“Is there anyone here who speaks Spanish?”
It was at that moment – while standing amid the calm buzz emanating from the dining area immigration justice attorneys had appropriated with their laptops and beverages to create a pop-up law clinic, digging through my purse for a Sharpie to make my “Trump You’re Fired” sign – I realized I was in the middle of history in the making.
It's Saturday, January 28, 2017. An hour earlier, my attorney friend called me to say that the word had gone out on social media that volunteer attorneys were being sought to help the immigration attorneys who were at O’Hare Airport’s International Terminal working to release detainees being held because of President Trump’s Executive Order banning citizens and refugees from seven Muslim countries from entering the United States.
At the time, I was still recovering from reading the news of the ban that morning. The Guardian article pointed out that even Iraqis who had aided the U.S. military in Iraq and were in danger staying there, and would not be able to travel to the U.S. to live here or even visit family who are now U.S. citizens. I thought about my Jewish Russian-born grandfather, whom I had recently discovered traveled alone to Ellis Island in 1923, a few years after the pogroms near where he lived, in which tens of thousands of Jewish people were brutally massacred and raped. I burst into tears at the thought of my grandfather’s bravery, Iraqis who were victims of the U.S. war, and Syrian refugees who are banned indefinitely by the executive order - not being able to escape to our country.
Before I leave for the airport, I put the copy of my grandfather’s naturalization application in my purse.
4:30 pm – Arrival at O’Hare Airport International Terminal 5.
My friend sees the attorney who had invited her and asked what she could to do help. She is asked to make a sign that she is a lawyer and walk around to families in the waiting area who might be looking for arrivals and ask if they would like assistance. I find out later that approximately 150 volunteer attorneys showed up and helped the large group of attorneys from multiple immigrant and refugee rights organizations. The attorneys were preparing habeas corpus briefs for the detainees —– a legal document demanding a person be brought before a judge — at the airport.
Attorneys with the International Refugee Assistance Project tell us that up to 18 travelers have been detained by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, including someone with dual Iranian/British citizenship, as well as two children, one an 18-month-old U.S. citizen. Most have legal status and green cards.
I move to the waiting area to make my sign then joined the crowd of protesters forming in the main area of the terminal. I pin the “NO! Refuse Fascism.org” buttons offered on my scarf. Fiona McEntee, an immigration attorney who helped organize the effort, approaches me holding her cell phone and asks me if I wanted to speak live to her audience in Ireland, where she is from.
I start crying as soon as I start speaking and Fiona hugs me after. I say while pounding my chest that this doesn’t feel like my country right now. I want people around the world to know that we are better than what Trump is doing, that we are going to fight, and remove the monster in the White House.
5:30 pm: Someone says we should move outside, so I gather my coat, heavy winter gloves, scarf and hat (I don’t mess around after developing Raynaud’s Disease during the 2013 Forward on Climate rally in the bitter cold of DC) and walk to the next entrance where the crowd is gathering and news cameras are setting up for the 6 pm press conference.
As soon as I wonder what we would do in the cold for a half hour, one of the organizers holding a bullhorn starts yelling call and response chants.
“No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!"
“No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here!"
“No justice – no peace!”
“What does Democracy look like? This is what Democracy looks like!”
We chant loudly the entire time, as the crowd grew. I am standing in front, behind where the microphones were set up. As a white person, I feel I should not appear in the tight camera shot of the press conference speakers. I urge the woman of color standing next to me holding her infant, to switch places, and she does. The overall crowd looks to be a representation of the melting pot of Chicago, a city full of immigrants from every country in the world.
Representatives with the local advocacy groups organizing the action - including Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, Council on American-Islamic-Relations Chicago, Arab American Action Network, Jewish Voice for Peace and Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugee Rights – speak to the cameras, decrying the executive order, demanding the release of the detainees at O’Hare and all airports across the country, and vowing to continue to fight for and protect their communities, with the huge crowd cheering and booing appropriately behind them.
A few local politicians highlight their immigrant families and how they will continue to protect their communities in Chicago, a sanctuary city.
I am moved by State Senator Daniel Biss reminding us that Trump signed the executive order on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The press conference is well-organized and the protesters synchronized, even though we formed organically.
It almost feels like we are filming a training video on exactly how emergency mobilizations should be done.
Within a matter of hours various groups of people in distinctly different roles have created a hive of resistance and assistance, in which we all complement each other.
6:30 pm: Protesters move inside and begin chanting and holding signs, marching toward the end of the main area, then standing and chanting and mic-checking. The exceptional organization of the activists makes me wonder if many had been in the Occupy Movement.
I didn’t realize until much later that just as many – it seemed, after looking at photos - had stayed outside and blocked traffic.
7:30 pm: Someone in the huge crowd announces to cheers the news that a New York federal judge just granted an emergency stay for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries who have already arrived in the U.S., those who are in transit, and who hold valid visas, ruling they can legally enter the US.
We wonder what this means for the detainees at O’Hare, however.
The entire area is packed with protesters. Passengers exiting from the escalators trying to get to the exits have a difficult time navigating their piles of luggage through the dense crowd. A couple of travelers verbally spar with two protesters.
The protesters say “it’s not worth it,” and walk away.
8:30 pm: While a few of us take a break amid the stack of open boxes of cold half-eaten pizzas in the attorney clinic area, we get the answer to our question about detainees at O’Hare.
Attorneys tell us that they have been told by federal authorities at the airport that the detainees would be released by 10 pm.
We had considered leaving by 10, but after hearing this, we decide we will stay until the detainees are released. We can only imagine how wonderful it will be to know victory by the end of the evening.
While walking around, I run into many activist friends, make some new ones, and talk with reporters & elected officials. Everyone is in such close proximity, it feels like a symbiotic, self-contained community.
9:45 pm: One detainee is released. The protesters – who have not stopped chanting the entire time – erupt in cheers. Chants of “We want the rest - now” begin.
10:30 pm: A hush forms over the still huge crowd of protesters – I doubt very many have left this entire time. A mic-check is started from the front of the crowd. We are told that ALL of the detainees have now been released.
Loud, sustained cheering breaks out and then chants of
"The world is watching... Shame!!"
"The people united will never be defeated!!"
I realize I have participated and helped organize tons of protests since the late 80s. None of the protests that were an immediate response to news of a draconian policy or Supreme Court decision, etc., etc. ever culminated in victory on the same day as the announcement – until today.
I say to a friend upon leaving – this is what it must feel like to film a reality TV show!
Sunday, January 29: I am still overcome with the beauty of the Resistance Hive that was formed. Never been part of something like that - where we achieved victory on the same day as mobilizing.
I am overcome with joy and optimism on this day.
Laura Sabransky served as elected Bernie Sanders delegate to 2016 DNC; administrator of Illinois Women for Bernie FB page [now Women for Justice Midwest Region], and campaign volunteer. She has been a volunteer organizer & activist for years. Laura works with non-profits as a volunteer development manager. She holds degrees in Psychology/Communications and Interior Design. Connect with Laura on Facebook.
All photos and videos credited to the author unless noted.
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