Week 1: America the Brave

Los Angeles, 29 January 2017

“First they came for the Muslims, and we said NOT THIS TIME MOTHERFUCKER”.

If anything sums up the mood of American resistance, it’s this defiant slogan, painted on cardboard signs at protests across the country. The first week of Donald Trump’s administration was bookended by weekends of mass civic demonstrations. The first, the Women’s March, held the day after President Trump’s threadbare inauguration, was the biggest protest in US history. The week of politics that followed was a hailstorm of incompetence and ignominy. According to news reports, Trump (deep breath): signed an Executive Order seeking to repeal Obamacare without a replacement; insulted the CIA by making self-aggrandizing remarks, applauded by allegedly paid supporters, in front of the sacred Memorial Wall to the fallen; directed White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to yell the easily disproved lie that Trump’s was the “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period!” (later characterized by presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway as “alternative facts”); undermined the democratic process by insisting, without basis, that his popular vote loss was due to 3-5 million illegal votes; announced an “investigation” into the fictional illegal votes, focusing on Democratic strongholds; justified his belief in 3-5 million illegal votes with a racist story told by a friend of a friend of a German golfer; continued to employ General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, notwithstanding an ongoing investigation into the general’s communications with Russia; gagged government scientists, prompting park rangers and NASA to go rogue with alternative Twitter accounts; advanced the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines notwithstanding his own alleged financial interests; signed an executive order to build a widely condemned border wall that he states Mexico will pay for, prompting former Mexican president Vincente Fox to Tweet: “Mexico is not going to pay for that fucking wall! #FuckingWall”; admitted American taxpayers would initially fund the multi-billion dollar project; then suggested recouping the funds with an import tax on Mexican goods, seemingly not realizing this would, again, be paid by American taxpayers; caused a diplomatic incident with Mexico; endorsed torture; had the Geneva Convention explained to him by the President of Germany; and threatened to “send the feds” into Chicago.

The second protest – this weekend’s – was impromptu and urgent. On the heels of an interview where Trump stated Christians would get priority as refugees, the administration released an Executive Order Friday night that temporarily bans all refugees and any holder of a US visa (including greencards) from re-entry if they are a national or born in the Muslim-majority states Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen. While the order cites 9/11 as justification, no terrorists attacking US soil post-9/11 have come from these states. Perhaps tellingly, none of them are states in which the Trump Organization does business.

The cruelty and political miscalculation of the order was promptly felt. The order’s immediacy upturned lives at airports across the world, as US consular officials barred visa-holders from boarding flights at overseas airport gates, and Customs and Border Protection agents detained those arriving in America. Their visas had effectively been cancelled mid-air.

The human consequences were dire. Refugees who had spent years in a process of extreme vetting, immigrants who had left businesses, homes, lives, were detained and threatened with deportation as they arrived on US soil. Included among them were translators and interpreters who had aided US troops in combat, small children, the elderly, a scientist with a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School. Greencard-holding permanent residents allegedly had their social media reviewed, and their views about Trump interrogated. Nazanin Zinouri, a Clemson professor and 7-year US resident who left for a brief family visit back to Iran, was pulled off her plane in Dubai and deported. She wrote:

“No one warned me…no one cared what will happen to my dog or my job or my life there. No one told me what I should do with my car that is still parked at the airport parking. Or what to do with my house and all my belongings. They didn’t say it with words but with their actions, that my life doesn’t matter. Everything I worked for all these years doesn’t matter.”

Protests began at JFK on Saturday and swiftly spread across the country, to Boston Logan, IAH, Dulles, LAX and more. As thousands gathered to demand immigrants and refugees be let in, lawyers ran through airport halls and drafted habeas actions on laptops on the floor. Attorneys set up a field office in the O’Hare McDonalds. US Senators and Representatives – Senator Casey still in white tie from a function – rushed to personally intervene with CBP staff. When New York’s Port Authority stopped the AirTrain from allowing more protestors into JFK, Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped in to overrule it: “The people of New York will have their voices heard.” Impassioned, impromptu speeches by Senators and Representatives, surrounded by tired but upbeat crowds, flicked across the internet, recorded on shaky iPhones. Senator Cory Booker, hoarse from a day’s shouting, called: “We cannot grow weary in this cause of justice!”

As Saturday evening drew on, the ACLU rushed to the Federal Court for the Eastern District of New York. The Brooklyn street outside soon filled with protestors, chanting for the immigrants’ release. The attorneys exited victorious, with a national injunction staying crucial parts of the Executive Order. Decisions from Courts across the nation followed, and as the news rolled out through airports it was greeted by cheers from protestors. As the first, tearful detainees were released, crowds of citizens holding signs of defiance and welcome cheered and clapped, crying “USA! USA! USA!”. Army veteran Jeffrey Buchalter, who drove two hours from Maryland to be at Dulles, welcomed an Iraqi man. He handed him his purple heart.

Through Saturday I sat, eyes burning, fixed to my Twitter account as American democracy was threatened, and then kicked back. As I write, a constitutional crisis brews – reports of CBP staff refusing to comply with Federal Court orders, denying detained immigrants access to lawyers. As commentators have suggested, this might just be Cockham’s Razor: the simplest explanation is that it’s a cockup. The Executive Order was reportedly not vetted by cabinet officials or government lawyers, and was not accompanied by proper explanation. It seems to have just been written by the president’s staff and sent. That confusion led to chaos, as low-ranking border officials were caught between three branches of a great republic in harsh contest. But a far darker narrative threatens if the White House had ordered the CBP to refuse an order of the Federal Court.

Protests continued on Sunday, filling LAX, Boston’s Copley Square, New York’s Battery Park, and DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue. Cries of “No Ban! No Wall!” were heard outside the White House, where President Trump held a screening of Finding Dory. Democratic would-be presidential nominees jockeyed to lead the resistance and Republican Senators began backing away from the Executive Order. Religious leaders condemned the treatment of refugees. Comments leaked to the press from GOP senior staff suggested fatigue at the rolling cluster-fuck.

As families were torn apart in airport arrivals halls and dreams unspun, I watched, horrified, with a small taste of what those denied entry must be feeling. In 2015, I spent nearly a year forced to live in a separate country from my American wife because of two nations’ immigration laws, not knowing when (or if) we would be reunited. This was intensely stressful and personally agonizing, but ultimately we were both safe, housed, and employed in peaceful nations. Not so the well-vetted refugees fleeing war zones. Nor the permanent residents of this liberal democracy, forced to return to fascist theocracies.

I feared for my own status here. My permanent residency suddenly seemed not so “permanent”; that with the stroke of a pen, I might be in the same position. Then I felt guilty for fearing for myself when others have it so much worse. And I felt guiltier still at the slinking, nasty comfort: of being white, Christian, a citizen of Australia and Britain – at the thought, “I’m probably fine”.

Unconsciously, I began double-double-checking everything news-related I posted on Twitter. And then I sat back and questioned my core values as a writer and journalist. Since President Trump’s election and his disturbing anti-media vitriol, I have been adamant about not letting Trump’s threats hamper my writing. The minute commentators and journalists stop publishing frank opinions because of fear of reprisal, authoritarianism has won; the First Amendment has been corroded from within.

And yet. And yet. How secure is my so-called permanent residency when the CBP is demanding phones to review greencard holders’ social media? Asking for their views on Trump? Still I post, still I comment, striving for civil, bipartisan discourse that critiques the anti-democratic, cruel, or foolish policies of Trump’s administration from a position of patriotism. I will continue to do so. But confronting the question, “am I putting my family at risk by writing frankly about politics?” is never something I thought I’d have to do in America.

As Sunday came to a close, as protestors kept marching and lawyers kept fighting, as Senators and Representatives stood alongside them in airports and in crowds, my overwhelming feelings were of pride and hope. This weekend saw the very best impulses of America confront its worst. The damnation of this culture and its democracy would have been apathy. But instead, citizens rose across the nation to demand fairness, justice, and respect for all. In that, I saw the America I love.

How President Trump responds in the coming days will tell how swiftly the US is sliding towards authoritarianism. Will he move to crush protests? To constrain the First Amendment and press freedoms? Ignore the decision of the Federal Court? All of those are possibilities. It will be up to citizens to show their loyal opposition to actions that confront American democracy, for Senators and Representatives to make good on the oath they swore: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

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