Bringing together militants and the masses

February 16, 2017

Pranav Jani, who helped to lead the thousand-strong occupation of the Columbus, Ohio, airport, lays out the organizing ingredients that made for a successful protest.

ON JANUARY 28, the Palestine Solidarity Group (PSG) in Columbus, Ohio, organized an occupation of the John Glenn Columbus International Airport (CMH)--joining the thousands who occupied airports all over the country to stand up against Donald Trump's anti-Muslim and racist ban.

The uprising of the airports, which pressured federal courts to halt Trump's executive order, is a sign of our power. As an organizer of the CMH action, I want to share some of the lessons I learned that day about mobilizing in the Trump era.

FIRST, I learned that this is a time to be bold. People are ready to mobilize, and capable of doing things far beyond what we think we can do.

Who would have thought, even a month ago, that 1,000 people in Columbus would march onto the highway leading up the airport, block oncoming traffic in two directions, shut down one of two roadways into the airport, conduct a defiant rally outside the terminal--and then enter the terminal itself, filling it with the voices of the resistance for two hours?

Speaking out against Trump's anti-Muslim ban in the Columbus International Airport
Speaking out against Trump's anti-Muslim ban in the Columbus International Airport (Ohio Interfaith Immigrant and Migrant Justice Coalition)

But people were determined, showing up in all our wonderful diversity. Muslims--Arab, Black and South Asian, women and men--were prominent and vocal throughout the action. Immigrants--with and without papers, queer and straight--spoke out to cheering crowds.

Some protesters were in strollers, some had seen many winters and protests, and some, older or younger, were at their first demonstration. A contingent from MY Project USA, a group that supports Muslim youth in Columbus, infused the march with their energy. A seasoned labor leader asked a young white marshal how long he'd been active. "This is my first protest," said the marshal.

A young Black girl bravely came to the megaphone in the thick of the terminal shutdown and led the crowd: "Just say no to racist fear! Immigrants are welcome here!" "That's my baby!" yelled her mom, overjoyed.

These are some of the people who were at the heart of the CMH action.

WAS THE CMH action a spontaneous eruption or the result of carefully laid plans?

Clearly, it was the people who made the event a success. But the presence of experienced organizers willing to work together was crucial to help channel the combustible energy of protesters--this was the second lesson I learned.

The planning was minimal: three PSG members organized it in less than 24 hours. Reema Jallaq, who is Palestinian and Muslim, initiated the idea. Tammy Fournier Alsaada and I--Black and South Asian organizers, respectively--worked with her on logistics, planning and tactics, before and during the action.

Although the event was organized very quickly, we drew on our collective experience. Reema had organized Palestine solidarity rallies in Columbus that drew hundreds in July and August 2014. Tammy, a longtime organizer for social justice, is currently active with the People's Justice Project (PJP). I have organized actions and events with the International Socialist Organization since the 1990s.

This intersectionality and solidarity, in fact, has been part of PSG all along. When we formed in August 2014, we immediately connected with the emerging #BlackLivesMatter movement by inviting people protesting the police murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to join our rally for Gaza.

At the airport protest we collaborated with leaders from groups like Ohio Interfaith Immigration and Migrant Coalition, PJP and ISO members from Columbus and Athens, Ohio.

Our "all hands on deck" attitude pushed us to work together efficiently across organizations, generations, identities and experiences. It was the only way we could effectively launch a mass direct action at the airport with a crowd that included many children.

Experienced organizers don't need to "step back." We need to find ways to give space to newly radicalizing folks and work collaboratively. Our tasks have not disappeared, but have taken new forms.

THE MAIN thing we did right as organizers was that we invited people to take leadership. This helped created strong unity. That brings me to the third lesson: The militants and the masses need to remain together as a bloc in order to build effective direct actions.

One way this unity was forged was gathering marshals from among the protesters themselves. Amber Evans of PJP gathered together the dozens who volunteered and explained their roles.

These marshals were crucial to keeping everyone together and unified. We lined everyone up into rows of 10 across so that we could stay disciplined and occupy a wide space as we marched, with a marshal every row or two.

The organizers now had an organic connection with the protesters as a whole, allowing us to move together at each step--from refusing CMH officials' offer to demonstrate in a parking lot to marching to the terminal; from occupying the space outside the terminal to taking it inside to deciding when to leave, all in an organized way.

At each step, we had to challenge ourselves, not knowing if or when the police would crack down. When we finally decided to push ahead, we did so together and learned about our own strength.

While we can never predict the behavior of the police, who pepper-sprayed nonviolent protesters the next evening at the Ohio statehouse, one lesson from the CMH mobilization is that keeping the militants and the masses together gives us the best chance to go as far as we can.

FINALLY, THE protest confirmed why it is so important for socialists to hold onto our radical politics as we unify with others. This is the fourth lesson: political questions don't disappear when the movement gets larger, but actually proliferate and need to be addressed.

For example, when Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Joyce Beatty came to address the crowd, the audience was ecstatic to see these Ohio Democrats speak against the Muslim ban.

As they were speaking, however, I knew something had to be said given each politician's support for Israeli apartheid. But how do you make sure you don't lose the crowd for making a criticism of these officials? On the flip side, could we afford to let their politics lead the event?

Ultimately, I thanked Brown and Beatty for coming and speaking out against the ban. But I also said that this event is organized by the Palestine Solidarity Group, and we know that Democrats have backed Israeli policies to the hilt. Most of us, I added, see the oppression of Palestinians and targeting of Muslim countries as part of the same story.

The same crowd that cheered for the Democrats also then joined energetically in the chant I led to conclude: "Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go."

People come to these events with lots of different ideas. Our task is to lock arms with them, listen, and raise questions and discussions even as we work together.

Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again" is about glorifying settler colonialism, genocide and slavery, white supremacy and anti-immigrant policies. Some of the chants that emerged organically at the action showed a different vision and aspiration for this country: "Show me what Columbus looks like, this is what Columbus looks like! Show me what America looks like, this is what America looks like!"

The U.S. has a long history of cruel and racist demagogues like Donald Trump. But we also have a proud history as a place where people have stood up to fight racists and bigots every time they lift their heads.

In the process, many of those people found their ideas and actions going way beyond the limits of where they ever thought they would. That legacy gives us hope that we can make this world truly great.

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