Juanita Benjamin was skimming her Facebook feed on Sunday morning when she spotted a friend’s post about a protest later that day at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The event was titled A Stand for Refugees and Immigrants — a call to action in response to President Donald Trump’s sweeping executive order targeting Muslim travelers to the United States. As a black immigrant from Guyana, it caught her interest. “I came here legally,” Benjamin said, but she knows people who didn’t. “They’re working very hard because they want a better life. They’re not rapists. They’re not murderers.” After a year and a half of hearing dehumanizing rhetoric about “illegals” from Trump, Benjamin was dismayed by his first executive order, which promises to escalate deportations, build his long-promised border wall, and defund “sanctuary cities.” Now he was targeting people with visas and green cards, smearing whole families as potential terrorists based solely on their ethnicity and religion. She decided to go to the protest.
Benjamin brought Dolores Williams, a friend and fellow teacher who recently retired. Under gray skies and a chilly drizzle, they arrived at the airport around the 4 p.m. start time to find a sea of people already there, with more pouring in on the MARTA, Atlanta’s public rail system. Protesters were young and old, of all races, waving signs and pumping their fists, cheering as drivers honked their horns in support. Many brought their kids. Over chants of “Say it loud! Say it clear! Refugees are welcome here!” Williams and Benjamin expressed solidarity with those targeted by the Muslim ban and indignation over Trump’s vicious portrayal of foreigners. “This nation was built on the backs of immigrants — those who came on their own accord and those of us who were brought here in chains,” said Williams. “And for someone to say, ‘I’m gonna build a wall’ like it’s Berlin, to stop immigrants from coming — it’s wrong. It’s wrong.” A Brooklyn-born black woman who adopted the South as her home years ago, Williams pointed out that it took Americans of all stripes to win the victories of the civil rights movement. “It’s a shame that 50 years later we’re still doing the same thing.”
Atlanta’s airport is the busiest in the world, home to Delta Air Lines and a major point of entry to the southeast United States. On a hotel shuttle earlier that day, a Delta employee told me Trump’s directive had prompted mass confusion among the company’s foreign workforce, many of whom came from the seven countries singled out by the order and who regularly travel in and out of the U.S. Earlier that weekend, 11 Muslim immigrants had been detained at Hartsfield-Jackson, among them a child and a 76-year-old grandmother. Congressman John Lewis, whose district is home to the airport, showed up to push for their release, calling it “a dark hour for America.”
Yet while Sunday’s demonstration was fueled by the emergency at hand, it was filled with a broader sense of urgency — and a unique sense of local history. Many protesters invoked Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement, with Rep. Lewis serving as an iconic reminder of the power of protest. The same was true of other rallies across the South, in states that voted for Trump. In Birmingham, Alabama, on Saturday, protesters gathered at Kelly Ingram Park, where Bull Connor once unleashed police dogs and fire hoses on activists fighting Jim Crow. The next day, the Birmingham airport saw a protest of its own. While there were no dramatic scenes like those at New York’s JFK Airport or Dulles International in Washington, D.C. — where teams of heroic lawyers fought to release Muslim travelers trapped by the Trump administration — solidarity protests at smaller airports like Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina and Austin-Bergstrom in Texas drew impressive crowds. At the Birmingham Rally for Refugees and Immigrants, participants drove to the airport from Montgomery and elsewhere to make their voices heard.
The rallies throughout the South have continued this week, a powerful rebuke to recent ahistorical arguments dismissing public protest as the leisurely purview of coastal elites. They are also an important visual reminder of the large swaths of immigrant communities throughout the region, which have grown exponentially in recent years, a phenomenon central to Trump’s scaremongering presidential campaign. It is no coincidence that in cities like Louisville, Kentucky, and Charlotte, North Carolina, whose foreign-born populations have risen sharply since 2000, thousands came out to protest Trump’s executive orders. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer called it a “pivotal moment” for the country, speaking alongside immigrant and civil rights activists at an amphitheater named for Muhammad Ali.
Many in the South have been personally impacted by Trump’s executive order. Among those most cruelly affected last week was a man named Fuad Sharef Suleman, who was traveling to Nashville, Tennessee, with his family, only to be blocked by authorities in Cairo. In addition to a significant Somali population, Nashville is home to the largest Kurdish community in the U.S., with many arriving as refugees from Iraq in the early 1990s. Suleman once worked as a translator in collaboration with USAID, a job that could put his life in danger in the escalating war against the Islamic State. In anguished statements to reporters on Saturday, Suleman said he and his wife had waited for two years to obtain a special immigrant visa to the U.S., quitting their jobs, selling their house, and taking their three children out of school. Suleman was distraught and bewildered by Trump’s order, saying he had believed the U.S. was a democracy. “It is just like Saddam Hussein’s decisions,” he said.
Nashville residents joined the nationwide protests over the weekend, rallying in front of the offices of Republican Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander. The public pressure appeared to get results: Both lawmakers issued statements expressing concern about Trump’s order. While their words fell far short of real condemnation — Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Policy Committee, called the order “poorly implemented” — they were among the few national politicians to say anything at all. Protesters also called on Mayor Megan Barry, who spoke at the event, to make Nashville a “sanctuary city,” asking her to block deportations from city jails. The same demand was made of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. With mayoral elections coming up, a number of Atlanta residents made it clear at the airport rally that they will be watching what local politicians choose to do in this moment.
One such protester was Shawna Pennywell, who came with her husband, Styron, their 18-month-old son, Conor, and their daughter Emerson, who was celebrating her birthday. On a large white posterboard leaning on her brother’s stroller, Emerson had written, “My birthday wish is to let Muslims come here and have a great life,” along with a drawing of a woman dressed in an abaya. “I can’t change the election,” her mother told me. But she can pressure local legislators to resist Trump’s agenda.
The Pennywells are among the many black Atlantans who came out from the 5th Congressional District, which Donald Trump smeared as “horrible” in his Twitter tantrum toward Rep. Lewis. After the incident, which took place on Martin Luther King Day, the family went to the Barnes & Noble in Edgewood, “in the heart of our plagued, crime-infested city,” Shawna Pennywell joked. They bought “Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis,” a children’s book by Jabari Asim, along with Lewis’s “March” trilogy — part memoir, part graphic novel about his years in the civil rights movement. “We have read them in the last week,” she said enthusiastically, admitting that she may not have gotten around to doing such a thing if it were not for Trump. Many Americans had the same impulse: Sales of Lewis’s memoir skyrocketed immediately following the controversy. For Styron Pennywell, this is the sole silver lining to Trump’s election. Trump’s actions and rhetoric are so bigoted and extreme, it is motivating people to get on the right side of history. “This is like Civil Rights 2.0,” he said. “We’ve had slavery, we’ve had Japanese internment camps. A ban on Muslims leads to a ban on — what’s next? So, we have to come together to support one another.”
Like the Women’s March that galvanized record numbers of protesters across the globe, the action in Atlanta was organized by women. Among them was Asma Elhuni, a hijab-wearing legislative intern at CAIR. Like Linda Sarsour, who was viciously targeted by racists following the D.C.-led demonstration she helped mobilize, Elhuni knows too well what it means to organize high-profile events — or just navigate life — as a visually identifiable Muslim. On the day before the protest, as news and social media swirled with reports of families being detained across the country, Elhuni caught a stranger taking pictures of her at a coffee shop in East Atlanta. She confronted the man, filming him on her phone as he came toward her with a smile, and sat uncomfortably close. He called her “uptight,” a “bitch,” and asked if she had a green card, yet she kept her cool, later posting the footage to Facebook. The video went viral. At the airport, strangers came up express their gratitude and admiration for Elhuni, some pausing to take selfies with her. “What people don’t realize is that this is actually the third time in two weeks that people have taken a picture of me,” she told me. “I happened to catch hate on camera, but this happens to women all the time.”
In the rush to cover the astonishing spread of weekend protests across the country, many in the press described the actions as “spontaneous.” But they could not have happened without the local activist networks that have existed for years. In Atlanta, Elhuni was joined by Azadeh Shahshahani, a veteran human rights attorney and the legal and advocacy director of Project South. The group has spent decades fighting for racial justice in Atlanta and beyond, in some of the most challenging political climates. At a recent MLK Day event, Shahshahani urged people to expand the scope of their work, including through physical travel, as protesters at Standing Rock have done. “We have to go as far as we can,” she said. “For us to really survive, we can’t work in silos anymore.”
Shahshahani spent much of the past several years fighting record deportations and prolonged immigrant detention under the Obama administration. If there is so much fear now over the Trump administration’s immigration plans, it is only because Trump has vowed to accelerate a process that was cruel and extreme to begin with. Among those who have felt this pain firsthand was a young woman named Leydiana Mungia, who came to the protest draped in a Mexican flag. She was there with two friends, who declined to be interviewed, instead asking her to speak on their behalf. Mugia explained that their father had been deported a few years earlier — “They probably don’t want to cry for you,” she said. While they came from different backgrounds as the Muslim immigrants detained inside airports over the weekend, they knew the anguish of being ripped apart from family by government policy. Mungia, too, once had family who had been undocumented, but they managed to get their papers. Others should have the same opportunity, she said, calling the protest “an American fight. This is for everyone who has been denied access here.”
Another first-generation American was Luke Cho, a student at the University of Georgia. His story is typical: His parents moved from South Korea to Chicago, where he was born, and then brought him to Atlanta, which he considers his hometown. Like many immigrants and children of immigrants, Trump’s election has shaken his sense of American identify. Cho’s parents were not particularly political when he was growing up, he said, yet his father “really wanted to vote” in the past election. Since it was Cho’s first time voting, he planned to go with him — “It was supposed to be a special father-son moment.” But his dad discovered he had been purged from the voter rolls. He is hardly alone; Republican efforts to disenfranchise voters have been largely successful in Fulton County, where he lives; since 2014 alone, hundreds of thousands of voters were purged from Georgia’s voter rolls. But it felt deeply personal nonetheless. “It was sad to see that moment taken away,” Cho said.
For Cho, the election has awakened a desire to see his hometown live up to its history of civil rights activism. “Atlanta is that city that has to lead the South in movements like these,” he said. “New York is representing their region, L.A. is representing the West. So Atlanta has to represent the Southeast and let others know that we’re here. We have a voice.”
As evening fell and some protesters started to head home, others took their signs and chants inside, circling the baggage carousels. A man parked himself next to the restroom with a sign reading “Resist,” while a woman greeted arriving passengers. Airport security stood by, allowing protesters to move freely. Reports from other protests that night carried accounts of police in riot gear making arrests. There was no such escalation in Atlanta — but that did not mean police abuse was far from anyone’s mind.
Near baggage claim, I met Becky Rafter, a longtime organizer and executive director of Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions. She talked about the need to connect Trump’s executive orders with the many other ways government criminalizes entire communities, often with lethal violence. In Atlanta, she pointed out, “just two days ago, a black man was shot by the police. Again.” The man, Deondre Phillips, has barely made news despite the highly questionable circumstances of his death. In one local Fox report, police say they ordered Phillips out of his car after they smelled marijuana and that he later “lunged” back into his car, attempting to flee before being shot and killed. As a white woman in the South — a group that came out for Trump — Rafter feels obligated to stand up against all forms of state violence that target black and brown people.
Rafter was accompanied by Sonali Sadequee, also a longtime activist; Sadequee and Rafter were impressed with the turnout at the airport, which attracted tons of people they had never seen before. More than a decade ago, Sadequee was forced to redirect her energy to respond to an emergency in her own family, when her 19-year-old brother, Shifa, was abducted and arrested in Bangladesh at the behest of the Bush administration. Shifa was accused of trying to carry out a terrorist attack. Although the case against him was weak — there was no proof he had taken steps to devise an actual plot — he was treated like the most dangerous of terrorists, stripped of his clothes and put on a CIA flight, his whereabouts a secret for days. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report shows he spent more than 40 months in pretrial solitary confinement — 23 hours a day in a cell the size of a bathroom. Today he is serving a 17-year sentence in the Communication Management Unit at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, among the most extreme and isolating forms of incarceration on U.S. soil, reserved almost entirely for Muslims.
Sadequee’s family was shattered by her brother’s arrest, but they had no choice but to fight. With her sister, she became the family’s public voice, pouring her skills into advocating for her brother as he spent years awaiting trial. Her previous work had focused on combating sexual abuse. “That alone is already traumatic,” she said, since it means working with survivors. But now she had to put on an even stronger face to give speeches and interviews, knowing that many Americans viewed her with deep suspicion and hate. Many activist groups and fellow Muslims were either unwilling or afraid to advocate for her brother, fearful that they might become targets themselves. The ordeal took a toll. “I would wake up every single night at at 3 or 4 a.m.,” she said.
Sadequee eventually had to take time away from her activism. She began to learn healing practices to dislodge the trauma that had manifested itself inside her. Today, she is the founder of Sustainable Wellness, which offers yoga, meditation, and nutritional counseling, with a focus on trauma and movement building. “It’s not just about self-care,” she said. “It’s about collective care.” Even the largest and most diverse mobilizations will not be sustainable if organizers are emotionally and physically depleted, she said. “We burn out.” With her story an important reminder that the repression of Muslims has been ongoing under both Bush and Obama, Sadequee is recommitting to the activist fight, with new wisdom and perspective. In a rare personal Facebook post accompanied by the hashtag #SouthernPeoplesPower, she urged people to take further tangible steps beyond the airport protest, from donating money for legal fees to providing healing support to families.
“There are lots of other things that will be needed,” she wrote. “I hope everyone is plugged in. I hope that we are embracing our nervous systems for a massive turbulent rollercoaster ride.”