At Shia LaBeouf's Livestream Protest, Messages of Unity Rule: 'We Just Want to Create Peace'
Standing in front of a wall with the project’s title printed in bold, black letters, LaBeouf repeated, “He will not divide us” for minutes on end before abruptly leaving.
His absence, however, didn’t stop others from gathering.
Matias Rodriguez of Queens arrived to the Museum of the Moving Image at 5 a.m. on Thursday, and remained through most of the day.
“The message for me is just spreading love, just amid all the hatred in the world,” Rodriguez tells PEOPLE. “Just getting rid of it. This is more about love than anything.”
He adds, “For some people, it might be political but for some people it might just be about spreading love and unity.”
Launched on the day of Trump’s inauguration, Jan. 20, the performance-art project encourages people to repeat the “He will not divide us” phrase into a camera mounted on the wall outside the museum. Participants are encouraged to repeat the phrase as many times and for as long as they want. The project will continue streaming for the next four years.
LaBeouf, 30, was taken into custody around 12:30 a.m. by the New York Police Department after he allegedly attacked a 25-year-old man – and video of the entire incident was captured by the livestream camera. LaBeouf is charged with misdemeanor assault and a harassment violation, police confirmed to PEOPLE. He was released from custody a short time later and is expected to appear in court on April 7.
Earlier footage purportedly showed the alleged victim, who posted with LaBeouf before the man began shouting, “Hitler did nothing wrong.” LaBeouf responded by pushing him away.
Jaleh Williams, a 16-year-old student at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria tells PEOPLE she was there for the incident, and that LaBeouf was “getting up in the other man’s face” and chanting, “He Will Not Divide Us.”
Overall, however, the other days Williams visited the project were less heated. “I’m going to come here as much as I can after school,” she says.
While many came from nearby, others traveled a little further to participate. Ben Ellougani – a Queens native – drove in from his home in Ramsey, New Jersey.
“I did three years active duty in the United States Army active infantry and now I just re-enlisted in the Army Reserves,” he says, noting that as a veteran, he’s particularly drawn to the movement. “I went out there and I met all mixed people – Muslims, Whites, Spanish – whatever it was. We didn’t care what color you were, we didn’t care what religion you practiced. You were a brother, you were a sister. And you come back home and people were fighting amongst each other and it’s just sad.”
He appreciates the mostly peaceful nature of the protest, saying, “We just want to create peace.”
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“That’s the reason why I wear the uniform: so people can practice their religion. So people can practice their way of life. I don’t care if you’re straight, you’re gay, you’re bisexual,” Ellougani shares. “You’re a human being at the end of the day. You know your morals. You know what’s good and you know what’s bad and that’s why I’m here.”
At one point, Astoria’s 60 Beans Kitchen & Coffee had food and drinks sent over to participants, telling PEOPLE they wanted to provide sustenance for the dedicated protestors.
One man appeared at the site on Thursday morning wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, which immediately drew attention from the other attendees.
Jorge Yepes, also of Queens, said he voted for Trump in the election and was inspired to visit LaBeouf’s project “the minute” he watched the stream. He decided to come with hopes of having meaningful conversations, noting, “I guess just showing up in the hat was enough,” after one such back-and-forth with Hunter College student Robin Marshall.
“I think, there seems to be this sentiment of ‘love Trump’s hate’ but for me, I don’t know if I believe in that,” Marshall tells PEOPLE. “Because, historically speaking, we didn’t hug the fascists away.”
Marshall continues, “But I think the love aspect has a lot to do with solidarity. This is about saying, ‘Trump we don’t like you.’ But he knows that. So it’s also about, saying to people who are going to be worse off during his presidency… it’s just a, ‘we stand in solidarity with you.’ We don’t agree with this either.”
Nancy Cavaliere and her friend Lydia DeShawn were particularly impressed with the amount of young people they encountered at LaBeouf’s exhibit.
Says DeShawn, “Right now we have a polarized, divided America which we haven’t seen before in a number of years and it’s time to stand up and speak out. And this is one way that we can.”
Of LaBeouf’s involvement, Cavaliere praises his use of art as a form of self-expression.
She says, “It’s very important for celebrities to do this because celebrities have such a bigger platform.”
Echoes Marshall, “It’s very powerful to take your fame and to stand out there and say, ‘Let’s change things.’ Because, you know, people will follow.”