Defying a tide of bigotry led by Republican governors, more than 1,000 people gathered in Boston on Friday 20 November to participate in an inspiring display of solidarity with Syrian refugees.
After the non-stop cheerleading for war and repression among the media and political elite in the days after the Paris terror attacks, the Boston rally, along with others around the country, with more to come in the days ahead, sent an alternative message: We welcome refugees of all countries and stand with them in their struggle for justice.
On November 16, three days after the attacks in Paris, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker seized on the tragedy to announce that his state might decline to participate in a federally administered resettlement plan for Syrian refugees. Baker was playing to racist fears and Islamophobic sentiment that has been driven to frenzied levels by political figures at every level, but especially the Republican governors and GOP contenders for their party’s presidential nomination.
The November 20 demonstration was our side’s response at long last.
A broad array of organizations – 22 in all – endorsed the Boston rally, including NUDay Syria, Boston Solidarity with Syrian Refugees, NU Students for Justice in Palestine, the American Friends Services Committee, 350.org Mass, Student Immigrant Movement, local churches, student coalitions and workers’ associations.
The event featured speakers from various organizations as well as an open mike, during which refugees – and Muslims in particular – were encouraged to come forward and share their experiences. For two straight hours, the crowd hung on every word of those willing to tell their stories.
Demonstrators responded passionately to a speaker named Ibrahim, a Boston University student, who proudly declared his Muslim identity and insisted that we can’t let ISIS and Islamophobes in the West convince us that this moment reflects a “clash of civilizations.” Ibrahim also explained why U.S. drone strikes and further escalations of the war will only contribute to more terror.
As a student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commented, “It is powerful to see people come together and say that it’s the government that’s at fault here, that this is a crisis that was created by our government and not by individual people of any race or religion. We’ve got to keep uniting on this issue.”
Citing the “safety” of Massachusetts residents as his top priority, Baker cloaked his anti-refugee stand in claims that he needed to “learn more” about the federal government’s vetting process before allowing Syrian refugees entry into the state. In short order, he was joined by Boston’s Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh, not to mention several dozen state governors.
The “concerns” about Syrian refugees both reflect and further fan racist fear – in blatant defiance of the facts. None of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks identified so far was a refugee–all were European nationals, from what we know.
Baker’s fears are even more transparently Islamophobic given the facts about U.S. immigration policy. Syrian refugees already undergo a lengthy series of background checks typically lasting years before being allowed to enter the U.S. And of course, the U.S. has so far allowed entry to a mere 2,000 Syrian refugees. By contrast, Lebanon, a country of less than 5 million people, has taken in more than 1 million Syrians.
Even New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, hardly a voice of humanitarianism and peace, penned an article titled “The Statue of Liberty Must Be Crying with Shame,” in which he argued:
Among refugees admitted to the U.S. since 9/11, there has been about one arrest for terrorism offenses for every 250,000 refugees, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Then again, by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, there’s maybe a 100-times greater likelihood that, say, a Floridian will turn out to be a murderer over a 10-year period than that a refugee will attempt terrorism. So if we’re willing to allow Floridians free entry into other states, allowing Syrian refugees shouldn’t be a problem.
This racism and blatant scapegoating prompted members of the Boston International Socialist Organization (ISO) to initiate the November 20 protest, in order to send a clear message of opposition.
By that point, Baker had reversed himself, backing away from his earlier comments and declining to sign the letter sent by 27 governors to the Obama administration calling for a suspension of the entry of Syrian refugees.
The response of Bostonians to the protest call was truly heartening – but it wasn’t the only city where people took to the streets to express support for Syrians and other refugees seeking entry to the U.S.
In Austin, Texas, some 600 people turned out with handmade signs to listen to speeches and chant in solidarity with the Syrian People’s Solidarity Group that issued the call for the rally. Passing drivers and city buses honked in support of the rally to cheers from the crowd. Favorite chants included “Two, four, six, eight, Texas doesn’t stand for hate!” and “Refugees, you’re not alone, give them jobs, give them homes!” A day earlier, some 300 turned up in Pflugerville, Texas, a northern suburb of Austin, and 300 also demonstrated in Houston.
In Burlington, Vermont, protesters gathered outside the State House two days in a row to call for welcoming Syrian refugees to the state. “They’re not terrorists,” said Sasha Scott, a member of the ISO in Burlington. “They’re fleeing the terrorists, and we ought to welcome everyone.”
Among the attendees, many brought tremendous energy and creativity to the protests. In Boston, one volunteer partnered with an independent screen printing shop to create and sell “Refugees are welcome” T-shirts – proceeds from sales were donated to the Boston Medical Centre’s Refugee and Human Rights Centre.
Speakers in Boston also addressed a myriad of issues crucial to understanding the context of the refugee crisis. One speaker talked about the importance of taking a stand against the Assad dictatorship while others gave gut-wrenching descriptions of the lived experiences of refugees. A Syrian immigrant couple came forward after the initial round of speakers to express how seeing so many people stand with Syrian refugees helped to puncture their feeling of isolation.
Sofia Arias, the emcee of the event, received enthusiastic applause for calling out the hypocrisy of political officials, especially Mayor Walsh, who prioritize the profits of wealthy real-estate developers while consigning ordinary people to the “lack of security” that the politicians say they deplore. “It wasn’t Syrian refugees who closed the bridge to the Long Island homeless shelter,” said Arias – referring to a city action that forced many homeless to sleep in the streets of Boston last winter.
Later, a radical preacher took to the stage and condemned those who asked Muslims – and not white male Christians in this country who are responsible for the majority of mass shooting and killings in the U.S. since 9/11 – to apologise for terror. He got a massive roar of approval from the crowd – the biggest response of the night to anything said from the stage.
Cheers also went through the crowd in response to the connections that speakers made to the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the fight for climate justice and against environmental racism. The crowd cheered several speakers’ condemnations of the priorities of capitalism and the interrelationship between the breakneck pursuit of profit and the perpetuation of Islamophobia to deflect attention from pressing social crises in the U.S., such as low wages, massive inequality and unemployment.
Many protesters linked the refusal to allow Syrian refugees entry into the U.S. with the government’s treatment of immigrants from Latin America. “The rhetoric around the government’s capacity to resettle refugees is the same in the United States, whether it’s about Syrians or migrants from Latin America,” said a woman who works for the Brazilian Workers Center. “It is posed as a battle for resources, but in reality, city, state and national governments are selective in how they prioritize those resources.”
Others in the crowd expressed a deep skepticism about the government’s interest in aiding refugees in need. One student said of Democratic politicians, such as New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, who has, like Baker, refused to advocate for Syrian refugee resettlement: “Baker is at fault in this case, but the weak position Democrats have taken on immigration and the refugee crisis makes me concerned for what will happen if a Democratic candidate wins in 2016.”
The record of Hillary Clinton, frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, looms especially large on this issue. In a recent foreign policy speech, Clinton called for a “generational struggle” against ISIS. But she voted in favor of George W. Bush’s disastrous war on Iraq that created the conditions that led to the emergence of ISIS in the first place. Before that, in the 1990s, the administration of Bill Clinton perpetuated genocidal sanctions against Iraq responsible for the deaths of half a million Iraqi children, according to the UN’s own statistics.
Even as the Arab Spring uprising was taking place against his regime, Hillary Clinton praised dictator Bashar al-Assad as a reformer. Clinton also supported Hosni Mubarak until the Egyptian people rose up to overthrow him, and she has backed Israel’s repeated bombings of Gaza.
Clinton’s “generational struggle” is based on war, terror, racism, repression and death. But on the night of 20 November in Boston, we saw the potential for a totally different kind of “generational struggle.”