It’s April 10, a sunny early-spring day in downtown Sacramento, and several dozen people have gathered for a rally on the west side of the tall stone-and-glass Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse building. Many in the crowd, members of unions like SEIU United Service Workers West as well as of immigrant-rights organizations and various community groups, are holding posters and wearing T-shirts adorned with the words Caravana Contra el Miedo (“Caravan Against Fear”). Under the words is a picture of a resolute young girl, arms outstretched, with an eagle soaring skyward in the background.
At the edge of the group, several protesters are holding up a four-foot-tall wire-mesh fence, along with signs vowing No Mas Familias Separadas. Towering above them is a tall wooden cross, around the trunk of which is coiled ugly, lethal-looking barbed wire.
They’ve come to a friendly place: Ever since Donald Trump’s election, California’s politicians have been busily passing sanctuary legislation intended to limit the ability of companies in the state to cooperate with the building of a border wall, as well as bills limiting local law—enforcement cooperation with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, all intended to create momentum against Trump’s proposed $20–$25 billion boondoggle. Of course, since there are already hundreds of miles of walls and fencing along the US-Mexico border—-and since Trump’s expansion, in the unlikely event that it’s ultimately funded by Congress, wouldn’t be built for years—his architectural folly will have far less day-to-day impact on immigrant communities than his massive expansion of ICE raids. So the real goal of California’s politicians, and the activists here on this spring day, is at least partly symbolic: to develop a counternarrative to the Trumpists’ fear-driven story of “invasion,” “crime,” and “border anarchy.” After all, so much of Trump’s agenda is about symbols rather than concrete actions and substance, about story lines that create poisonous divisions between “us” and “them,” and about dehumanizing entire sectors of the American population.
“I cannot imagine a worse symbol,” says California Assemblyman Phil Ting, who has been vocal in his opposition to the wall and outspoken in his celebration of California’s status as a global culture. “We’re flying in the face of authoritarian government, and any time you face an authoritarian government, the best antidote is democracy.”
Resistance, in this environment, is at least as much about crafting alternative stories of community and humanity as it is about resisting specific policies or, in the case of the wall, architectural projects. It is about shining a spotlight on bullying practices: people detained at the Mexican border for hours, sometimes days, despite their paperwork being in order; Muslims taken aside for interrogation at airports before being allowed to leave or enter the country; people refused visas for no reason other than that an embassy officer has been empowered to pursue “extreme vetting.” Resistance is about proudly and gloriously refusing to be cowed. It is about composing a contrapuntal tone of shared humanity in an age of ethno-nationalism, of conscience in an era of dangerous political cynicism. “The wall is a symbol of an authoritarian government pitting one group of people against another group,” Ting argues. “The opposition to the wall is part of a larger movement to fight back.”