“Here to stay, here to fight.” That was the message of hundreds of immigrants and their allies shouted out this past Friday night as they rallied and marched through the cold and crowded streets of the most diverse neighborhood in New York City.
Over thirty groups, the vast majority of which are women-led, came together to proclaim Jackson Heights a “hate-free” zone, aiming to spark a citywide movement of community defense and mutual support in the face of the grave threat presented by a Trump presidency.
“The times we are living in now demand we work as communities to love and protect each other,” Poonam Dass, an undocumented immigrant and organizer with DRUM (Desis Rising Up & Moving), told the crowd in Diversity Plaza. “A hate-free zone is not just a declaration, but the practice of building a community defense system that will allow us to defend our communities from workplace raids, deportations, mass criminalization, violence and systemic violation of our rights and dignity.”
Since the beginning of Trump’s campaign and the ascendancy of racist and white nationalist fervor that helped propel him into the presidency last month, Queens has seen several incidents of racial violence and intimidation. At the same time, the president-elect has reiterated his campaign promise to deport millions of immigrants from the country and start a registry of American Muslims. For Jackson Heights, whose population is over 60 percent foreign-born, the danger posed by the president-elect is very real.
At the rally, organizations that have worked in the area for decades talked about the need for the community, which is already burdened by over-policing as well as numerous ICE raids, to be prepared to defend itself.
“If we cannot depend on the state, and if we cannot depend on the police, or prosecutors, or judges, who then can we depend on?” Deb Lolai, a member of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, asked the crowd. “We can and we must depend on each other. We must be accountable to one another.”
Thanu Yakupitiyage, who works at the New York Immigration Coalition, an organization that promotes civic participation by immigrants, told the Voice that the idea of a “hate-free zone” was a commitment by immigrant communities to defend one another, and to resist the policies of a man who has spent years demonizing them.
“If someone tried to pull off the hijab from a hijabi woman, people need to intervene in these communities,” Yakupitiyage said, referring to an incident in which a 19-year-old Muslim woman was harassed by a middle-aged white couple on the Q43 just a few days after Trump’s election. “We can’t just stand by. We need a very local level rapid response.”
Several volunteers decked out with green glow sticks accompanied the rally and the march to act as both protection from and mediators to the NYPD, whose officers followed the march warily as it wove along Roosevelt Avenue from Jackson Heights, down to Woodside, and back up to Corona. There were no arrests, and the marchers dispersed peacefully at the urging of the organizers.
The majority of the crowd skewed towards people in their twenties and teens. Olivia Hay-Rubin, a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan, marched out of class with her fellow students to protest Trump in the days following his election. Since then, she’s felt that getting out into the streets for protests served a far greater purpose than just talking about the president online.
“My generation feels really strongly about the issues, but we’re just posting about it on social media,” said Hay-Rubin. “I think it’s really important for us to take action, too. People feel they’re doing enough just by posting on Facebook, but we need to get out here and show support for other communities, so they know that we also don’t agree with what’s going on with this country.”
Chelo Silva, a transgender man and member of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, spoke about the danger that marginalized communities already face under the current administration, as well the need to be prepared for the situation to somehow get even worse. Silva said he’d been held in a immigration detention center in New Jersey for months before finally being granted asylum. There, he was denied basic medical care.
“They don’t give people time to defend themselves, already. They don’t care about you. Everything inside detention is so much worse than even what you hear,” Silva told the Voice. “Now more than ever, this is the time to start defending ourselves. Our country is about to be governed by a president-elect who as threatened the entire community of Queens and the Latino community in particular.”
Organizers handed out stickers and signs featuring a group of ants holding up a heart, which they believe represents the collective power of communities to protect themselves.The organizers hope the “hate-free zone” movement will go citywide in the months to come.
“We need to develop and use community safety methods that don’t rely on the police or the state and we need to work together to ensure we can all stay, live, and thrive in our neighborhood,” Josselyn Atahualpa, a member of the Justice Committee and the citywide CopWatch coordinator, told the crowd through a bitter wind. “We are committed to working on this, because it’s really a matter of life and death.”