Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been protested with street art, gallery shows, and even a piñata pummeling, but yesterday brought an unprecedented scene as an eclectic crowd of New Yorkers gathered outside the Republican candidate’s own Trump Tower, wielding signs calling to “END RACISM” and “WELCOME REFUGEES.”
At the intersection of 59th Street and Eighth Avenue, leather-clad socialists stood shoulder-to-shoulder with sober Iraq veterans, poster-wielding Hispanic organizers, and Jewish anti-war activists, while NYPD officers ringed loosely on the margins of the scene. The 700-plus crowd jostled good-naturedly towards the center of the plaza where the event’s MCs perched on the granite pedestal beneath a statue of Christopher Columbus. A marching band led by a strident drumbeat bolstered the already-electric atmosphere.
The rally represented the collaboration of over 50 organizations who joined to show solidarity for Iraqi and Syrian refugees and to oppose the “Islamophobic, Arabphobic, and Xenophobic” rhetoric that has mounted in recent weeks, culminating in Donald Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration.
For Mirna Haidar, lead organizer at the Arab American Association of New York, anti-Muslim comments like Trump’s are about far more than words. “It’s violence,” argued Haidar, a refugee from Lebanon who came to the United States in 2010. Haidar says she’s frightened by the recent political climate, combined with the rise in hate crimes targeting Muslims. Haidar said she “expected to live without fear” once she reached the U.S., but now worries she may be a target of anti-Muslim anger.
Yosef Amresh, 23, however, said he’s “Syrian, Muslim, and proud,” and refuses to let the political climate intimidate him. “Trump is not a serious politician–he’s an entertainer. Whatever–” Amresh stabbed the air with his poster, emblazoned with the words “GRIEF HAS NO BORDERS.” “We think people will wake up and realize that it isn’t fair to ban an entire group of people.” Amresh says the hostility from people like Trump has not deterred him from encouraging his family, still in Syria, to try to immigrate to the United States. “This country offers freedom and safety. Of course I want my people to come here–at least until the war ends.”
The diverse collaborators highlighted their shared belief that anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments are a part of broader social ills. “I can’t help but see the connections between the campaign against Arabs and Muslims with the war on black people here in this country,” said Akua Gy, a representative from the Black Lives Matter movement. “We stand in solidarity with all victims of racism and imperialism.” Naomi Dann of Jewish Voice For Peace, agreed: “The Jewish tradition teaches us to welcome our neighbors and to learn from our own experiences of oppression to participate in the struggle for justice for all communities.”
At the back of the crowd stood Manal Abdelaziz, a demure, Damascus-born mother of three. Speaking in Arabic, she said that while she occasionally faces hostility in the United States, she’s grateful for the opportunity it offers her family. “Really, I’m here [at the rally] to show my support for the people back in Syria who are suffering.” Abdelaziz says many of her relatives are still in Damascus, where much of her neighborhood has been reduced to rubble by fighting. “I don’t know how we’ll ever recover, but first, we just pray for the violence to stop.”
Lily Srey, a member of Southeast Asian advocacy group Mekong, traveled to the protest from her home in the Bronx to stand for the rights of “all refugees for a safe haven.” Srey’s parents came to the United States as refugees from Cambodia, and, said Srey, it is painful to hear refugees referred to in “dehumanizing” language. “The way [Trump] is treating Muslims is just wrong,” said Srey, “of course I had to come out.”
On the pedestal-turned-stage, seasoned Syrian activist Hamid Imam led the crowd in chants and gave an impassioned speech calling for the dismantling of both ISIS and the Assad regime. “The only way to end the suffering is to end the war,” urged Imam, a refugee from ar-Raqqah who now studies social work at Rutgers.
The highlight of the rally came when a man named Hosam, a recently arrived refugee from the Syrian city of Homs, spoke to the crowd through a translator. Hosam, a small-built man wrapped in a Syrian rebel flag, kept his voice and eyes low as he described the last protest he attended in Syria, where the crowd was met with a spray of bullets. “I fled the country for my children, to take them away from the killings. But we hope to God we will go back.” From the crowd came shouts of “YES! YOU WILL.” Hosam stressed that he considered himself a victim of ISIS, and emphasized that “anyone who thinks ISIS is Islam is very wrong. Islam is a religion of peace. We greet one another by saying, ‘Peace to you.’”
The crowd dispersed after an hour and half, ending with a song (“we sing to heal the heartache/we sing because we know/tonight in Iraq and Syria/our people need some hope”). Diligent organizers darted around the plaza to hand out fliers for upcoming protests, while others made their way to a “Chanukah in a Mosque” fundraiser nearby.
Imam, dismounting the stage, made the rounds amongst fellow organizers, shaking hands and urging his fellow Syrians to “stay optimistic.” The victory, said Imam, will come through sheer resilience. “In the cities that have been completely leveled by bombs, people are literally fighting beneath the rubble,” says Imam. “How can you beat people like that?”