February 2, 2017

Occupying Airports and the Future of Protest

Democracy in Crisis

Photo Credit: Baynard Woods

Donald Trump, Russian sex workers and Vladimir Putin aren’t the only ones who need to worry about piss.

In a recent column about the Women’s March in Washington on the day after the Inauguration, Kate Drabinski wrote: “There's much to say about the politics and critiques of these events, but in the moment you are reminded that politics is embodied practice, and all our bodies had to pee. We have to get better at meeting this need if we're going to have that revolution.”

President Trump may have inadvertently helped find a solution to that problem as his constitutionally questionable (at best) Muslim ban moved the protest movement into airports around the country—all of which have climate control, electrical outlets and numerous bathrooms.

Watching as thousands of people, many of whom have never protested before, poured into airports around the country on Saturday night—particularly New York’s JFK airport, where protests began in the morning with just a few people after two Iraqis were detained as a result of Trump’s executive order and swelled into a massive demonstration and even a cab strike.

Spontaneous demonstrations in even more airports in Atlanta, San Francisco, Dallas, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Washington and Baltimore followed on Sunday, making it clear that resistance to Trump will be more broad-based than probably any protests since the civil rights movement or the Vietnam war.

And, in the middle of winter, Trump gave a gift to this movement by giving its newest members a set of training wheels in the form of cozy and relatively comfortable airports all around the country.

I don’t want to make light of Trump’s executive order imposing a ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries, which was the reason why all of those people came out to airports. With this order, Trump’s team made U.S. airports and the country itself deeply uncomfortable and inhospitable to thousands of people around the world. But for suburbanites and burghers to flock to these same locations—which have been, for so many of us, our closest contact with the so-called “war on terror” over the last 15 years—in order to make Trump and Steve Bannon and the rest of his crew uncomfortable on a Sunday afternoon is potentially a turning point in resistance to the regime. 

At the front of the crowd at Baltimore Washington International (BWI), which was estimated to be somewhere near 2,000 people, there were members of Baltimore Bloc, the activist group that was behind many of the Baltimore marches in support of Ferguson and the large marches of the Uprising—the real front line of Baltimore’s activism—leading chants and cheers for people disembarking from international flights.

But a movement needs more than a front line. On inauguration day, when black bloc-style protesters and other bystanders and journalists were caught up in a police sweep, we saw what happens when only front-liners are out: gas, pepper spray, various forms of non-lethal grenades and other military weaponry is deployed.

The following day, at the Women’s March, instead of riot gear, District police officers wore pussy hats. Nobody wants to be the one to hit granny at a peaceful march with a billy club in front of a thousand smartphones (police did spray an older resident with pepper spray during the inauguration protest, and it was caught on video, but the nature of the protest and everything else going on kept that from going too viral).

Both approaches are valid and valuable and, in order to counter Trump's various assaults on democracy, a wide variety of strategies is necessary.

Some of the people who did not show up for Black Lives Matter protests may have shown up last weekend to stand in solidarity with people from Muslim-majority countries trying to get—or return—to America because they felt more comfortable at airports than in front of barricaded police precincts.

It is also true that #resistance has freed up a number of white citizens to vocally protest while taking the questioning of their own white privilege out of the conversation. #BlackLivesMatter protests called for white people to serve as allies and check their own privilege and this is difficult. Trump, in addition to empowering white nationalists, has re-empowered a certain part of the white left and excused us from thinking about race.

When former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley showed up and said something about crime being lower during his tenure as Baltimore’s mayor than at any other time, Tariq Touré, a black Muslim poet, chided him, saying it was because he had locked up whole zip codes.

“Some of the white liberals were mad that I said that,” Touré said later.

But it is also true that most white Americans won’t learn what it is like for other people unless they get outside of their own comfort zones. The airport, as with any long journey, may be the first step.

And it is a remarkable moment to see in America when thousands across the country come out to protest for Muslims and other citizens of Muslim majority countries at airports, which, following the hijackings on 9/11 became locked down military zones where no one was free, where we could all be subject to the same kind of stop and frisk that governs black and brown Americans in their own neighborhoods.

Punxsutawney Phil said this morning that we will have six more weeks of winter, and we certainly have a long march ahead of us if we hope to defend our democratic institutions, but the occupation of airports is good training.