Utica has not had a presidential visit since 1952, making Trump’s visit today an exceptionally unique occasion and I am in slight disbelief, as I get ready to protest alongside Utica’s relatively small population. He is to host a fundraiser event for Claudia Tenney, the woman whose emphatically devoid and detached speech about child migrants’ separation from parents in the US Mexico border went viral in the UK.
We are all feeling a little nervous, questioning our safety at this demonstration. How secure is our national position and can someone abuse his or her power to affect our livelihood? A Canadian University lecturer here in Utica explains that she could lose her green card if she goes, and recalls knowledge of it it happening to others. She also explains that she encountered a Mexican volunteer who made calls to fellow Mexicans during elections in the US to encourage voting, however many were fearful of showing their feelings and views and refused to go out and vote. When your position is so vulnerable you may assume that this is the time to stand up and fight for your security, however more often than not the opposite happens, we quietly recoil and shield the impotent nature of our position. Protest and conflict in these circumstances feel like dangerous places to be.
Fighting for citizenship can be an extremely difficult journey, one my family and I have experienced. The expression of being stuck between a rock and a hard place is fitting. My parents fought hard for that green card and refugee status during the years of the Yugoslav civil war, whilst we were living in London. It was a fight for a place in the world. They wanted to be able to work legally so that they can put food on the table and pay their rent. These were years of complete desperation, not knowing from one day to the next what would happen. We were at risk of being sent back to Yugoslavia even though it was a warzone. This would have meant being separated and returned to different regions, as my parents have differing ethnic origin. Once returned, there was then the very real and valid fear of persecution and death. Anxiety filled the household. Today we often walk on, in that robust Yugoslav way, shedding the old skin that once kept us together. Sometimes we aren’t sure how much to let go of. As glimpses of the interior surface start to appear, we wonder what to make of it, is it safe now? But anxiety surrounding safety can be hard to let go of.
I wonder as I walk through the quickly forming crowds on Genesee Street, what stories and worries are burdening people today. Does it feel threatening to have Donald Trump arriving to a ‘town that loves refugees’? A safe haven so to speak. I run into a woman of Puerto Rican descent. She is wearing a Puerto Rican flag across her back and shouts to the counter protest group of people on the other side of the road as they shout back at us. She has the confidence of someone who has secured her citizenship at birth and is aware of her position. She tells me how difficult life can be here for her and her family. She recalls a story of a man shouting abuse at her from a car, referring to her non-American roots, and how she then cried for an hour, devastated by this. This almost surprises me, as I want to believe she is impenetrable through her outwardly tough demeanour. Her worry is that Trump will give further green light to people like this man. Then the worries go further and she mentions what I’ve heard others mention, that bigger wars are approaching and that there’ll be more serious consequences for Americans. Her concern is for her kids and their future. I am struck by her passion and sense of urgency, a life force of energy.
Resilience, humour and determination intermix throughout the protest. This is apparently a very big crowd for Utica, perhaps the biggest ever seen in the city by some. I observe people, many of whom work for various charities helping refugees to settle and integrate. We are all aware what a unique moment in time this is. A city with more refugees per capita in the whole of the United States and whose city was revived through the settlement of refugees during the 20th century, now visited by a man epitomising the negative rhetoric and policies towards the vulnerable.
And yet what is shocking is the lack of media coverage of the protest here in the US, minimising the inhabitant turn out and focusing on the counter protest instead, portraying it to be bigger than it was. In fact it was a relatively small group of counter protestors who stood with homogenous signs such as ‘We love Trump’ and ‘Make America Great Again’. There was an absence of humour, wit, colour, double layered meaning that we usually see in protest signs and props. Instead there was a real life size placard of Donald Trump. A cut out ready-made representation of ready made dogmas. There is a certain numbing of brainpower and humility, perhaps more brain numbing for us observing than those participating. I imagine for them it was a unifying experience that we felt on our side of the street too. As I looked on at this small crowd I noticed a mixture of adolescent provocation meshed with more fermented dogma.
At one point a man from the counter protest crossed the road to our side, wearing his red cap backwards with the slogan ‘MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN’. He stood in the centre with his back to all of us at the very front, so that those words stared straight back at us. He held up a heavyweight American flag, resembling Terminator style strength, unflinching throughout our noise, directed straight at his ear. I think of the scene from Mulholland Drive where a senior couple are in a car smiling in a sweet and sickly manner, a smile that just won’t go away. As his presence stubbornly stuck, our chanting became louder and louder and I don’t think I have ever got so carried away in a protest. Trump was close, I was looking at the red cap and I started to shout at the top of my voice to the various verses being called out. I wanted the power of our voices to extinguish the presence of this RED into a powder of dust. I recalled all the gypsy magic I have seen in films and thought maybe it’s really possible to achieve something surreal here with our union of energy. Maybe we can bend this flagpole; maybe he will collapse and wither. I focused, immersing myself in the repetition of movement and sound, ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go!’.
Later, as I returned back home after the commotion of the protest began to die down, I thought how similar I felt to when leaving a rave, rhythm and beats ringing in my ear, lost voice, body drained, content, united, light, heavy and in desperate need for sleep.