Los Angeles—The early hours of resistance to Donald Trump’s executive order restricting travel for refugees and nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries had an improvisational feel. Initially on Saturday evening, police, some carrying riot gear, outnumbered the protesters at Los Angeles International Airport. The ball of outrage the apparent targeting of Muslims by the Trump administration had yet to begin accelerating downhill.
I had flown into LAX an hour earlier, and I got an alert about the local SEIU chapter staging a protest at the international terminal. My wife and I walked across two terminals with our luggage and waited for others to arrive. Eventually they did, in waves, doubling and tripling in size in a matter of minutes, running toward the terminal entrance with T-shirts and pink hats and signs recycled from the previous week’s Women’s March (one sign-bearer helpfully stuck the disclaimer “last week’s protest” onto the front). At least 1,000 people arrived within the hour.
What was tabbed as a candlelight vigil instead became a raucous display of solidarity with the seven travelers detained by Customs and Border Protection inside. In between the singing of “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome,” five members of the California State Assembly gave short speeches of condemnation. “California must protect the nation from STDs—Stupid Trump Decisions,” said Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer. “If they thought resistance in the 1960s was a big deal, they should wait until now,” added Asssemblyman Miguel Santiago, carrying his child in a Baby Bjorn on his chest. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s aide, Daniel Tamm, read out a statement on his behalf: “Los Angeles will always be a place of refuge.”
Then, the LAPD and airport police allowed the protesters to enter the terminal, two aside in a single-file line, to march around the periphery of the entire ticketing area. Protesters screamed, “Let them in,” as they made their way past a Planet Hollywood and other restaurants and shops, as passengers gawked and nodded their heads in agreement. By the time everyone congregated back outside, the demonstration had doubled again, someone had procured a megaphone, and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Patrisse Cullors had taken the mic. “I stand in solidarity with all Muslim people,” she said. “Every single one of us gets to say what it means to be an American.”
By this time, news of the federal judicial ruling in New York hit people’s phones, and murmurs grew about a stay of the executive order for those in transit when it was signed. That news reached the megaphone, and the crowd let out a shout of triumph. But it was only a temporary battle in what will become a war in the courts to fight the travel ban.
Among the protesters was Mohammed Al Rawi of Long Beach, an Iraqi who worked with the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad as an IT manager and translator. His father, Qassim, was scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles from Baghdad this weekend, but while connecting through Qatar, he was stopped and told by a representative from the US Embassy that his visa had been invalidated. After 10 hours in a holding area, Qassim was sent back to Baghdad, deported without ever reaching American soil, extending the two years since he has seen his grandchildren.
Mohammed’s own story is harrowing. When he started working for the American press in Iraq in 2003, local Al Qaeda groups marked him as a spy. “They put a price on my head, they broke into my house multiple times, they looted everything from my house, they set my belongings on fire.” Mohammed said. “They told all my neighbors they would be looking for me, so I couldn’t come back to my house.” Mohammed lived in the LA Times office for three years.
He finally qualified for a special immigration visa in 2010 and came with his wife and two kids to America “with two suitcases to start a new life.” He left knowing that he could never return to his home country, a fact intensified by the executive order. “It would be a one-way trip if I go, I would never come back.”
Asked if he had any statement for Trump, Mohammed replied, “The one thing I want to tell him is I myself am a victim of terrorism. And I would support any action to prevent terrorist attacks anywhere in the world.” But he questioned whether this order, which targeted countries that have not been the sources of any terrorist attacks on US soil, would achieve that purported goal. Nor would arbitrarily keeping apart families that have already been haunted by terror make anyone safer.
“The first victims of terrorism in the Middle East and around the world, the largest number are Muslims,” Mohammed said. “And myself, I lost my house, I lost my life, I was separated from my family.”
Protests at LAX and other airports, city-hall steps, and Trump hotels nationwide have exploded since those first hectic hours. Indeed, on Sunday, a much larger horde of demonstrators at LAX sat down inside the international terminal in front of the closed doors of the Customs and Border Protection office. But the power of outrage, which has already claimed a small victory in permitting travel for lawful permanent residents, was present from the start.
“It just shows the greatness of this country,” Mohammed said. “People speak up. We learn from mistakes, so we take a step back and then take 10 steps forward.”