The approach to Terminal 4, at the John F. Kennedy International Airport, is traditionally a clogged and stumbling route. By car, most mornings, drop-off traffic has a way of backing up before the curb starts, leaving travellers to lurch from S.U.V.s and town cars and drag their bags across a life-sized Frogger game. A subway arrival means a toe-crushing rush on escalators packed with suitcases, jerky trains that do not have enough handrails, and slippery floors where foot traffic collides in all directions. The goal is to get just beyond the X-ray machines, where the world—or so we hope—moves fast and freely once again.
Everything seemed backward, then, late yesterday afternoon, when Terminal 4 became the site of New York’s largest protest in some days. Arrival from the subway was bizarrely fluid, as the escalators and the AirTrain platform rippled with protesters unbeset with anything except signs (“fight machismo, not muslims”). The departure curb was empty, and, besides some long lines at the Central Diner and the Dunkin’ Donuts Express, the entry area was brisk, airy, and calm. The troubles of the terminal yesterday were not logistical so much as ideological. Beyond the security line, more than ten refugees were thought to be detained, and, as the sky darkened, their fates became the focus of a growing protest on the arrivals curbs outside.
“Hey, hey! No fear! Mus-lims are welcome here!” a group stationed on a long triangle of sidewalk chanted. It was the middle of the afternoon, cold and windy. A curb normally packed with black ride-sharing cars was crowded with Port Authority Police Department vehicles. The officers stood on the traffic island facing them; the closest entrance to the terminal’s arrivals zone was blocked off with queue ribbons and a guard cradling a large machine gun.
“We woke up this morning and heard the news,” Tara Raghuveer, one of the organizers, told me. She is the deputy director of the National Partnership for New Americans, an advocacy and service coalition for immigrant communities, and, in contact with other organizations, she arranged what they assumed would be a modest protest. As news of the demonstration spread, though, in large part on social media, the crowd grew to include thousands. Cars in the pickup lane honked as they passed. Protesters seemed united by a sense of urgency. “I’m disgusted,” a woman named Emily Baldwin said, of the detentions. She had blue hair and a pink scarf, and was balancing a piece of poster board against a low gate, writing a sign to wave among the crowd.
The J.F.K. protest was not an isolated gathering. Parallel demonstrations appeared at airports in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, and they drew on activist momentum launched the previous weekend, in the Women’s Marches all across the country and the world. Pink pussyhats were common. Someone at J.F.K. had donned a hot-pink knitted ski mask. Signs ranged from earnest to arch (“WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE”). Jim Costanzo, an artist and a member of the anti-capitalist Aaron Burr Society, wore a white goatee with a black pageboy cap, reversed; he carried a marching baritone horn, the loop of which he’d wrapped with twine and Christmas lights. “This is an instrument of class warfare!” he told me, and blew a series of dyspeptic yodels. An electric-meter cabinet, in the middle of the crowd, was strewn with empty Dunkin’ Donuts cups.
Unlike the Women’s March, a broad statement of solidarity and resistance, the J.F.K. protest centered largely on the local results of a travel ban that President Trump signed late on Friday. The order had been confusing to many people in both its practical provisions and its rationale: it blocked citizens of seven mostly Muslim countries and all refugees from entering the United States, and appeared to include green-card holders. As soon as Trump signed the order, officials started turning away these people from flights and detaining them if they reached American airports.
“The whole country arose this morning to the news,” Daniel Altschuler, the director of civic engagement and research for the group Make the Road New York, another organizer of the protest, said. According to leaders such as New York’s Mayor, Bill de Blasio, confusion extended into government and law-enforcement agencies, which had been seeking clarification with little success. For many airport protesters, however, the bemusement was more general, and the call for response more visceral, too. “People just said, ‘I’m going to Terminal 4,’“ Altschuler told me. A programmer named Brad Cohn said that he came to the protest because direct action seemed the only option. “If I don’t do it, what am I going to tell my kids?” he asked. “The Democrats, I think, are doing nothing now.”
Yet some political actors spoke. Two New York City representatives in Congress, Nydia Velázquez and Jerrold Nadler, held impromptu press conferences before a bay of news cameras in the middle of the crowd. Altschuler and the other organizers had established a protocol to facilitate communication across the growing demonstration: somebody would shout into a megaphone, and the protesters would repeat everything back, verbatim, transmitting the message to the far ends of the crowd. “Mic check!” Altschuler called, as Nadler stood before the cameras.
“Mic check!” said the crowd.
“The executive order signed by President Trump is discriminatory,” Nadler said. “It’s also counterproductive.”
The crowd, in unison, shouted to itself to stay quiet so everyone could hear.
Nadler criticized the speed of the order’s execution—a refugee who’d started travelling legally could land at J.F.K. to find his or her hard-won visa suddenly worthless. Although one detainee, Hameed Darweesh, who served for a decade as a U.S. Army translator in Iraq, had been released in early afternoon, after eighteen hours, another, Haider Alshawi, was still inside the terminal, and the names of others were not known. Velázquez took the microphone. “Mr. President, look at us—this is America,” she said, looking directly at the cameras. “We will fight.”
The protest gained other professional adherents. Licensed lawyers were told to assemble at a corner of the crowd; they identified themselves in the terminal with signs, offering to council any families of detainees. The New York City Taxi Workers Alliance, a union-affiliated organization, called for a stop on all taxi service to J.F.K., in support of the protest. (Uber suspended surge pricing on rides at the airport, a move that many saw to be “scabbing,” inspiring a “#deleteUber” social-media hashtag.) By a quarter to six, the airport subway was packed with protesters; by seven, officers had restricted those without airline tickets from accessing the AirTrain, the shuttle that connects the subway to the terminals. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he had told authorities to explore legal options for detainee aid.
Even with constraint, the crowds held through the afternoon. Some people were new to White House protests. Ivelyse Andino, the founder of Radical Health, had come with her husband, the Reverend Rubén Austria, who called the travel ban “un-Christ-like” and quoted Exodus 22:21: “Do not mistreat the foreign among you, because you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” A Brooklyn father who asked to be identified only as Dan, because he didn’t want to speak for the politician who employs him, drifted through the crowds with an L.G.B.T.Q.-flag-bearing child perched on his shoulders and a gray stocking cap on his head. He had arrived to protest with his wife and two small children; as I asked him why, he started to tear up. Thirty-two years ago, almost to the day, he said, he had visited this airport to meet his sister on her arrival in the U.S. “I remember thinking that J.F.K. is the place where America meets the world,” he said.
On July 31, 1948, with an air show roaring overhead, the J.F.K. airfield, then known as Idlewild, was dedicated as a monument to New York’s global future. The President at the time, Harry Truman, spoke. So did Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican governor of New York, who’d lost to Franklin Roosevelt in the Presidential election four years earlier and who would lose again, to Truman, in November. Both men argued that the airport brought a new connected and enlightened state of mind. “Today, this airport stands open to the commerce of all the peace-loving peoples of the world,” Dewey said, in a broadcast speech. “There’s a wide-open welcome for all men and women of good will to come and go freely, to wipe out unfounded suspicions, and to nurture and develop the growth of good will and of greater international coöperation. . . . It actually is a compulsion, upon all of us, to see more of the other citizens of the world. I hope it will lead them, and us, to learn to know each other better.”
There was a thrill in finding that those old American values triumphed last night, on the turf that Dewey and Truman consecrated nearly seventy years ago. At 7 p.m., Alshawi, the second known detainee, was released from custody. Around nine, Judge Ann M. Donnelly, of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, ruled that sending detainees home would cause “irreparable harm,” and stayed the order for their return to their countries of origin. (Today, the White House appeared to exempt green-card holders from its ban.) A cheer went up in the arrivals lanes at Kennedy when the news of the Judge’s decision first arrived. Let’s be grateful that, for the moment, that happiness can still be heard across the Earth.
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