Photos: Saif Alnuweiri
This past Saturday, a slate of activist groups in New York’s progressive community, led by a group of soccer fans who call themselves the Cosmopolitan Antifascists, met at Columbus Circle to protest a man who it was clear they all see as an existential threat: Donald Trump.
The protestors’ focus was clear: behind the cardboard “Dump Trump” cartoons, the jokes about Trump’s hands, the street percussionists keeping everyone on beat; behind the open smiles and laughs among friendly activists, there was fear. Real fear.
These protestors know what many in the media seem to forget: that Donald Trump — and more importantly, Donald Trump’s supporters — holds immigration up as the central issue of his campaign. As often as Trump’s “dealmaker” reputation has been used to suggest that his talking points are really opening salvos in policy negotiations, the protestors know what Donald Trump’s supporters want: the deportation, “Operation Wetback”-style, of millions of Americans.
The fear of deportation isn’t a new one for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. These activist groups have been President Obama’s harshest critics from the left, giving him the moniker “Deporter-in-Chief” for the 2 million deportations overseen by his administration, the most under any president.
But Trump is different. While both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have committed to ending mass deportations, Trump has built up a campaign of xenophobia — around Mexican immigrants, Syrian refugees, oversees workers taking American jobs — that nearly every other Republican presidential candidate adopted without much question. The fervor of its most devoted followers is almost as surprising as the relatively minor resistance Trump has faced from the conservative movement, to its own co-opting by racist demagoguery.
One speaker at the rally, Ella Mendoza, seemed a veteran of these types of protests. She hurled insults at Trump in Spanish to an eager crowd and emphasized the diverse community of activist groups in attendance. “That’s what’s beautiful about this protest,” she told me in an interview after her speech. “People have come together from all corners.”
When I asked Mendoza — who spoke at the rally on behalf of ICE-Free NYC and also represents Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, two undocumented immigrants rights groups — her plans for Trump’s possible presidency, she hesitated for an awkward beat before telling me she would “analyze the situation and make decisions based on what our community needs.” She drew back her sleeve to show me a phone number scribbled on her arm, the line to the National Lawyers Guild’s Immigration Project, in case she was arrested.
Mendoza told me she had been pessimistic before — about access to food and housing; about the risk of going to protests like this one — but that Trump posed a new type of threat. “The reality of being an undocumented immigrant is that you have to take chances,” she said.
It’s hard to describe the apprehension with which those in attendance at the rally read Donald Trump’s rhetoric about deporting millions of Americans. Pro-immigration groups have been outspoken over the years about how dehumanizing the term “illegal aliens” is, but that’s exactly what Donald Trump will make them. Each man, woman, and child will be a fugitive, subject to the full force of the executive branch and lunatic sheriffs like Joe Arpaio, who’s created his own brand of bigot-celebrity in Arizona, and whose endorsement Donald Trump wears like an armband.
Throughout the rally, which lasted a few hours and wandered in between the monument to the USS Maine in Columbus Circle and Trump Tower, chants switched fluidly between English and Spanish.
“I hope that there are more protests, because it’s not just Trump,” Sofia Arias told me. She spoke on behalf of the International Socialist Organization. “It’s Ted Cruz and his Islamophobia, it’s horrendous. And there are already deportations and raids happening right now, and those have increased in past months.”
Arias was ambivalent about the idea that Trump introduced Islamophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric to the national stage. “I think Donald Trump is really just expressing the underlying racism that has been in operation along the political spectrum these past eight years,” she said.
Though there were little more than a thousand people in attendance on Saturday, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, should Trump become the nominee, these types of protests would become larger and more common. Everyone I spoke to viewed the recent anti-Trump protests in Chicago — which ended up completely shutting down a Trump rally — as a success. It was a model to be emulated, should Trump continue to the nomination.
Janet Roesch, who manned a table for the International Socialists guessed the New York crowd was “largely a grassroots upswell, largely unorganized. Someone put it on Facebook.” Many in attendance, lefty organizers aside, looked fairly green to the etiquette of anti-fascism protest, if there is such a thing. Protestors played idly with phones and eyed police nervously.
That wasn’t the whole crowd: I caught up with Alex Renner, a large man with a shaved head who described himself as a Communist, shortly after a swell of protestors was stopped by police at an intersection. He flushed what seemed like tear gas out of his eyes as he described a handful of arrests made by the NYPD.
But count it: should Trump become nominee, we’ll begin to see more protestors like Anna Whitehouse, who marched with her mother and explained, “we like to go to protests every once in a while for things that we really believe in.”
She’s not alone. And in Mendoza’s words, “I think that if Trump ever dares to come to New York and tries to start something, that’s why we’re here. We’re already planting the seeds, let’s say.”