "a real bad dude."
"He was a rough guy, and he was punching. And we had some people — some rough guys like we have right in here — and they started punching back," Trump said. "It was a beautiful thing."
Here we go again at the St. Louis Trump rally pic.twitter.com/BFcQ5s2TxU
— Junius Randolph (@JuniusRandolph) March 11, 2016
Two men, one bloody, were just arrested at the Trump rally in St. Louis. pic.twitter.com/1r5njyvPDk
— Junius Randolph (@JuniusRandolph) March 11, 2016
Scene outside Trump's St. Louis rally. Attendees telling protestors to get a job. They yell "racist a**holes" pic.twitter.com/o2Za4D77Sm
— Candace Smith (@CandaceSmith_) March 11, 2016