The scene: John F. Kennedy International Airport on Jan. 28, 2017. In an instant, “scores” of people are trapped in airports across the country. Disorder reigns as family members wait outside of security cordons to find out the fate of their loved ones. The scene is unreal—it feels like the onset of a national crisis. And the situation at hand is neither an accident nor a pandemic virus, but a poorly implemented executive order signed by President Donald J. Trump.
In New York, the popular reaction to the decree is swift. Indeed, that very night, I myself was standing outside of Terminal 4, where several people have been detained. I was, of course, not the only one from Columbia. As I discovered later, Columbia students and faculty spontaneously mobilized at JFK, facilitated by many preexisting organizations on campus—both to help immigrants and travelers who were detained due to the order, and to hinder the ability of officials to carry it out.
While sudden, the order should not be perceived as unexpected. Trump himself, after all, had promised on the campaign trail a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration. And a law passed by Congress last year, H.R. 158, removed visa waivers from dual citizens from specific Muslim majority countries, as well as people who have travelled there. That said, the speed and degree by which Trump attempted to ban Muslim immigrants was completely unforeseen.
A series of mass emails from the National Iranian American Council, a nonpartisan organization that promotes the involvement of Iranian immigrants and their descendants in civil society, reveals how quickly the crisis unfolded. On Jan. 24, subscribers to the NIAC newsletter received an email warning that an Iranian ban was in the works. The next afternoon, NIAC sent another, more frantic email with the proposed text of the executive order. Over the next 48 hours, my inbox was clogged with frightening new developments, some of them false alarms.
On the night of Jan. 27, exactly a week under the new president, Trump finally signed an executive order banning all nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The implementation of the order proved to be chaotic, as ambiguous cases like green card holders and people already en route to America caused problems for enforcement, leaving hundreds of immigrants and travelers suddenly stranded in airports across the U.S. Having boarded their flights with valid visas, many found themselves trapped at immigration control by an unforeseen decree.
With the situation unfolding so quickly, there was no time for a pre-organized march or drawn-out petition. It took spontaneous actions, such as mass demonstrations at airports, to oppose the executive order. People rallied with different motivations, all of which intimate and political.
From Barnard, adjunct English lecturer Sonam Singh was driven to mobilize by his own experience as a South Asian immigrant. Describing American airport security culture as being “paranoid” and where “racial profiling is kind of the norm,” he contrasts today's “invasive” security measures with the laxer system in place when he first entered the U.S through JFK, tempering the joy he had taken in aircraft as a child. Singh also feels that he owes it to other immigrants to ensure they have the same opportunities that he has had.
His personal connection to fighting the ban echoes my own. My mother is also an immigrant from Iran. Although she was born there, she met my father while studying in the United States—I would not exist if Trump’s ban had been in effect a few decades earlier.
Danielle Carr, an anthropology graduate student at Columbia, had less intimate reasons for opposing the travel ban. A strict Calvinist upbringing gave her a strong emotional attachment to the ideas of right and wrong, and she says that she achieves the “same sense of moral transcendence, almost, when it comes to doing leftist organizing.”
All three of us would soon have the opportunity to do our part in opposing the ban.
On Jan. 28, the first day the ban had tangible effects, at least two separate calls for ad hoc general action were publicized on Facebook: the first for a protest at noon and the second for one at 5 p.m.. I didn't have much of an idea what we were planning to do, apart from sporadic online calls for Persian and Arabic speakers. But neither did anyone else I realized, listening to conversations on the subway car filled with passengers carrying politically charged placards and banners.
The many calls to action were both urgent and simple: Terminal 4, as soon as possible.
With acombination of confusion and determination that mirrored my own, Singh recalls how he wasn’t sure at the time if any protest or event would even come together.
JFK Airport is at the very end of the A train—where the distinction between Far Rockaway and Lefferts-bound trains actually holds some importance—almost two hours from campus. It is, in any case, an arduous trek. Without any idea of what events are planned, and given the risks associated with an agitated crowd in a high-security area, it's an especially tall order to show up.
The week after the protests, I meet Carr, who led a march in the parking lot of JFK, at a coffeeshop on 142nd Street and Broadway. The travel ban is, at the time of our conversation, still an object of a court battle, and a snowstorm had partially shut down the city. This time, transit delays are caused by Mother Nature rather than President Trump.
Carr talks generally about finding the motivation to turn grievance into action: "Our email inboxes are sputtering with too many calls to action. Our text messages are overflowing. Our Facebook feeds are groaning under the weight of all these calls to action," she complains. Carr suggests that, instead, we "cultivate a network of people you have face-to-face interactions with, and that you come to love, respect, and will go to battle for."
In other words, the best social network for political action is the old-fashioned kind.
For her, at JFK, this in-person contact was facilitated by the Graduate Workers of Columbia University whose events not only allow her to make like-minded friends, but also give her useful experience with organizing resistance and using leverage against policymakers. Carr also mentions that a group from an off-campus union—the Industrial Workers of the World,”—played an important role on the night. Singh, a member of Barnard Contingent Faculty’s negotiating committee, likewise sees the immigration ban and labor struggles as two sides of “Trump's assault on American life and American democracy.”
Of course, labor organizers in the Columbia-Barnard community only represent a small proportion of protesters at JFK. From talking to Carr and Singh, I realize that focused groups like these are able to mobilize a large mass of people who, prior to this year, weren't involved in political action.
Throughout the night, this mass of newly politicized people continued to grow. When I first arrived via the AirTrain, JFK police were guardedly, but politely, directing protesters outside to the parking lot. As the hours passed, the crowds began to spill into the multi-level parking garage and the streets around the airport; concurrently, the police presence seemed to become heavier and more militarized.
Singh explains that his doubts about the feasibility of the action disappeared as he saw the crowd’s numbers increase: “I told myself I really shouldn't just sit at home and worry, ‘Is this going to be a good enough protest to go out to?’ I want to be one of those people who help it to grow.”
Carr describes an almost festive scene in the parking lots outside of Terminal 4 with chanting, drumming, and singing.
"You have to make it a social event," she says, "and I had an amazing time. It was freezing cold and whatever, but we sang, we fought the police, it was amazing."
However, good spirits alone are not sufficient to enact change. Carr and Singh both describe effective resistance in terms of occupation of space.
“It was kind of joyful to see thousands of people demanding that an airport be a place where people from the world are welcomed into the country,” Singh says. ”It is space we get to occupy—as opposed to being scared, constantly scared.”
Singh contrasts the action at the airport to more planned protests: Spontaneity perhaps allowed the demonstrations to be more effective because authorities did not anticipate throngs of people.
“A protest can either mean something or it can do something,” Carr says. “To me, it's more important to have an action that achieves an end, that enacts consequences on those who are implementing the agenda that you disagree with, than it is to try to communicate to them.”
For someone without direct access to officials, disrupting the enactment of their agenda is one of the only ways to get a response from them. “We created an emergency,” Carr says. “That’s what it's about, creating a state of exigency.”
After the Port Authority restricted public transport to prevent the arrival of more demonstrators, a spontaneous taxi drivers’ strike slowed movement to and from the airport to a halt. Authorities now had to choose between maintaining the normal flow of passenger traffic while allowing protests to grow, or slowing passengers down to prevent disruptive protesters from entering the terminal.
Spontaneous mobilization is reactive by nature; nevertheless, the networks built at these events can become more permanent. Immigration lawyers stationed at the airport to help detainees, unable to communicate with many of their clients, put out a call for Persian and Arabic speakers. Chasing one such verbal call from someone with a megaphone, I am separated from the crowd. Trapped on the sidewalk outside the terminal, I find myself unable to go anywhere but away from the demonstration.
However, the Monday after the demonstration at JFK, willing members of my Persian course gathered after class to send our contact information to immigration lawyers through an effort that originally started on social media by Mina Bahrami.
It was surprising to find myself spending a night “on call” that week to interpret, waiting for a lawyer to summon me to an airport.
Because the call never came—according to email updates from the organizer, enough translators signed up—I assumed that the operation was managed by professionals. It's therefore surprising to hear in an interview from Bahrami, the sole organizer of the effort to get translators, that she, herself, is completely new to political organizing.
Bahrami lives on the edge of Morningside Heights, close to Knox Hall, and works at a start-up called Architizer. While she has never been a student or faculty member, her contract work for the Encyclopædia Iranica, published by the University, makes her a self-identified “honorary” Columbian and a familiar face at the Columbia Iranian Students Association.
Bahrami, who has a degree in International Development Studies from McGill University, describes a lonely upbringing, being a member of the only Iranian family in a “very small, white, conservative town in New Jersey.” She speaks about how racism and anti-Muslim bigotry in her hometown motivates her to fight for the rights of her fellow immigrants.
Bahrami claims that her role in organizing the translation effort is accidental. After an immigration lawyer, a friend of a friend, reached out to her personally about the need for translation services at Newark Airport, Bahrami made an innocuous Facebook post to see if any other Persian speakers were available.
Thanks to her connections both within the Iranian community and at Columbia, Bahrami’s post soon went viral. Dozens of people, some from as far away from London, contacted her asking how to help.
Bahrami then travelled between Newark and JFK airports, helping teams of pro bono lawyers “posted up” in cafés connect with clients and interpreters. She navigated scenes of chaos, as lawyers were unable to find specific translators when and where they needed them.
Although Bahrami eventually got in contact with the American Civil Liberties Union, her efforts were impromptu and unpaid. She is completely unaware that my Persian class organized collectively for her cause.
Bahrami hopes that our willingness to help on such short notice will be useful in defending the Iranian-American community in the future. She intends to compile a list of on-demand volunteer translators for groups like the Muslim Bar Association or ACLU.
Bahrami, Singh, and Carr all strike optimistic notes as they look to the future. Where Bahrami is optimistic about the future of her community, which is newly energized to defend its own rights, Singh and Carr are also guardedly hopeful because of the response to the ban.
Although it took an appellate court to overturn the executive order, one of the earliest legal blows to Trump’s decree was a New York district court’s decision to order the release of an Iraqi refugee trapped in JFK the night of the protest.
Singh sees a direct connection between the demonstrations and the lifting of the ban. “I would like to think that the thousand[s] of people causing a ruckus gave [lawyers] the fortitude to just keep going despite the hostility of customs and border officials,” he says.
However, he worries that the momentum of the movement may not last. Singh reminds me that Trump still has an enormous amount of power as head of the executive branch, and warns against a sense of complacency.
Carr, however, has a concrete suggestion for avoiding such complacency: “Look to the queer people and the people of color who are already in your life, who have already been fighting to survive for a very long time,” she says. “They have a leg up on those of us who think that the emergency started at the end of Obama, because they've been living through the emergency for a very long time.”
Ultimately then, the participation of Columbia students and faculty in the spontaneous JFK protests is a reminder of the power of the University as a nexus of social connections. As the events of late January demonstrate, students are able to leverage networks of people with a variety of eclectic skills.
Singh reminds me that concerted efforts to mobilize people can snowball into something much greater.
“To be brave and to strike if we need to in such a hostile political climate—at the moment, I take that as my very small contribution.”
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