Muslims praying at the No Muslim Ban rally and vigil in Foley Square, New York today. Photo by Stella Levantesi
In New York’s Foley Square, Muslims, Jews, Christians and people not affiliated with any religion, came together tonight to rally for “No Muslim Ban Ever.” But behind their prayers and lamp-lit banners was so much more than just a policy protest.
“There’s that sickness of bigotry of thinking that you can keep somebody out,” said Rabbi Marisa Elena James at the Lower Manhattan protest. “Nobody is immune to being drawn into a hateful ideology.”
It’s three days before the latest Muslim Ban is expected to take effect. The executive order prohibits travel to the US from six Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Chad, North Korea and Venezuela were added to the list, while Sudan was removed.
Muslims living in the US are fighting a double battle, nationally, to secure their life and protect it from islamophobia, and internationally, in their country of origin, which is, in many cases, shaken by violence, conflict and terrorism by extremists of their very own religion.
The pattern the protestors see of prejudice towards Muslims is destruction on many levels.
“It’s counterproductive, because it alienates the only people who, if one really wanted to fight terrorism, you could turn to,” said Priscilla Read of the Westchester Coalition Against Islamophobia.
Today, Somalia was hit by one of the most lethal terrorist attacks of its history when a truck bomb in the country’s capital, Mogadisciu, caused more than 500 casualties.
Fadumo Osman, 21, the President of the College Democrats at NYU, is the daughter of Somali refugees who came to the US with nothing.
“I grew up in a post 9/11 world where I was viewed differently just because I wore a hijab in high school,” said Osman. “Now, my people are getting killed on their own land by those terrorists that a lot of people in this country are accusing them to be.”
For some, the ban is a reflection of the tendency to attach Muslims to the stigma of terrorism.
For others, national security prevails over human rights.
“This isn’t even a ban, it’s so people can be vetted properly, it’s not targeting Muslims,” said Karen Braun, a Trump supporter from New York. “There are two non-Muslim countries involved. This is the objective, to stop terrorists from coming in.”
For the activists of the mobilization however, the presence of two non-Muslim countries in the ban doesn’t invalidate its intrinsic anti-Muslim motive.
“This is a Muslim ban, regardless of other non-Muslim countries involved,” said Osman. “Beyond that, there’s a very deep, rooted issue when it comes to white supremacy, when it comes to what it means to make America great again.”
But today’s mobilization wasn’t only about a national conversation.
In Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims are being inhumanely tortured by the country’s military; villages are ravaged and burnt, children are set on fire, women are raped, gang-raped. The mass persecution has forced an exodus from their homeland to Bangladesh, a predominantly Islamic country.
“It’s ethnic cleansing,” said Begum Hosheara, a Bangladeshi woman who moved to the US 21 years ago. “They’re killing people, piling them up in open pits, covering them with petrol and burning them. They’re cutting people’s limbs, women’s breasts and letting them die.”
Amnesty International has accused Myanmar of crimes against humanity, but critics wonder if international law terminology makes a difference.
“I can’t sleep at night,” Hosheara said. “My nephew is in Bangladesh and sent me a video of a desperate man shouting ‘If they want to kill us, just send us a bomb and kill us all together’.”
Since August 25th, more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar and are now refugees living in barbaric conditions with nothing, often gravely injured and mourning the atrocious deaths in their families.
“These people are powerless, they have no voice, they are getting killed only because of their ethnicity, only because they’re Muslim,” said Begum. “We need to forget about religion, we need to be human again.”
Protestors said in the US, Trump’s policies have created a vicious cycle.
“The terroristic acts that are committed by Islamic extremists are being instrumentalized,” said Read. “For example, 9/11 fit perfectly into a neo-conservative framework and now we’ve got people absolutely terrified all the time.”
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 75 percent of respondents said, Muslims face a lot of discrimination in the US. Only 3 percent said it is easier.
The fear of being vulnerable to verbal or physical assaults is so high, some Muslims said they avoid reporting acts of hate towards them.
“One day I saw two girls push an old Muslim lady into the street, she risked being run over by a car,” said Begum. “‘She can’t wear this dress [the hijab] here’, the girls said. “Before, when anything happened we could call the police and report, but now we’re scared of being found and attacked again.”
But Osman said the twilight-lit crowd reminded people of hope.
“The thing that has kept me going is solidarity, in the form of showing up physically,” she said. “Just seeing you guys out here, reminds me that I shouldn’t give up.”
Rabbis protest outside of the Trump Tower in Midtown this morning in response to the government’s immigration policies. Photo by Monay Robinson
Dozens of rabbis gathered outside the Trump Tower in Midtown this morning and held up signs that read “My father was a Syrian refugee” and “Resisting tyrants since Pharaoh” in response to the administration’s immigration policies including the Muslim ban and ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Rabbi Mira Rivera stood firm in the middle of the crowd while projecting her voice through a loudspeaker. Her words canceled out the morning traffic on Fifth Avenue.
“We stand with all immigrants, we stand with the displaced, we stand with our fathers, mothers and grandparents,” Rivera said. “I am a child, a product of a green card marriage, of two people who came to the United States looking for a new life.”
Rivera’s parents immigrated from the Philippines, where she also grew up. She thanked them for all the opportunities she had in her life including her college degree.
“They gave me the ability to study,” she said. “They gave me the chance to know and to never take for granted that I as a person of color have to work harder, longer and stand when everyone else has gone to bed.”
Rivera said immigrants refugees are suffering because of government initiatives.
“DACA was in place and that’s a portion of the 11 million undocumented,” she said. “This city alone cannot stand without the work of their parents and them themselves. That would be completely impossible from the babysitters, to the people that clean and maintain, the people that are in our offices.”
Rabbi Jose Rolando Matalon, a native of Argentina, spoke to the crowd about his family background.
“I am an immigrant from Argentina,” Matalon said. “My grandparents came from Syria with nothing to Argentina and they were given a safe place to grow and to prosper. I would like our country to give the same opportunities to anyone who wants to come.”
Matalon said the administration is disregarding the needs of immigrants and refugees who are searching for prosperity and safety. He has seen a regression in America’s tradition of welcoming and embracing everyone.
“Conditions are getting very difficult for immigrants who live here,” he said. “I believe that this is done to preserve some sort of whiteness in America which has nothing to do with the essence of this country.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, 41, is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights based in Manhattan, which hosted the protest.
T’ruah has about 2,000 rabbi members across North America who work to advance human rights.
The protest took place during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which symbolizes vulnerability.
“The holiday of Sukkot is a holiday in which we put up these fragile structures and effectively live in them for the course of the week,” Jacobs said. “It’s a reminder that no matter how many walls or barriers we might build that’s not what actually keeps us safe.”
During the protest, rabbis built a pop-up sukkah, which was placed in the middle of the crowd and carried along Fifth Avenue as protesters marched. The sukkah was a green and white temporary structure which read “Welcome” above the entrance.
“The sukkah is open,” she said. “It’s a place that we welcome people and those themes are diametrically opposed to the current administration’s policy on immigrants which is to close the borders of America.”
Jacobs’ family came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century from Poland and Ukraine.
“We were able to come because the borders were open at that point,” she said. “In 1924 they closed to Jews and therefore people who were trying to flee Nazi Germany were not able to come. We understand whether the borders were open or closed is a life or death proposition.”
Protesters holding protest signs at anti-Jones Act rally in front of Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Lower Manhattan, New York. Photo by Justin M. Ratchford
Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico suffered for years from a failing economy. Many fled in search of better lives. After the storm, catastrophic damage trapped those who remained, leaving many without food, shelter or hope in Puerto Rico’s future. Aid to the island, which is a commonwealth of the United States, was slow, critics said.
Yesterday, New Yorkers, many of them Puerto Ricans, rallied at the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building to express their frustration. Adorned with signs and Puerto Rican flags, the protesters assembled at the Lower Manhattan building to demand more be done for the people devastated by the storm.
One source of stress was the slow suspension of the Jones Act, which requires all supplies being sent to Puerto Rico to be on U.S. ships. Some officials and community members said this slowed down aid. It took the federal government 8 days after the hurricane to suspend it for 10 days.
“Our people are dying over there while they’re playing politics,” Eddie Mercado, 55, of the Bronx said. “Now how much could you realistically accomplish in 10 days?”
Standing quietly among other chanting protesters was Alex Ortiz, a Bronx resident, who had not come to protest, but to see if he could get ideas on how to get back to Puerto Rico.
“I’m just trying to get down there because they need truck drivers there, that’s my whole issue,” Ortiz said. “My mother’s down there with my 15-year-old son, so I’d really like to get down there.”
The Category 4 storm sent the island into a state of emergency, but Puerto Rico had been struggling for years before it hit. Back in May of 2017, in the midst of an 11-year recession, the country filed for a municipal bankruptcy, the largest ever at $70 billion. It defaulted on its already restructured loans without any means to pay the debt.
“We need to demand that the debt be cancelled,” Ricardo Gabriel, a 37-year old Brooklynite said. “Humanitarian needs need to come first. People have to come before profit.”
But during his election campaign, President Donald Trump made it clear that he would not bail out Puerto Rico, citing it had “far, far, too much debt.” He doubled down on the stance in April, tweeting about Puerto Rico’s troubled economy.
The fractured commonwealth’s economy is estimated to have pay between $30 billion to $95 billion in damages associated with Hurricane Maria. With the Gross Domestic Product of roughly $103 billion combined with a staggering unemployment rate of 11.5 percent, Hurricane Maria marked an important place in the country’s history. If something is not done, residents could flee the island, experts said.
Tied to barriers police set up for the event was one large Puerto Rican flag belonging to 43-year-old Brooklyn resident, Jamie Nunez. He stood towards the back of the crowd, eyes covered by large sunglasses. He was holding back tears.
“I hate when people say that we’re resilient people, but we are definitely resilient, “ Jamie said. “We come from nothing and we made something happen. I think with our numbers in the states we can definitely make it better.”
Protestors marching for Puerto Rico outside of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building yesterday. Photo by Monay Robinson
Protesters gathered outside the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building yesterday to express their anger over the U.S. government’s slow response in aiding Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria.
Red, white and blue Puerto Rican flags were waved along with signs that read “No American should be hungry” and “Rise up Puerto Rico.” The protesters marched in a circle and chanted, “Eight days and still we wait,” “Abolish the debt” and “Abolish the Jones Act.”
The Jones Act requires items from the U.S. to be shipped on American-owned and operated ships. According to CNN Money, this act has caused it to be “twice as expensive to ship things” from the U.S. to Puerto Rico. It was temporarily suspended yesterday, eight days after the hurricane destroyed the island, which is a US commonwealth and whose residents are American citizens.
Hurricane Maria first hit Puerto Rico the morning of Sept. 20th with powerful winds reaching up to 140 mph. Residents were left without power, water, food and shelter.
Ambar Martinez, 33, of Brooklyn, attended the rally with her mother. They have family living on the southwest part of the island and waited six days to hear from them. She found out her grandmother lost the roof to her house and everything inside, including sofas, mattresses and beds, was destroyed.
“I think he (Donald Trump) is not giving it any importance,” Martinez said. “It is not important to him and he would rather spend his time on the internet bashing people over other topics.”
Janette Messina of Brooklyn attended the rally with her daughter. She wore a white hat with a black band that read “Puerto Rico.”
“We are here today to show the administration that they cannot forget about our people in Puerto Rico,” she said. “They are taking their time. They are treating us like second world citizens and we are U.S. citizens.”
Messina’s parents are from Puerto Rico and she currently has family there. She was able to contact some of her family through a texting app.
“One of them texted me today and we were ecstatic,” she said. “ I assured her that we are helping. Don’t think that you are alone. You may not hear us, but please feel us.”
Messina said even though her family is doing badly, they are still alive. She has yet to be able to reach all of her family..
“We cry every day,” Messina said. “We try them every day. In my heart and in my soul, I believe they are alive. But my heart cannot tell me if their house is still there.”
Erica Hernandez, 35 of East Harlem, is trying to spread awareness of the living tragedy in Puerto Rico.
“Puerto Rico is my motherland,” Hernandez said. “It’s where my parents were born. It’s where I’m from and the island where I got married. It means the world to me.”
She has donated supplies and does not know what else to do to help.
“Right now we feel very helpless,” she said through tears. “I don’t know what else I can do. I came here to use my voice because that’s the only thing I know to do right now.”
A group of protestors rallying against Housing Budget cuts passed by President Trump Thursday afternoon at the NYCHA Head Quarters in Lower Manhattan. Photo by Keziah Tutu
Public Housing advocates rallied against President Donald Trump’s plan to cut over $6 billion from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Budget yesterday.
“Before I moved to NYCHA Queensbridge, I lived in Sunnyside for five years, but I was evicted from my house to a shelter,” said Ok Soon Son, a current resident of one of New York City Housing Authority’s Queensbridge housing developments.
Son came to protest in front of the NYCHA headquarters in Lower Manhattan. Twenty-five years ago, Son was evicted and then threatened by child protective services to either find another home for her two young children, or risk losing them to foster care.
“All human beings should know that housing is not a luxury but our basic human right,” she said. “If there was budget cuts and the government did not give me a house in NYCHA Queensbridge, my family could have been separated. There should be no family being separated from each other because of housing.”
Under President Trump’s proposed 2018 fiscal year budget, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will cut NYCHA budget by $6.8 billion. These cuts will affect public housing organizations which provide housing to about 400,000 New York City residents.
According to the NYCHA, this will affect the availability of public housing units, increase the cost of rent and affect supplemental housing programs such as Section 8.
District Council 37 AFSCME, the union for NYCHA workers, along with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence and Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, formed a circle at the protest and shouted, “’What do we want? More funding! When do we want it? Now!’”
Julian DeJesus, a member of District Council 37 AFSCME said, the rally isn’t only about getting more funding, but it’s to make sure those funds go to the right places so residents live in better conditions.
“We know that it will be difficult to create a better system in NYCHA and public housing across the country if they don’t have the funds to do so,” he said. “We want people to live comfortably and there is no reason why people should be living in slums.”
DeJesus said that with the community’s involvement, the goal is to get the president and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and other community leaders to see the importance of funding public housing.
“We don’t want them to cut what we already have, which is already lacking,” he said. “We’re on the defensive at this point but if we could get more people out here, more people fighting, more people aware, we would be in a better situation.”
Falun Gong practitioners meditate in protest outside the United Nations building in New York City early Wednesday afternoon. They peacefully protest the Chinese government’s persecution and alleged harvesting of organs from its followers. Photo by Justin Hicks
East 47th street between 2nd and 1st avenue was besieged by green, white and red flags with deafening screams of “Free Iran” permeating the air while smaller, similarly passionate groups denounced the leaders of Zimbabwe and Turkey with guitars and brightly emblazoned signs.
In stark contrast amid the colorful flags and posters of political candidates, about 50 mostly Chinese men and women in yellow t-shirts silently meditated with eyes closed and hands folded in prayer-like poses as almost inaudible Chinese music lilted from a few small speakers.
Wednesday morning, in sight of the United Nations building, practitioners of a controversial Chinese religion named Falun Gong (or sometimes, Falun Dafa) quietly protested the Chinese government’s persecution and the alleged organ harvesting of its practitioners since its criminalization in 1999.
“It’s a peaceful protest,” Victoria Bondar, a 50-year-old protester from New Jersey, said. “We worry deeply about our fellow practitioners who have been killed and (had their) organ harvested. I feel terrible, horrible.”
One of their primary obstacles has to do with labeling. The Chinese government, their most vehement opponent, labels them prominently as an “anti-society cult,” but their supporters can’t seem to decide how to categorize their organization. Unlike religion, there is no deity, and unlike most cults, their Nobel Peace prize-nominated founder, Li Hongzhi, is largely absent. They call themselves a “self-cultivation practice.”
Even the benefits of Falun Gong vary by individual, ranging from the miraculous healing of chronic diseases like cancer to simply having a clear mind. But no matter what they believe, all practitioners meditate and adhere to the group’s core tenets of truth, compassion and forbearance.
“You have to follow these three principles to be good people,” Jane Dai, a Falun Gong practitioner and former resident of Guangzhou, China said. “Even though we face this brutal persecution, we are still peacefully resisting.”
Chinese police arrested Dai’s husband, Cheng Yong Chen, after he delivered a letter to government officials in Shanghai defending what he believed to be the medical and social benefits of the movement. When his plane landed back in the city of Gaungzhou, police were waiting for him. Thy jailed him and took his older sister, also a Falun Gong follower, to a labor camp where she spent the next two years. Dai and her family never saw Chen again.
“In China (there are) thousands and thousands of families like us,” she said. “[They] don’t have a chance to speak out, and their voices, nobody hears.”
Ms. Hsu, a 65-year-old protestor for Falun Gong, personally experienced persecution when she was 14 years old. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, she was barred from school and her mother from work. She did not want her full name used because of fear of retribution.
“My father was [a] captain in China,” Hsu said. “He was coming from Hong Kong back to China and lost his position, lost his money, [and the government] stopped payment to him [for] over 13 years.
The Chinese government outlawed the practice of Falun Gong to “protect human rights and the interests of the public,” according to the Chinese Embassy’s website. The site claims that mentally ill practitioners killed over 30 people and that the organization “exercises extreme mental manipulation on followers.”
“My personal understanding is that Jiang Zemin [was] jealous,” Hsu said. “The principles [are] so different from the Communist party. They like power; they like killing.”
Despite China’s stance, other countries and human rights groups have publicly denounced the government’s actions.
The United States House of Representatives passed a resolution in June 2016 which “demands an immediate end to the 16-year persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual practice,” while simultaneously condemning the practice of transplanting the organs of “non-consenting prisoners.” The Humans Rights Watch 2017 World Report also acknowledges that Falun Gong “continues to suffer state persecution,” in its review of Chinese abuses.
With issues like North Korea and the Iran nuclear agreement looming large in the minds of most United Nations delegates this year, it seems unlikely that the Falun Gong will be discussed. But the protesters will wait patiently and peacefully.
“We just hope that people will know the truth,” Dai said. “That’s why we are here. And you can see we are very peaceful, just doing the exercises.”