Coming together against hate in New York City

December 15, 2015

Diana Solano reports from New York City on a rally that brought together many organizations to stand up against the rising tide of Islamophobia.

THE TRUMP International Hotel, whose shadow darkens the grassy meadows of New York City's Central Park, was the gathering point December 10 for a spirited crowd of protesters against Islamophobia--an unusual occurrence in the busy business streets surrounding Manhattan's Columbus Circle.

Rally organizers estimated that 800 people showed up--Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, DREAM activists and supporters from a multitude of other backgrounds and faiths--to stand up for human rights and against the hatred and xenophobia that Donald Trump has promoted during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

The rally was also a response to the House of Representatives' passage last month of the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act. Still to be voted on by the Senate, the bill would make it exceedingly difficult for refugees to enter the U.S. by forcing them to go through background screening not just by Homeland Security, but also by the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence--adding still more bureaucracy to the already strenuous refugee screening process.

Hundreds of people rallied against Islamophobia in front of the Trump International Hotel
Hundreds of people rallied against Islamophobia in front of the Trump International Hotel (Danny Katch | SW)

Hussam, a refugee from the besieged Syrian city of Homs who came to New Jersey four months ago, exposed the cowardly racism of the fear-mongers by describing the actual events driving millions of people from their homes. An activist in the movement against the dictator Bashar al-Assad, Hussam talked about the last protest he attended, where the regime fired live ammunition on the crowd.

"I fled the country for my children, to take them away from the killings," he said to the crowd through a translator. "But we hope to God we will go back." As Sarah Aziza reported for Bedford and Bowery, after that last comment, many in the crowd shouted back, "Yes, you will!"

The demonstration was lively--many attendees were excited to finally have an opportunity to express their passionate opposition to a demagogue who has been all over the media for months. Some of the most popular chants included "Dump Trump!" and " There is no debate! Trump equals hate!"

Among the speakers was Mima Haidar from the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY):

I fled persecution from my home country Lebanon to seek asylum and became refugee in the United States in 2010. I thought I would live without fear in this land, but little did I know about the discrimination that welcomed me once here. When Trump and his supporters are not held accountable for the hate crimes that are increasing in my community in direct correlation with their hate speech, I feel as vulnerable and as fearful for my life as I did back home.

THE NATIONAL wave of attacks in recent weeks against Muslims or those believed to be Muslim shows that Haidar's fears are well-founded.

Despite its reputation for cosmopolitan diversity, New York City has been no exception. In the Bronx, a sixth-grade student was attacked on November 19 by three classmates who called her "ISIS" and tried to rip off her hijab.

Just five days before the rally in Columbus Circle, Queens deli owner Sarker Haque was punched in the face by a man who shouted, "I kill Muslims!" At a press conference, Haque told reporters that just before the attack, the suspect, Piro Kolvani, was looking at the New York Post, which was running one of its typical screaming Islamophobic front pages that day.

The hate crime against Haque was greeted with widespread shock in Astoria, a neighborhood that prides itself on its multiethnic character. Over 80 people showed up to a press conference called by local elected officials in front of Haque's deli, and close to that many rallied and marched to the deli a few days later in a politically minded protest against Islamophobia.

At the Columbus Circle rally, a 19-year old woman who is Muslim and an Egyptian-American talked about the heightened atmosphere of racism on the subways. "It's really obvious," she said, "when people give you side looks on the train and people won't want to sit next to you on the train sometimes."

The woman, a Fordham University student, was one of many people at the rally who haven't been activists in the past. She found out about the rally from a Syrian-American friend on Facebook.

"We're all just human beings," she said. "If these people had a choice, they wouldn't leave their homes. Any person wouldn't leave their homes or family back there. God knows that their families are all separated. These people held jobs, had a living. Then they were put into a situation they don't want to be in. No one wants to leave anything behind."

JAMILA HAMMAMI of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP) said in her speech that the recent uptick in Islamophobia needs to be understood in a broader context:

The ban of Syrian and Iraqi refugees is violence. This sort of hate in America is a systemic issue; it is tied up in Islamophobia, xenophobia, Arabophobia and anti-Blackness in our society. This is an insidious illness that is at the core of our society that has long been in existence.

We must fight and resist U.S. imperialism, colonialism and war disguised as "fighting terror" abroad in the East--otherwise, we will continue to have candidates and policy makers advocating for internment camps, which already exist statewide, with 250 immigration detention centers facilities that hold 34,000 immigrants seeking safety nationally.

Kazi Fouzia is a community organizer from Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a Queens-based radical organization of South Asian immigrants that formed a year before the September 11 attacks that drastically altered the political climate for its members.

"There's always been a lot of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment," Fouzia said. "Situations keep coming again and again. The Paris incidents actually gave anti-immigrant racists enough dialogue to get the media to cover. I'm not surprised because this has happened before, like after 9/11. It's important that we organize in our communities. It's not just the Muslim community that are in danger--it's all communities of color too."

According to Ali Issa, field organizer for the War Resisters League, this is "a moment to galvanize across movements and build an alternative. Trump represents some of the worst impulses of the U.S., and among the U.S. elite. His rhetoric is a very, very dangerous thing, not only for Muslims and for Mexicans, but for everybody--especially those in areas experiencing U.S. intervention."

"Politics should respect all humanity in the U.S. and prioritize people's immediate needs, and shouldn't seek to divide and instill fear," Issa continued. "In the Middle East, there are Iraqis and Syrians fighting for social justice, and they are the alternative to dictatorship, fundamentalism and racism."

PLENTY OF people walking through Columbus Circle stayed a while to watch, many with a glimmer of hope and excitement on their faces.

Joanna said her curiosity was piqued by the rally. "I really hope [Trump] a big joke," she said, "because I can't possibly believe that anyone could ever possibly believe him or take him seriously. It's like beyond my wildest nightmares and frustrations, but I really hope it is never a reality we have to face."

Even without Trump in office, however, we should recognize that the U.S. government has already created a much less tolerant world. As the rally's press release noted:

We recognize that the United States is complicit in the human rights abuses across the Middle East and North Africa. We also recognize that the Assad dictatorship is responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Syria, and is engaged in documented torture and imprisonment of tens of thousands of its citizens. We stand in solidarity with the popular movements, which rise up against any repressive government.

We also recognize that the United States bears primary responsibility for the deteriorating situation in Iraq dating back to the 1990s Gulf War and exacerbated by the global "war on terror."

At present, the U.S. government has agreed to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. This is not enough. We demand that the U.S. government accept more refugees from Syria and Iraq and to provide adequate resources and social services to these newly resettled migrants. Further, we demand that the U.S. and all other governments cease their interventions in the Middle East and North Africa and their support of human rights abuses by repressive regimes.

The solidarity and camaraderie displayed by everyone in that crowd resulted in a special kind of holiday spirit of goodwill that far outshone the red and white booths in the annual holiday bazaar at Columbus Circle. It also outshone the blaring red and blue lights of the police vehicles that surrounded the Circle. No arrests were made that night.

"Tonight, Syrian refugees, immigrants, antiwar groups, Palestine solidarity activists and many others came out to protest for the rights of refugees," said Yusef Khalil, a member of the International Socialist Organization and one of the rally organizers. "This is important because we usually organize separately. But tonight, we came together to say we are against the war AND we stand with the Syrian refugees and their fight against the Assad dictatorship. This is solidarity and principled anti-imperialism."

Danny Katch contributed to this article.

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