Terminal Democracy: At BWI and Dulles, 'Muslim Ban' protests

From the look and sound of things at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport and Dulles International Airport last Sunday, you wouldn't know that everybody was gathered for a full-blown constitutional crisis—a response to President Donald Trump's rash, random ban that restricts people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. (protesters make no bones about it and refer to it as "the Muslim ban").

Nearly 2,000 people piled into the International Arrivals gate of BWI on the night of Jan. 29 in protest.

As seasoned activists, protest newbies, and those somewhere in between gathered, Payam of Baltimore Bloc invited anybody personally affected by Trump's executive order to come up and speak. He clarified that the gathering was mostly "in solidarity" with detainees elsewhere, and noted that the organizers figured there was not much of a chance that anyone was being detained at BWI.

"This is amazing," musician and activist Ryan Harvey, who had organized the rally with Baltimore Bloc and others—a photo of Harvey was being passed among airport security before his arrival—told the group. He added that "the majority of these countries [on the banned list] are countries our government has bombed...and if we're not bombing them, we're providing the weapons [to bomb them]."

"Thank you for coming, I love you all. I love my Muslim brothers, I love my Muslim sisters, I love my Muslim friends," Sultana of Baltimore Bloc and co-founder of Strvnge Encounters told the group. Then she repeated, "This is for my mother" over and over, louder and more determined each time.

On the second floor, soldiers about to be deployed looked down at the crowd from the balcony, some with disdain, most with curiosity, and took iPhone photos of the signs, which read, among others things: "Fuck the System" (in English and Arabic); "Resist! #NoBan #NoWall"; "Ban Trump and fascists, not Muslims and immigrants"; "No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here!"; and "From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go!"

At one point, many in the protest even chanted to the soldiers, "Thank you for your service!"

It was that kind of protest—fervent but joyful and unafraid to be "patriotic," though certainly not nationalistic. And there were remnants of past protests, shirts and signs from the Women's March on D.C. from the previous weekend, a few from the downtown Baltimore march against Trump the day before, and here and there, pleas for peace and understanding scrawled on cardboard that seemed to date back to the Baltimore Uprising.

As more people arrived—mostly via the light rail—the group stretched further into the airport and onto the second floor, leaving airport employees to extend the barriers over and over again. At one point a young child sporting a Colin Kaepernick jersey shuffled and danced, his mother gripping a camera, wearing a hijab. And early on, a banner dropped from the second floor declared, "This home is your home."

As has been their wont lately, Baltimore Bloc made room for bursts of partying amid protest, including a clap and dance session set to Ludacris' 'Move Bitch' switched to "Move Trump, get out the way"—an absurdist rewrite heard at other airport protests across the country this week.

A few Maryland political insiders appeared, including Reps. Elijah Cummings, C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, and John Sarbanes, to a mix of applause and pointed chants of "Where have you been?"—essentially asking what took them and the rest of the Democrats, seen as shockingly ineffectual among even some of the mostly moderate crowd, so long to show up.

For some, it was a question of something larger: Internationally, years of middling Democratic policy (it was not a coincidence that some who yelled "Where have you been?" gripped a Palestinian flag) has not exactly been kind to refugees and immigrants, and locally, support of policy such as "zero tolerance" policing has been disastrous for communities of color.

Former Maryland governor, Baltimore mayor, perpetual ham, and failed presidential candidate Martin O'Malley got the business the most. He showed up, smiled, and posed for photos. Poet and activist (and City Paper contributor) Tariq Touré told O'Malley, "You locked up half my ZIP code," and another frequent and fervent face at protest, Shai Crawley, told him to "leave."

"You don't know me," O'Malley said back in a tone that was somehow jolly and condescending. Some protesters admonished those challenging O'Malley.

"I don't wanna know you," Shai shot back.

On his way out, Cummings shook more hands, received thanks, and posed for selfies, including one with a guy draped in the American flag.

Just before he left, Cummings said once more, "Keep fighting."

An hour away, a crowd is wrapped around the arrival gate at Dulles International Airport gripping signs, holding balloons, waving flags, chanting, singing songs, and welcoming everybody who passes through the gate. It's the kind of unfettered patriotism flying that would make a Fox News obsessive or Breitbart fiend's heart stop. At least it should.

"An Afghan war veteran will come home for the first time, make him feel welcome," one man shouted as the crowd cheered. "His name is Nasir."

Louder cheers. Not far away, someone with a melodica located the right key for 'We Shall Overcome' and the crowd sang along, a wobbly, about-to-cry rendition from a few dozen right on the front lines offering comfort and assistance.

"Did you get your coffee?" a seemingly 10-foot tall white Airport Authority police officer grunted to anybody nearby hovering with signs of support or waiting for a relative by the airport Starbucks.

"If so move out of the way. You can't stand here."

This whole thing here, this "Muslim Ban," is one horrifying example of intolerance by way of the gears of bureaucracy grinding people down, and this officer is an embodiment of it, here to keep it orderly—and intimidating.

"Let them see their lawyers" the crowd chanted, threading other chants, including "U-S-A, U-S-A," through the protest din. Meanwhile, somewhere inside of Dulles, many people were, presumably, detained. The exact number of detainees was unclear, though a number bandied about on Sunday evening was 30—and if it is anything like what is reported at other places, it included being handcuffed, social media scoured, and more. As ABC News reported, one family was detained for 20 hours at Dulles without food because of the ban.

Not far away from the welcome party, a few dozen lawyers are huddled up, poring over papers on the floor.

These lawyers have been busting their asses in the wake of Trump's executive order.

"I could quit my job and just file Habeas writs," one said. Her colleague laughed, wearily.

The work has been paying off, in some ways. The regime stepped back the ban on green card holders, and on Saturday night a federal judge ordered a stay on Trump's executive order. But Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials refused to acknowledge the stay in many airports, including Dulles, kicking off what many have called a constitutional crisis.

So the lawyers remained. Some held signs asking passengers for information. Others carried pizzas and crates of bottled water. People turned old pizza boxes into signs. Others made furious phone calls, filed papers, read briefs.

And some talked to the press.

"Yesterday was horrific," Mirriam Seddiq said of Saturday night at the airport, when confusion reigned and the constitutional crisis unfolded. She said things calmed down a lot on Sunday.

"I think that's because today, since Trump is big on optics, [the plan] is not to let them on planes. So they're not letting them on the plane or they're taking them off at layovers. A lot of them in Turkey are being taken off. In Munich. Again these are all the stories. We don't have any direct information," she said.

They don't have information because CBP agents denied those being held a right to counsel—even after the court order.

"We had lawyers go and try to knock on the door at about 9:30 this morning and nobody would answer the door," Seddiq said. "A little after that at about 10:00 we sent three lawyers back and they talked to them and said, 'Here's a copy of our [Temporary Restraining Order or stay]. Are you actually holding green card holders? Can we speak with them? We're attorneys.' And they said, 'It ain't gonna happen.'"

According to Seddiq, when the lawyers again pointed to the court order the CBP agents were nice and polite but said, "We understand but it's not going to happen... we are not allowed to talk to you. Here's our number for public affairs."

Although Sen. Cory Booker was allowed back to see those detained on Saturday night, five members of Congress—Reps. John Delaney and Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Don Beyer, Gerry Connolly, and Bobby Scottof Virginia—were also denied access on Sunday as they urged CBP to enforce the court order.

Dan Press, another lawyer on the scene, said that there is a separate litigation team working on compliance with the court order. "We've been in touch all day with the U.S. Attorney's Office, which is representing the CBP. They're on it. We're making progress. I mean we're not making progress on the access to counsel issue. But we're making progress on some other issues," he said.

"For instance on the green card holders, having the green card holder ban be lifted is a huge testament to all of the work these people have done," Seddiq said.

"It's the lawyers and it's the demonstrators," Press added.

"Because this administration is big on optics and big numbers," Seddiq said.

"There were big numbers right outside of Trump hotel today. Big numbers in airports around the country yesterday and today and [Department of Homeland Security] blinked," Press said.

"At least they're not putting them back on a plane and turning them around unless they chose to do that," Press said of the small victories. "But they're still not being given the right to counsel to advise them given this whether they should turn around and go home or go hang out at Farmville indefinitely [in a vetting facility]."

He added a warning to anyone, even green card holders, who might have plans to travel outside of the country. "I would still advise any green card holder who is here not to leave," he said. "I am not convinced that any policy with this administration right now is firm enough that we can say it's safe to go to Canada and come back."

As the last of the international flights expected to have residents from the seven banned countries aboard came into the airport late on Sunday night, everyone in the airport was acutely aware that the fight is far from over.

Seddiq said the lawyers will be there as long as it takes. "You can see how many lawyers we have here. Some are immigration lawyers trained in immigration law. A lot of them are not. It doesn't matter to us right now. We have the support here to keep this up as needed," she said.

The passengers from the plane walked through and the crowd cheered—cheers that grew louder after two women held onto one another tight, tears in their eyes, for what felt like minutes.

Melodica Man was still going.

"Free Bird," somebody jokingly requested.

"No," Melodica Man deadpanned.

He put the instrument to his mouth and slowly constructed a version of Journey's 'Don't Stop Believin',' and the crowd laughed in recognition and then clapped—even this piece of pop camp means a whole lot right now.

As he got into it, his sign tilted into view. It read, "Jesus was a refugee."

Additional reporting by J.M. Giordano.

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