It’s the day of the Muslim Ban protest at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and I’m pacing around the parking lot of my apartment complex, reading a book about Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship in Zimbabwe. The weather is chilly, which I find fitting. The cold helps keep my blood from boiling.
Eventually my friend Chris picks me up. He’s got long Jesus hair and drives a Prius, and even though it’s cold enough for me to put the hood of my jacket up, he’s wearing flip-flops. I slide my book into the backpack I’m bringing (which is loaded up with a water bottle, grapes, tortilla chips, and dip courtesy of my wife) and climb into the car. Chris seems at peace, calm. We exchange pleasantries and then get to talking about what it is we’re about to do, why we’re doing it.
We are both of us disillusioned. It has become nearly impossible to have any faith in representative government. The foreign policy and unchecked drone strikes of Barack Obama were bad enough, the election of Donald Trump worse, and the first ten days of Trump’s presidency worse yet. Chris leans back in his seat as he drives and tells me that one of the things he’s most dismayed about with Trump’s recent executive order is that there are several mayors of various “sanctuary cities” who have expressed the desire to fight Trump’s rhetoric and policies, and yet none of them are outright sending their local police forces in to keep the TSA from detaining people. In other words, like so many other moments in the history of America, the liberals are rolling over to the radical Right. The GOP, says Chris, know that all they have to do is stonewall any compromise and the Democrats will inevitably cave to them in the name of maintaining order and smooth governmental function. In this way, the nation continually moves farther and farther to the Right, inevitably leading us to this crucial moment in history: a President Trump whose right-hand man is the detestable and fascistic Steve Bannon. He tells me of a quote from Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania: “The US is also a one-party state. But with typical American extravagance, they have two of them.”
We stop at a gas station to fuel up, and before Chris heads inside to grab some snacks he hands me a chunk of cardboard, a marker, and his knife. I cut the cardboard shabbily in twain while I wait for him to return, all the while wondering what I’ll put on my makeshift sign. This is my first protest, and I realize that I’ve thought of no catchy phrase. I’ve been too angry, too viscerally upset. So instead I set the cardboard aside and wait for Chris.
Back on the road, we continue our discussion of the state of the Union, its many faults, our disillusionment with the whole system. I bring up my favorite book of last year, Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and we discuss how Piketty’s chief fault is that he spends the entire book showing why capitalist-based democratic social states don’t work, and then finishes with a solution that is essentially a modified capitalist-based democratic social state. The problem is that we are trained in this system from the moment we’re born, trained to calculate everything based upon the monetary value it will bring us, not realizing that this value is a construction. We discuss how, back in the day, half of Americans were farmers. Now something like two percent are, and we produce a surplus of food every year. There is no reason for widespread hunger to exist on this planet. We have the technology to solve it. We have the technology to eradicate many diseases. And yet we don’t, because there is not enough profit in it. This, it seems to me and Chris, is the most damning evidence that our entire system is flawed beyond repair.
Then we pull into the parking deck at RDU and it’s time to make our signs. Now, all of a sudden, the reality of what we’re doing sinks in for me. President Donald Trump has just signed an executive order that has become widely known as the Muslim Ban. Because of this, many families have been separated from relatives who had just gone on vacation, and many green-card and visa holders have been detained at airports around the country. This is fascism, plain and simple: it is the restriction of liberty and compassion (as the order would mean refusal of access for refugees fleeing the unconscionable violence of the Islamic State) in the pursuit of comfort and safety. This country, which while no bastion of morality in the past at least proudly defeated the Nazis, has now grown closer to fascistic, militaristic government than ever before. I could go into this more, and show why it’s more than just this single action of Trump’s that leads me to this conclusion, but that would be too long.
So Chris and I settle down and take out the marker. Still at a loss, I decide to keep it simple with the statement “Refugees are PEOPLE; kindness is STRENGTH.”
Chris has been to the Women’s March, and he’s a veteran of this kind of protest. He pens the much better “ADMIT ANYONE WHO WILL PUNCH RICHARD SPENCER.“
We walk toward the designated protest area, blending into a trickle of latecomers like ourselves. There are some barricades and police standing by, and we’re herded down to the back of the protest crowd. This area, unfortunately, is well away from the departure zones. We’re not impeding or making difficult the normal operations of the airport, and that’s problematic. A protest only really works or has meaning if it causes discomfort. It is only effective if it shuts something down or makes the normal business of everyday life difficult. Only then is any point made.
But we sit in the back as many more people pile in behind us, and a handful of younger ladies in hijab make some chants. Soon they are joined by a black woman with a hand-made bucket-drum and a skinny man with a tambourine that I can barely hear over the voices. I have noted before that the problem with the Left is that everyone thinks his own solution is the only solution and that compromise is unthinkable, and so while we’re all in agreement that, say, fascism is bad, we’re split on how to combat it. This idea also proves true in our protests. The chants are disjointed, often two or three happening at once, and even when we all chant the same thing half the crowd is offbeat. As a former percussionist, this greatly bothers me. The drummer and the tambourinist continue to try to keep time, though, unperturbed.
But then I remember marching band, and I realize what this means. It means that there are so many people around (and no one brought a megaphone, oddly enough) that we’re all reacting to each others’ sounds, which throws us all off. This is a good thing. It means we are legion.
I later learned that though the protest permit was administered for 150 people, more than 1,000 showed up.
At one point a group of green-and-black clad hippies with beards and multiple piercings show up, each of them wielding cigarettes. Chris thinks that they’re probably with some political group or another, maybe PSL or something. They start trying to get the crowd on board with some more intense chants like “Fuck your borders, fuck your wall. America was meant for all!” and “Who shuts shit down? We shut shit down!” My favorite was the simple “Fascists out; Refugees in!” because of its clarity and brevity. But eventually this peters out and the group moves on.
Eventually we start moving forward, which is an unplanned part of the protest. I briefly wonder what’s going on before Chris and I are swept along in the tide of protesters. We pass the police car that marked the end of the designated protest zone. When we’ve stopped moving, the 1,000-strong protesters are now in front of the departure area, and I’m glad that we’re finally in a position to cause a bit of nonviolent shock to the powers that be.
(I would later find out that these people were responsible for the movement, and that it was probably why the protest got shut down early).
At some point the police form a line and start slowly condensing the crowd. Unbeknownst to the majority of us, the protest is over; it has been called off by the airport almost an hour and a half ago, when it became clear that way more than 150 people had shown up. So we slowly condense and leave in small groups, and though it feels great to be part of such a massive turnout, I am left to wonder the same thing I always wonder about protests: have we really done anything to bring about any real change?
Before we leave, one last person comes up to give Chris a fist-bump over his sign. “Nonviolence protects the State, man,” the guy says as we start to walk away. I am reminded of something else Chris told me in the early stages of the protest: usually, if someone is directly inciting you to violence at one of these things, that person is probably a cop.
We drive out of the airport in an orderly fashion, directed by police officers. And then we’re on the road, driving back to my apartment complex. I haven’t even touched the food I brought with me.
In the car, we talk about the heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric that has become increasingly prevalent on the Right. Moreover, we commiserate in our distaste for much of the Left’s counter-rhetoric on this issue (i.e. “immigrants and refugees bring so much to our communities… Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant!”). No, we say to each other, we don’t save refugees or welcome immigrants because one of them might be a Steve Jobs. We don’t give homeless people houses for free (as Utah has done in an ongoing social experiment) because it’s a more cost-effective solution. We do these kindnesses because we’re dealing with human fucking beings. This, Chris says, is a symptom of our indoctrination into capitalism: every human is seen through the eyes of potential (monetary) value.
And then Chris says something else that truly blows my mind and makes me forget what I was just about to say (which, if you know me, is quite a feat). He says that this is essentially what social media has done to us. Social media, with its retweets and shares and likes and comments, has given a numeric value to your very thoughts.
So much of our lives are now spent on social media, farming for likes and retweets and Facebook interactions. And while I’d classify this as amoral, it is still a way in which harmful capitalist dogma injects itself into our thought processes. It is a way in which we dehumanize people, even if slightly, and condense ourselves into a series of “engagements,” as Twitter analytics call them.
As Chris pulls into my apartment complex to drop me off, we talk about all sorts of historical problems with our nation, how it could be better, and how all of this is contingent upon the people taking personal responsibility for the nation’s direction. Still, in the back of my mind, I’m worrying about that social media idea. I have been planning, throughout the day, to write a blog post about my protest experience. I brought along a notebook to record important moments or thoughts. And now here you are, reading them. Giving me feedback and engagements.
Is that what this protest is, when it comes down to it? I mentioned earlier how good it felt to be around people who were vocally supporting immigrants and refugees, how comforting it was to know that folks are just as upset as I am and are willing to fight an increasingly authoritarian government to show compassion to suffering humans. Yet is this not merely a form of “engagement”? Earlier I mentioned that over 1,000 people came to the protest. Is this not, like social media shares, a way of giving the protest numeric value? In this sense, have we really offered a new paradigm here, or were we just pretending?
And then, of course, I came home. And I logged onto my computer to assure people that I was safe, to look for news about other protests around the country, and to see how people are responding. Also of course, many people are aggrieved over the protesters. Many people are aggrieved at flight delays or minor traffic disruption, or merely at “whiny liberals.”
In short, many people are more upset about the disruption of their own normal everyday routines than they are about the prospect of shutting off entire swathes of this planet’s population from much-needed help.
We are the most prosperous nation in the history of the world. As far as we know, we–you and I, right now–are the most prosperous group of beings in the history of the universe.
And we’re too scared of the prospect of dying by terrorism to help people in war-torn areas. Though the risk of such a death is lower than dying from a lawnmower, we remain afraid. And we hoard our riches from those who are suffering.
So no, I don’t think the protest did much. Even after a federal judge put an emergency stay on Trump’s executive order, reports are that the stay is going unheeded in many airports. We haven’t solved the problem, and may not have brought about any change at all.
But we fight. We continue to fight. Not because it brings us value or social media likes. Not because we will change the dreadful policies or change the direction of our government.
We fight because these are human beings we’re talking about. Human fucking beings.