Notes from an airport protest of Donald Trump’s dumb immigration ban: Atlanta
Sunday in Atlanta is a day for walking down the Belt Line, or curing a hangover with chicken and biscuits at Homegrown, or using a leafblower for seven straight hours. One place you probably won’t find yourself is MARTA, the city’s transit system, and yet today the train platforms were packed with people, the cars packed from pole to pole.
This must have come as a shock to the people who used the subway to get around today — as the red line came barreling into the Five Points station and the mass of people surged up against and then through the doors, like a benign zombie attack. The occasion was a protest at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, one of many major airport protests that sprang up over the weekend in response to President Donald Trump’s shortsighted, reactionary and fairly pointless ban on citizens from certain Muslim-majority countries like Syria and Iran and all refugees.
We hopped on the MARTA at Candler Park, and there was already something of a crowd beginning to form on the platform — which is to say, there were more than a couple of people. Some people had signs, another few had drums. When we transferred at Five Points, the crowd became a throng and people waited to get in line just to get down the stairs to the southbound train. After a wait (made shorter by the apparent decision by MARTA to press more trains into service to handle the way-larger-than-normal ridership), we sandwiched our way into the first car and rode chest-to-chest and almost mouth-to-mouth with people, holding on to each other as the train lurched into motion at each stop.
So, what I’m trying to say here is, there were a lot of people going to this protest. If I had to describe the emotions I witnessed, I’d say surprise ranked up there. It can be difficult to get a sense of how many people agree to disagree with Trump, or how many people will be bothered to spend their Sunday afternoon to go to the airport — a place that many people associate with negative feelings, like taking your shoes off in public or Panda Express — to show solidarity. Just seeing how many people were feeling passionate enough to do the same thing was a pleasant shock to many. Other emotions included excitement, uneasiness, disbelief and sweet, righteous anger.
There was also, to be fair, slight annoyance at being packed into a stuffy train car. The logistics of attending some of these protests has amused me. Heading to a protest isn’t like taking the PATH train out to New Jersey for a Giants game, where everyone is feeling a sense of camaraderie and/or drunkenness. Most people talked amongst themselves, or stared out the window. No “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go!” or “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here!” chants broke out on the way to the protest. We were all (mostly, except for those poor regular commuters) headed to the same place for the same thing, yet there was a bit of shyness in the crowd. We weren’t ready to yell just yet.
Then the train arrived at the airport and the energy went almost immediately to, not 100, but a solid 65. We made our way slowly down the escalator and immediately went outside the terminal to the arrivals curb, where the protest (at this point, it was around 4:30) had already taken flight.
Now, perhaps this is the skeptic in me, but it can be hard to feel useful at a protest. In a such a mass of people, you feel superfluous, nonessential, like this could all happen without you just fine and you could instead be home watching a movie, or perhaps donating money to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood or whatever your cause is. And, personally, as a more low-key person, screaming feels silly.
But protests about Donald Trump are fun, and more importantly, important, for a few reasons. The energy is generally positive and inclusive. It’s exciting and uplifting to be surrounded by active and passionate people. And, more so than almost any other public figure I’ve seen, it appears that Donald Trump is truly bothered by the concept of people not liking him. Optics carry great weight with him — he doesn’t like public displays of discontent. Every person in a crowd that shouts disapproval at him is another thorn in his side. This gives you purpose and motivation.
The protest engulfed the arrivals curb, the median between cars and the parking lots, and the ramps up the parking lots themselves. The energy was positive, infectious and respectful — I spoke to one security guard who said, while today was certainly “different,” for him, he had no reports of arrests or clashes with police. Everyone had been polite to him and those around them, and no one had yet broken the rules about obstructing traffic or people trying to enter the airport.
We made our way along the curb, watching planes take off over the heads of thousands of protesters and cars that honked approval and sported signs of their own. “No Ban, No Wall,” “Immigrants Make America Great,” and my personal favorite, “Hey Donald! Our Crowds Will Always Be More Bigly Than Yours!” Only for a moment, when a man wielding his middle finger drove past the crowd, did the vibe go from joyful to sour. The tension passed quickly and people were back to cheering.
I stood on a bench next to a man in a full, for lack of a better term, Saudi prince outfit. I asked him where he was from. “Atlanta,” he said, “but I’m wearing this to show solidarity.” His girlfriend smoked a cigarette by his feet and handed me a cookie.
Another man joined me on the bench to take a photo and said the scene “warmed his middle aged activist heart.” I asked him if he’d ever seen something like this.
“Oh yeah,” he said, mentioning that when he used to join marches and protests regarding AIDS in the ’80s, you weren’t allowed to stop moving or you might be arrested. He looked around at all the people standing along the curb waving signs. “It was never at an airport, though.”
Planes continued to take off, the sun broke through the clouds and hit the crowd with a golden glow, and everywhere milled people in various stages of shock, delight and more of that righteous, but contained and focused, anger. Chants rose and fell like waves along a shore. Surges of energy rippled through protesters as a particularly horn-happy driver cruised past. The man in the Saudi prince outfit remained mostly silent, but at one point raised a fist, and kept it there. One man in a white robe and head covering walked past us with his phone aloft, and we could see he was Face Timing with friends, potentially in another country. Maybe the message of the day was spreading: He, Him, That Oddly Orange and Strangely Terrible Man, doesn’t speak for all of us.
Having chanted, waved and photographed for awhile, the responsibilities of real life called some of us back to the MARTA and Atlanta proper. On the way out, two of my friends handed their homemade signs off to others. A man took the “We Want You Here” sign in his hands, looked at it, and said, simply. “Yes. Thank you.”