The tell-tale row of white police vans lined the periphery Washington Square Park, hinting at some dissent needing to be contained in the distance. As usual, chanting masses converged closer to the nucleus of the park, as if calling for political triomphe below the gleaming white arch. “No ban, no wall, no prisons, no pipeline!” Drums cracked, dancing erupted, and fists rose tall. Trump has occupied the highest office for under a week, and already, his executive actions are posed to threaten the lives of millions of Americans, just as promised.
To the pace of the president’s executive hubris, New Yorkers are swiftly mobilizing responses. The Council on American Islamic Relations, known as CAIR, called for an emergency rally for Muslim and immigrant rights Wednesday. By 5 p.m., when the event was set to begin, 8,000 people had said they would go on Facebook. The protest challenged Trump’s directives on immigration, which he announced the same day at the Department of Homeland Security. His proposed executive orders would begin construction of an expanded border wall with Mexico, slash the number of refugees who can resettle in the United States, reopen CIA foreign detention “black sites,” and bar entry of Muslim immigrants, among other things. In a city where foreign-born people account for over 37% of the population, many considered Trump’s initiatives an attack on the core identity of New York itself.
This position is shared by mayor Bill de Blasio, who reinforced New York’s commitment to remain a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, even if doing so means the loss of federal funding. He said at a news conference Wednesday, “We will not deport law-abiding New Yorkers. We will not tear families apart.” In 2015, federal funding accounted for 10% of New York City’s budget, and Trump has proposed to punish cities that do not abide by federal immigration mandates. De Blasio’s message of defiance echoed the same spirit of solidarity expressed among protesters with messages like, “We are together,” and “Leave my halal guy alone.”
A college-age girl held a sign beside her oval face that read, “immigrants are beautiful,” luring the flash of several cameras. Her parents emigrated from Iran during the revolution in circumstances that she considered gave them a similar experience of having their country turned upside down. “I can’t listen to all this awful rhetoric that immigrants are harmful and immigrants are bad for this country,” Sanaz said. “As the daughter of two immigrants, I’m here to make my voice heard.”
Sanaz’s voice contributed to the collective chants of several thousand people, many of whom held candles, shrouding them from the wind. Bodies clustered tightly all the way from below the arch to beyond the park’s empty fountain with signs appearing to float above their dense human mass. The statements inked on cardboard ranged from tepid, pacifist calls for unity to radical, revolutionary incitement. One girl gripped a Guatemalan flag behind her back while a young man held a sign written in Arabic: “The people want to bring down the regime”— a nod to the Arab Spring.
Despite varied motivations, a commitment to inclusion prevailed among the crowd with a shared goal to counter the political tide of xenophobia, now materialized in Trump’s fulfillment of his campaign promises. “How could you not be here?” a woman named Jeanne asked. She held a sign that read “Jewish Silence = Jewish Consent,” explaining that, “We know what it means when people start being registered and when people start being discriminated against on the basis of religion or cultural identity.” In the months since the election, she has worked to compile a list of local organizations that will be battling the Trump agenda so that people seeking ways to get involved can easily find volunteer avenues.
Her concerns about Trump’s potential impacts reflect what some organizations have already observed. CAIR’s intake records from Muslim-Americans reporting hate crime indicate that the incidence rate increased markedly after Trump’s election, with half of all cases from the calendar year occurring between November 8 and the end of January.
Many protesters worry that Trump’s executive actions reinforce the sentiments that fuel such violence. Albert Cahn, the director of strategic litigation at CAIR, said, “We don’t believe that these sorts of measures will do anything to protect the American people and moreover that they will only legitimize the sort of Islamophobic bigotry that will be directed at the Muslim community.” Nevertheless, the organization he serves is devising strategic responses to combat the proposed legislation through advocacy, education, litigation, and grassroots mobilizing. Based on the public response to an impromptu event, they will likely have plenty of support rallying behind them.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised because it misquoted the sign Jeanne was holding up.