Some 2,000 people from Providence, Rhode Island and environs assembled in the same place the #WomensMarch had gathered 8 days prior, this time to denounce Donald Trump’s Executive Order on immigration, effectively known in this community, and across the US and the world, as the #MuslimBan. The assembly reflected so many layers of cultural politics, love and solidarity that an ethnographic moment cannot capture. But it is clear that, in the historical sociological sense, these protests are eventful, and redefining the meaning of Trump’s presidency already.
There is an overwhelming sense of momentum. Although the size of the protest was probably less than half of what it was for the #WomensMarch, many showed up on a chilly overcast day for an event only planned the night before. Too, this protest felt less celebratory of friends and community, and more determined. Anger was more palpable.
As before, Rhode Island’s governor, Gina Raimondo, was there, declaring that the whole state stood opposed to such policies as this #MuslimBan; her words were even more emphatic this time. The Providence Mayor, Jorge Elorza, himself the son of Guatemalan immigrants, declared that this would be a sanctuary city. But the order of address also changed. While the governor began the speeches last weekend, the first elected official to step up was State Senator Jeanine Calkin, one of those whose support for a political revolution in Rhode Island life moved her to unseat a more conventional Democrat in 2016. Her prominence in the speakers’ lineup was also more immediately deserved here, as she was among those who started planning the event at 6 pm on the previous night. She also articulated a recurring theme.
She recalled her grandfather’s Jewish family in Czechoslovakia and those who died due to hate; these times reminded her of a letter from a relative who tried to get him to America, but who ultimately failed. This memory of loss in her own family moves her, with this #MuslimBan, to anger today. State Representative Aaron Regunberg evoked a similar story about his own Jewish ancestors fleeing genocide as reason for why Rhode Island must be a sanctuary for all now. Rabbi Michelle Dardashti of the Brown-Rhode Island School of Design Hillel also spoke of Jewish antecedents, while also introducing for simple racists a disconcerting note — her own Iranian ties would have meant that she, too, would have been excluded from sanctuary were she seeking it in the USA in these times.
The significance of solidarity was a more general, and prominent, theme. The Reverend Doctor Don Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, was one of the first speakers. After distancing himself, and the event, from the very few hateful signs present, Anderson declared that this was a movement of love, even while also a struggle against evil. “The #MuslimBan is evil,” he said simply, directly, powerfully.
Religiosity was in full evidence on this day, but Muslims were less prominent among the speakers. However, Mufti Ikram Ul Haq from the Rhode Island Council for Mutual Advancement emphasized, as so many Muslims are obliged to do in public in these times, not only the importance of love and solidarity, but also of learning. He seemed to trust that learning about Islam could help quell the hate mobilizing not only such executive orders as Trump’s but also such attacks like those we saw in Quebec on that same day. Especially in contrast to its opponents, it’s striking just how much this movement celebrating religious tolerance and diversity believes in the power of learning over the ignorance of smug assertion.
While the assembly was in part about the solidarity of Rhode Island, of its civil society and of its political society, of its Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others, against hate, against the #MuslimBan, it was also about a political movement. That was evident for its organizers: Resist Hate Rhode Island and the Working Families Party.
These movements, while often identified with Bernie Sanders and his political revolution, have a longer, and more diverse, genealogy. For example, the day’s first speaker, Laufton Ascencao-Longo, is not only associated with both movements, but also worked on progressive politics and movements in Providence and in Pittsburgh in particular, but as well across the country, before Sanders launched his campaign. In fact, the new coalition is quite broad. Ascencao-Longo told me: “The new people, energy, and organizers that are emerging now are genuinely both Hillary and Bernie supporters.”
Many of the folks at the demonstration were already planning to spend part of their time together on that Sunday even before the #MuslimBan wreaked its havoc on social ties and national security. Following the protest at the Capitol, and a Saturday meeting in nearby Warwick filled with many who challenged his partial accommodation of Trump, Sheldon Whitehouse, the junior Senator from Rhode Island, faced still more criticism on Sunday.
Led to march by the exceptional rhythms of the Extraordinary Rendition Band, hundreds moved from the State Capitol to Nathan Bishop Middle School to challenge the Senator at one of his community meetings. Protesters claimed that Whitehouse is often an ally, and they expected him to “lead the resistance in Washington.” Yet the senator’s vote in support of Mike Pompeo’s appointment as CIA Director is the signal issue demonstrating his failure on these terms. “You can’t normalize these appointments”, said a voice from the crowd. By meeting’s end, he read off the list of Trump’s cabinet appointments he will not support: Treasury, Education, State, Attorney General, EPA director (“really big no”), Labor. He still needs to talk with Wilbur Ross, candidate for Secretary of Commerce, however.
The terms of love and solidarity in opposition cannot mean the absence of conflict and disagreement within that opposition. It ought lead us to rethink what solidarity means. While Trump’s solidarity may insist on a vision of America based on whiteness and loyalty to a leader, the solidarity in opposition looks quite different. The diversity of experiences, perspectives, and political understandings are manifest in this opposition, which includes not only the six elected leaders who spoke (Congressman David Cicilline and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner also addressed the demonstration) but the variety of civil society organizations mobilizing from below. Beyond the movements organizing the protest and mentioned above, speakers on the Capitol Steps included those from the Islamic School of Rhode Island, Prysm, The Fang Collective and The Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, The Step Up Network and DARE, Ahope, and the Community Safety Act Coalition.
There are clear differences among those who spoke, and among those who protest, but those differences need to be worked out deliberatively, even if inevitably, with passion. Democracy is not for the faint of heart, nor for those emboldened by the authoritarian personality.
Contests between civil society activists and political legislators are not always easy, by any means. But they are evidence of a vital democracy. Life in Providence over the first days of the Trump administration suggest very clearly why the chant, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like!” grows in meaning, and also power, in Rhode Island.