I have just returned from a rally. I’ve lost count of how many rallies I’ve been to in the past two months. For a working parent like me, juggling the demands of a job and family is challenge enough. Since the election of Donald Trump, though, a new source of pressure on my time has emerged: the imperative of civic participation. My email inbox is brimming with calls to action: campaigns to support, rallies to attend, elected representatives to call, postcards to write, and petitions to sign. It is exhausting, this daily judgment call about where to focus my attention apart from the usual and necessary commitments. But it is also in this heightened level of civic engagement that I have found the most comfort in recent months: for the first time since I came to the United States 25 years ago, I have a vivid sense of mass activism rather than activism in pockets. Witnessing a citizenry in motion is inspiring.
The most interesting aspect of what some have called the “resistance” is how dispersed and bottom-up it is. Countless neighbourhoods like mine (in a Maryland suburb of Washington DC) have come together and formed committees coordinating actions such as calls to legislators, rallies, postcard campaigns, and town halls. The causes range from immigrant rights, the environment, healthcare, reproductive rights, to public education. They are spurred by national coordinating efforts such as Indivisible, Swing Left, and Women’s March on Washington and countless facebook groups such as Pantsuit Nation. Many local actions are plotted in living rooms of friends and colleagues. And many are led by women. I have attended more potlucks in the past two months than I have in over a decade of living in the neighbourhood. And I have made more friends with strangers: just the other day, someone driving in another car on a highway waved at me because we were both wearing pink “pussyhats”– the signature symbol of the Jan 21 Women’s March.
Much of this activism feels raw and necessary to me as an immigrant. The news affecting immigrants and Indians under Trump’s administration has been especially bad – the travel ban on many Muslims, deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the restrictions on H-1B visas, the shooting of Indian-origin men in Kansas, Washington, and South Carolina. Many of us have noticed an uptick in xenophobic microaggression in public places: jokes about our “terrorist links”, questions about our citizenship, or just fewer smiles. The changing climate has been marked by several progressive South Asian organizations such as DRUM and SAALT, which are tracking hate crimes actively and organising a national summit on South Asians in a few weeks. In addition, new organisations such as Hindus for Justice are countering Islamophobia within the Indian diaspora. Their activists have a record of working in solidarity with other racial justice efforts in the country.
The existence of such organisations is a relief, but also I sense a subdued shock among many South Asians I meet. Not everyone feels secure enough to protest in this moment. I am sometimes only one of a handful of South Asians at rallies ranging in focus from immigrant rights to global women’s health to public education. Of course, not everyone has the means to protest, but I do sense that the online resistance to Trump is far more racially diverse than the crowd I see at rallies. Sticking out one’s neck can feel risky when police are questioning one’s immigration status in everyday and irrelevant situations.
To retreat or to commit?
For some Indians, the xenophobia we experience fuels a sense of not wanting to belong any more. A few weeks ago, someone I know from India turned down a promising job in a Midwest town after years of graduate training in the United States out of a worry that they would feel unwelcome. This is not a story I would have anticipated even a year ago. It makes me turn to activism with even greater ferocity – as if fighting harder for a country that turns against people like me will set things right. The internalised fear and experiences of exclusion call for making stronger claims to space. I feel a compulsion now, having a secure job and citizenship, to act in ways that are louder than one, to reach out to strangers, and to grow filaments of social connection.
Living in the Washington DC area makes some of this activism feel especially valuable. On Jan 21, when attending the March for Women alongside millions, I carried the names of 21 friends, including several in India, written on my hat – they asked to be represented in spirit. The “pussyhat” I wore was itself knitted by a circle of elderly women in California who could not be there in person. At recent rallies outside the White House, I have felt the satisfaction of knowing that my body adds to the numbers reported in stories about Trump’s besieged presidency. We are perhaps a part of the reason he feels compelled to run away to his resort in Florida every weekend.
What I want to say is this: if you live outside the United States, know that the level of resistance to Trump’s agenda is enormous and impressive. There is a new depth to civic engagement in this time, and it is an uplifting thing for anyone to behold. Legislators and governors are receiving unprecedented numbers of daily calls and mail; some are cancelling town halls for fear of being shouted at. It may not be news to you that the US president is unpopular on the left, but his declining popularity among even his supporters is historic. He is regularly and roundly criticized in major newspapers and television channels (with the exception of the most right-leaning outlets) and the butt of jokes on cartoon shows such as the Simpsons and award shows such as the Oscars.
Ultimately, though, lampooning Trump is easy. The more difficult task is to re-shape the culture that produced someone like him. For that task, we need immigrants claiming public spaces rather than retreating from them, questioning white supremacist narratives rather than reeling from them. So if you are living inside the United States, and if you are an Indian immigrant, I want to say this as well: speak up. As the Caribbean-American poet Audre Lorde once put it, “your silence will not protect you.”
Ashwini Tambe is Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland-College Park.