Protests out of 'nowhere': Five lessons from the organizers behind the #NoBanNoWall airport protests

02/17/2017 04:44 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2017
Protesters crowd JFK airport in New York following Donald Trump’s Muslim ban.
Camille Mackler, New York Immigration Coalition
Protesters crowd JFK airport in New York following Donald Trump’s Muslim ban.

By Emily Andrews

The afternoon President Trump signed his executive order issuing a temporary ban prohibiting the entry into the United States of migrants from seven Muslim countries and refugees globally, immigrant rights advocates and Muslim and refugee organizations in New York were ready.

The massive, rapid-response action that played out at JFK airport - and created the first spark of the conflagration that swept across airports nationwide - was made possible by a handful of grassroots, New York-based organizations that had been working together on a Trump response for months and in broader concert for years, building the relationships, trust and solidarity that would facilitate pulling off such a huge action so quickly. There are important lessons in this story for everyone thinking about how to resist the Trump agenda, particularly the importance of permanent organizations and the role of strategic leadership in directing action.

The months leading up to the ban

Even before Donald Trump’s unlikely rise to the presidency, Make the Road New York, The New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) and their umbrella coalition, the Fair Immigrant Reform Movement (FIRM), which represents more than 40 of the largest immigrant rights organizations nationwide, had been preparing for the possibility of a Trump presidency and the inevitable targeting of Muslims, refugees and immigrants that would follow.

The Sunday after Trump’s election, Make the Road New York, NYIC, partners and allies organized a rapid-response rally and march that mobilized more than 15,000 people into the streets of Manhattan. This action launched a series of larger strategy discussions between NYIC, Make the Road New York and organizations including Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), African Communities Together and Majlis Ashura: The Islamic Leadership Council of Greater NY.

A month later, NYIC, Make the Road New York, other longtime partners and new allied organizations coordinated a 3,000-person immigrant march through midtown New York as a show of strength that also kicked off the national FIRM arc of escalation in response to the incoming president’s threats against their communities.

Since Trump’s election, immigrant organizations have noted a surge of interest from new allies from the reproductive justice and human and environmental rights movements. Make the Road New York, for example, has leveraged this support by starting an “aliados,” or allies, network for those who want to support immigrant communities. Their monthly meeting swelled from 200 people in January to 400 this week.

In the week before Trump’s inauguration, busloads of immigrants and allies traveled to DC for the January 14 Day of Action around the #heretostay campaign, organized by FIRM, SEIU and United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the country. Thousands of immigrants and supporters filled the historic Metropolitan AME Church to capacity and then spilled onto the street for a spirited march through D.C.

The work to fortify the Trump resistance in New York and hold allies close continued in echo events. NYIC launched the “This is Our New York” rapid-response campaign to engage the community, provide legal services, fight hate crimes and work with partner organizations to open the hearts and minds of recalcitrant upstate New Yorkers by lifting up positive contributions of immigrants.

The 48-hour timeline

In anticipation of the Executive Order on the Muslim ban, NYIC, in partnership with Majlis Ashura: The Islamic Leadership Council of Greater NY, held an interfaith rally and Jummah prayer – the Muslim equivalent to Sunday church services. More than 200 people attended outside of the immigration court at Foley Square in Manhattan.

When the order finally came down on Friday evening, both NYIC and Make the Road New York immediately issued press releases, called local officials and activated their networks. NYIC’s Director of Political Engagement, Murad Awawdeh, a Palestinian-American Muslim, was at the fulcrum of the airport protests. “When the Executive Order was first signed, it was totally unclear when or how enforcement would start. To assess the impact, we immediately began reaching out to immigrant and Muslim communities to probe for information of any relatives or friends expected to arrive in New York and sent runners to the airport to inquire about detainees.”

NYIC and Make the Road New York received word Friday night that airport officials detained two Iraqi refugees, Hameed Khalid Darweesh and Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi. Lawyers from the International Refugee Assistance Project were the first on the scene. By Saturday morning, Make the Road New York and NYIC made the decision to put out a call to action. At 8 A.M., Murad tweeted out the first battle cry: “TAKE ACTION: #NYC head to #JFK #T4 arrivals for a rapid response protest NOW! #NoBanNoWall #MuslimBan #Resist.” Murad’s tweet was retweeted more than 1,000 times within the hour and similar calls to action were made by Make the Road New York staff and other partners.

As the organizing and political staff mobilized their networks, lawyers from NYIC, Make the Road New York and FIRM arrived at the airport to support the IRAP lawyers. Camille Mackler, NYIC’s Director of Legal Initiatives, entered the terminal in time to join U.S Representatives Jerry Nadler and Nydia Velazquez as they raced down the halls with the IRAP legal counsel, arguing to gain access to the detainees. Mackler would eventually take over the coordination of the airport legal services, setting up a legal volunteers’ schedule, coordinating intake forms and tracking legal briefs. This impromptu legal services operation worked out of JFK airport around the clock for the next eight days.

When Murad and his counterpart at Make the Road New York, Daniel Altschuler, arrived at the airport on Saturday morning, a handful of protesters milled about. Within 30 minutes, the crowd had grown to more than four dozen people. The media, urged to the airport by calls from communications staff from these same local organizations, had arrived in force. On a live CNN feed, Murad gave the call to action to all New Yorkers of good conscience to get to JFK’s terminal four immediately, while Daniel coordinated press briefings with Reps. Nadler and Velazquez to ensure maximum visibility.

By the afternoon, a thousand people had joined the protest, and the word spread via cable news, social media, and through national umbrella networks such as FIRM for people to protest at airports nationwide. FIRM partners answered the call to action in Chicago through the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), in Washington, D.C. through CASA, in Seattle through OneAmerica, in Los Angeles through the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), in Phoenix through Promise Arizona, among dozens of other locations.

When allied progressive Jewish organizations held a havdalah ceremony in support of the detained Saturday evening, the protest at JFK was 6,000 strong. At the height of the action that night, the crowds filled a four-story parking garage and overflowed into the taxi pick up area. “It was beautiful,” recalled Murad. “People were flooding from all directions - jumping out cars, coming from the terminal, swamping us from all sides with signs, chants and rally cries. It was overwhelming.”

Protesters raise their voices against Trump’s immigration ban.
Camille Mackler, New York Immigration Coalition
Protesters raise their voices against Trump’s immigration ban.

Crowds like these usually require days of planning, permits and detailed behind-the-scenes logistics. As soon as the crowds started to swell, NYIC Executive Director Steve Choi and his team were on the phone with Port Authority representatives, negotiating the protesters’ location and the basics of lights, heat and safety. Organization staff and the Port Authority also negotiated over where the lawyers could station themselves inside the airport and even if and where they could use the bathrooms.

The crowd was in a frenzy by the time news spread that night that the Eastern District of New York issued an emergency stay halting deportations. As only organizers can, Steve Choi, Murad Awawdeh, Daniel Altschuler and Fahd Ahmed, the ED of DRUM, huddled in a corner of the garage and hatched the plan to build on this momentum. They called for a rally and march the next day at 2 P.M. in Battery Park. The size of the crowd had grown so much, Choi and Altschuler announced the time and location of the rally via the tried and true organizing method of the “mic check,” where the crowd repeats small snippets of sentences until the entire message, piece by piece, is echoed to the periphery of the crowd.

The next day, Battery Park overflowed with more than 30,000 protesters, immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, activists of color and white allies.

Top 5 lessons from the airport actions for the resistance

Much can be learned from these initial acts of resistance to the Trump agenda. After speaking with the organizations who lit the spark for these nationwide protests, here are our top 5 lessons:

1. Organizations with conscious leadership play a critical role in movement times. Mass-mobilizations and the movements that support them never come “out of nowhere” but are part of an intentional effort to mobilize impacted people and their supporters. The role of organizations in movements is often underappreciated and undervalued.

2. Elected officials must rally to the cause quickly to give legitimacy to the outrage and protection to grassroots leaders – this is one way Democrats at a national level can be relevant to the resistance in this new era where they have little power in their formal roles.

3. Execute this work through the pre-existing national networks of organizing groups that have spent years building trust – through these networks we will amplify our message nationwide.

4. Bring the pain to the surface – we must highlight the human cost and suffering caused by Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and family-separating policies. Going to the place where harm is being done is a powerful message – it humanizes the abstract debate and forces people to take sides.

5. Answer the call! We must all be ready to activate our families, co-workers, organizations and networks to stand with those hurt the most by this reign of terror. Through the practice of solidarity, we will find our salvation.

Emily Andrews is a senior project manager with the Center for Community Change Action.

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