Two days ago, I got an e-mail from The Daily Kos alerting me to a rally that was to take place that evening. Organized by Congressional Democrats, it was to be held at 6:00 pm on the steps of the Supreme Court to highlight their opposition to the new President’s executive order on immigration. I don’t go to marches or rallies often – at least not anymore. I’ve become less convinced of their effectiveness. Marching “into Hell for a heavenly cause” as some have done is one thing; those are the ones that can spur change. Then, there are those marches done simply to make a point; they may be massive displays of disapproval (anti-war) or of unity (Million Man) that sometime provide feel-good moments in the process. It seems evident that some of the problems we meet with marches require us to move in the direction of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). People walked in Montgomery, Alabama rather than ride segregated busses; countries pulled money out of South Africa rather than support apartheid.
I decided to go to the rally for two reasons. Just two days before, I had submitted an opinion piece about local matters to this city’s newspaper of note. Now, there I was two days later reading stories about the effects of the President’s order, and one article even seemed to challenge me by throwing back at me a few of the same expressions I had used in my piece. I also thought about what the Daily Kos e-mail had said: “Activism works. Throughout the weekend, tens of thousands of protesters came together to take an unequivocal stance: We stand united in defeating targeted attacks on our family, friends and neighbors. Your activism has forced Democrats to publicly condemn Trump’s executive orders. We must remain loud and unyielding in the face of fascism.” The second reason I decided to go was knowing how much the President hates numbers that don’t flatter him; if I could help swell a crowd – well, swell.
As the appointed hour approached, I took the subway to the Capitol South station and exited with others arriving for the rally. We walked up the hill along First Street, N.E. past the Cannon House Office Building, across Independence Avenue past the Library of Congress, then across East Capitol Street toward the Court steps. For some, the crowd already amassed was a barrier to getting close to the Court’s plaza. I and a few others managed to wend our way along a narrow pathway until Capitol Hill police came through politely telling us it had to be kept cleared, at which point I pressed myself into the wall of bodies and remained there. I still was not near enough to the steps to hear or see what was happening (the reason some people tell me they prefer to stay home; they can see more at these events by watching them on television). I soon learned I had positioned myself in a prime spot. As it turned out, that narrow path had to remain clear to make way for the event’s organizers. Soon thereafter, there they came, Congress members and staff in a long procession, squeezing through carrying small, battery-powered votive candles and singing “This Land Is Your Land.” “Sing,” said Nancy Pelosi as she noticed that I and the young woman standing to my right were not singing; I did not sing.
On they came, faces I had seen countless times on news shows, names I knew by heart. I stood mute, watching, unlike the woman to my left who did not have to yell to have senators hear her say “Stop voting for Trump’s nominees.” The political stars and heavyweights were cheered when spotted: Schumer, Warren, Sanders. Despite the 33° temperature, the only chills I felt were those induced merely by the proximity of John Lewis walking by. The woman to my right called out to Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who stopped and briefly chatted. “Where are you from,” he asked. “Boston,” she replied, informing him that she had not been in DC long.
Seeing Hillary Clinton’s former running mate coming near, I facetiously said “Mr. Vice-President.” Senator Kaine stopped, laughed, put his hand on my shoulder and said “You know, I’m exactly where I feel I need to be right now.” On he and the others went to gather before the cameras that awaited them at the Court steps, the woman on my left occasionally reminding them of their obligation to thwart the President’s agenda by denying him his cabinet picks.
Once the procession ended, people near me were at a loss to hear or see anything that was going on, other than the chants and signs all around us. One poignant plea read “Let my Iraqi intern’s mother come and visit him.” Another sign began by referencing Martin Niemöller’s famous poem, but took a defiantly humorous turn: “First they came for the Muslims, but we said ‘Not today, Donnie!’” There was a chant that took note of the number of days the President had been in office: “Welcome to your 10th day, we’re not going away!” One highlighted his aversion to reality: “No hate, no fear, actual facts are welcomed here.” The former First Lady got an acknowledgement with “When they go low, we go high,” a sentiment not reflected in chants like “Paul Ryan sucks,” or “Can’t build a wall, hands too small.”
Across First Street from all of this stood the Capitol. I couldn’t help noticing, while listening to the chant “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Islamophobia’s got to go,” that in the western sky beyond the Capitol’s dome was the perfect picture of Islam’s symbol: a crescent moon with Venus directly above it, shining brighter than any star.
I heard the woman to my right, the one who had called out to Senator Markey, tell the woman with her that the rally was much like the Women’s March when she covered it, in that she couldn’t see or hear much of the proceedings. Curious, I asked who she worked for. “The Boston Globe,” she answered. Because I sometimes read that paper online, I asked her name. “Victoria McGrane,” she responded. “Keep reading.” I began to squirm through the crowd to head for the subway station.
Once back on my side of town, I stopped in an eatery on U Street owned by a friend. Mo is both an immigrant and a Muslim. Born in Palestine in the West Bank, Mo came to this country in 1982 to attend the University of Tennessee at Martin. For his fellow foreign students who discovered life here might not go as well as they had imagined, he had a running joke: “Welcome to heaven.” Mo says “some immigrants think this is an easy country, but it is a very tough country to survive in. They tend to be hard on themselves because failure is not an answer.”
I have seen him live this ethos first hand, working himself to the point of exhaustion in the business he and his wife have operated in the neighborhood since 2001. He met his wife, Ababa, a native of Ethiopia, when they both were living in Canada, the country in which he settled for a while after finishing school here. They both now have dual Canadian and American citizenship. They are the proud parents of an eight-year-old daughter. Mo says in Palestine children are an asset, but here they are a liability. His belief is difficult to square with his actions; anytime his daughter is in the shop, it is as though she is the princess of the realm, ruling over all she surveys.
The small restaurant is never without a loyal, longtime customer somewhere about the place passing the time in small-talk or hovering over a cup of chamomile tea while utilizing the Wi-Fi. Neighbors, family, friends and food-seekers come in and stay awhile, and conversations are overheard in English, Spanish, Arabic, Amharic and French. As any good businessman should, Mo gets along with everyone.
This was not an easy thing for him to do following the attacks on this country on September 11, 2001. He was called in and questioned by federal authorities because he had failed to register his name, as was required for some residents at that time. He explained that he had been informed by his attorney that it was not necessary for him to do so.
The government agents begged to differ. When they asked where had he come from to this country, he answered honestly “Canada.” That was not acceptable. They asked where had he been born. “Palestine,” he said. He was told there was no such place as Palestine, that the United States (and, at the time, the United Nations) did not recognize such a place. “Tell me where I am from,” Mo said, “and that will be okay with me. You say I’m not Canadian. I come from somewhere, but you say that place does not exist. I’m not a Jordanian, so what do you want me to say?” He was sternly warned not to make jokes, and told that his case would be referred to court. Ultimately, it was not, but Mo thinks this was due in part to the white agent, a woman who seemed to be reasonable during his interview. Mo remembers her supervisor, the other agent questioning him, was much more aggressive and menacing. That stays with him to this day because that agent was a black American, and Mo could not conceive of such treatment coming from him.
Mo says the cost of living (and of doing business) in the Washington area is too high. He sees himself relocating or retiring to Florida in future years. Once, in an earlier conversation, he mentioned a complaint I’ve heard from him before, this idea in some circles that Americans are living too long and, therefore, straining the social safety net. He asked “Why must all those war ships be maintained?” It is a good question, posed by a truly concerned American.