While thousands of people were marching outside the Philadelphia Airport Sunday in protest of President Donald Trump’s Muslim immigration ban, Nazia Kazi sat on the floor of Terminal A. Surrounded by other Philadelphians of color telling stories about what they saw as systematic oppression, Kazi watched strangers sob in each other’s arms and friends fall to the ground, overwhelmed with emotion.
“Those of us who are Muslim immigrants, black and brown and working-class people, every day that we wake up seems like a greater nightmare,” Kazi, a Muslim American and an organizer with the Philadelphia South Asian Collective, said. “And I can’t overstate just how terrified we are.”
But for Kazi, a Stockton University anthropology professor who teaches about Islamophobia, letting fear get the better of her is exactly what she’s trying to avoid. Instead, she’s strategizing to dismantle what she says is a robust American system of racism.
That’s going to take a lot of organization. And it’s going to take a lot of support, even from the legions of people new to activism who have joined protests and demonstrations since Trump’s inauguration for the first time.
In many ways, it’s once-apolitical people who are swelling crowds at protests across the country. Thousands filled the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Market Street and Rittenhouse Square and the airport terminals in the last week and a half to protest Trump’s policies, some of whom were driven to drop everything on a Saturday night to demonstrate at the airport.
Now the question is this: How long can demonstrators — the longtime activists and the newfound dissenters — sustain what feels like a permanent protest?
That’s definitely the case in Philadelphia, a city that not only saw huge turnouts for two nationwide protests but also sustained large demonstrations for almost three days last week while GOP leaders were in town for a retreat. On Thursday, at least 5,000 people marched around City Hall to greet Trump at the Loews Hotel. More protests happened that evening. Dozens protested the same leaders Friday morning at 30th Street Station.
Then, on Saturday night and again Sunday afternoon, thousands jammed SEPTA lines and left vehicles stranded on the highway to protest at Philadelphia International Airport after reports that a Syrian family was denied entry and sent on a return flight to Qatar, and at least two others were detained at the airport. Protesters were joined by local politicians — the mayor, congressmen and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat who showed up to the protest in a tuxedo with a white tie and tails.
More demonstrations are planned. On Thursday, the Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club is hosting a “March Against Discrimination” that could draw thousands. There’s also a “Philadelphia Protest for Humanity” set for this Saturday in Center City. On Facebook, 17,000 people say they’re interested in attending.
What drives permanent protest
Egina Manachova’s been to the Philadelphia International Airport plenty of times before. The first time was when she was 6, and flew into PHL with her mother. They were Jewish refugees from the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. Manachova’s mother, born in 1939 in the former Soviet Union, survived internment and was granted refugee status. She and Egina resettled in America in 1990.
The 32-year-old remembers coming into the airport surrounded by nervous adults. She remembers seeing ketchup for the first time and wondering what it was. She remembers drinking Pepsi and feeling like it was some sort of high-end champagne.
[pullquote content=”“It’s all about having solidarity with the oppressed regardless of who is doing the oppressing.”” align=”right” credit=”Egina Manachova”]
Today, Manachova is an organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry. She feels strongly that her role now is to support people of color and stand in solidarity with immigrants of all types. It’s why she had to be at the airport on Saturday.
“That’s why I’m in the fight for immigration justice, whether that’s the U.S.-Mexico border or this complicated border that takes place in countries across the ocean,” she said. “It’s all about having solidarity with the oppressed regardless of who is doing the oppressing.”
Manachova has a special connection to this movement, but she and her colleagues were mobilized well before Trump temporarily ended the nation’s refugee resettlement program. So were thousands of other Philadelphians who have been organizing well ahead of the last 10 days. Manachova said the city’s certainly in a “protest moment,” but she was sure to note that the work’s been happening — perhaps less visibly — for a long time.
“A lot of people are waking up to the dangers of policies that have been around for quite awhile,” she said, “but are being amplified by the current administration and becoming more severe.”
That’s what she and other leading organizers in Philadelphia say could be driving new activists in droves. Jared Dobkin, an organizer with the Socialist Alternative group in Philadelphia that’s aiming to create “a party for the 99 percent,” said meeting attendance has doubled since the election and thousands of people showed up to protest at an event where they only expected a couple hundred.
“Everybody has their own realization that nothing will be changed in this society without their input or their help,” he said. “I’m not upset with people for not coming to stuff earlier… I’m just happy they’re there now.”
It was the Access Hollywood tape that leaked in October that sent things over the edge for Melanie Haltie, a 27-year-old from Upper Darby.
“You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them,” Trump told then-Access Hollywood host Billy Bush in 2005. “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Haltie heard the tape and called her longtime friend Malcolm Kenyatta, a North Philly activist and political commentator. Kenyatta said he’ll “never ever forget” the conversation. His friend was shaken.
[pullquote content=”“Their policies are on the brink of creating something bigger than they’re aware of.”” align=”right” credit=”Scott Schroeder”]
“I thought that was truly horrible,” Haltie told Billy Penn, “and I’m not one who would stand for someone as my president who makes those kind of remarks.”
So leading up to Trump’s inauguration, Haltie did something she’d never done before: She went to a protest. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she joined thousands of others near Independence Hall for the MLK DARE March, an action organized by a conglomerate of more than 30 organizations fighting “right-wing extremism.”
Days later after she’d attended her first protest ever, she went to another: The Women’s March on Philadelphia, the affiliate march that took place the day after Trump was inaugurated. Estimates suggest 50,000 people attended the Philadelphia protest. Haltie says she’s going to continue participating in whatever ways she can.
Scott Schroeder, a chef/ owner at Queen Village’s Hungry Pigeon, also went to his first protest last week. On Thursday, while GOP congressional leaders were meeting with Trump at the Loews Hotel in Center City, Schroeder stood outside with thousands of others holding a sign that read “Black Lives Matter Too. (Hopefully the “too” helps you understand this.)”
He said he’s never believed in protest much, save for in certain “extreme cases.” Like now.
“I think it’s really important, not so much that President Trump hears our voices, but I like that the world hears our voices,” he said. “I kind of believe their policies are on the brink of creating something bigger than they’re aware of.”
Turning protest into action
That’s why Schroeder said he’s going beyond protesting. He’s working with a handful of other chefs, restaurants, breweries and distilleries in Philadelphia to put on a fundraiser for the ACLU of Pennsylvania on March 2 at the Hungry Pigeon. He said he’s hoping to seat 120 people at $100 apiece. Servers will even donate their tips. And the booze is being provided by others from across the city.
“It was so amazing though just to reach out to these people and say ‘hey, we’re doing this thing,’” he said. “No one even hesitated. It was like, ‘oh yeah, we’ll give you beer for that shit.’ It was great.”
Schroeder said he’s hoping to raise $10,000 for the ACLU of Pennsylvania through the event. He said he believes the protests over the last 10 days have been an important step in drawing attention to issues protesters care about. But he said “doing something about it is way better.”
And if photos are any indication, it seems a large chunk of people in Philadelphia who have attended protests are attempting to do just that. Last Wednesday, while hundreds of people took to the streets in protest, hundreds more attended a Planned Parenthood Action Forum. Some went to an event to learn about gerrymandering. Others took steps to get advice on running for office. That was just in one night.
Organizers and leadership say it’s going to take a blend of sustained action and organized involvement to make the changes they believe in. Sarah Stone is an organizer with Philadelphians United for Progress, which puts on Tuesdays With Toomey — a group that protests outside Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s offices across Pennsylvania every Tuesday. She said getting people on board for the long haul is a challenge.
“The vast majority of the people coming out have never been involved in a protest before and have never done anything like this,” she said, adding that statewide protesters plan to take action at his offices “indefinitely.”
Kenyatta, who was part of organizing Sunday’s march at the Philadelphia Airport, has been an activist for years. He’s working with other leaders to make sure those who are newer to the process stick around.
“We all, rightfully so, are challenging our leadership, and we ought to,” he said. “But we also have a responsibility as citizens to be engaged in what is happening in our political process.”
Kenyatta said it was one chant — directed at Trump — that he heard on Sunday that stuck with him:
“We are not going away. Welcome to your everyday.”