February 23, 2017

Protest and Privilege on Pennsylvania Ave.

My son and daughter, ages 11 and eight, nest in the low branches of a tree in Lafayette Square, just beyond the White House lawn.

Between refrains of “No Ban, No Wall!” and “Let Them In!”, they’ve begun grumbling for water. “Or maybe a soda,” my son adds with a sly smile.

My children’s solicitations rarely correspond to urgent and verifiable needs. They plead for provisions the way we grown-ups hop on FaceBook—just a bit of benign diversion to help pass the time. But we did walk a couple miles to get here this afternoon. And after that stimulating stroll, which merged us with an ever-expanding stream of fellow protestors, we’ve been standing and shouting for over an hour now.

I volunteer to scout out some refreshments. Cell reception works fine, so if folks start marching, my wife can update me with current coordinates. I turn around and begin to weave my way through the crowd. Lots of families here. Even little ones, asleep in umbrella strollers or Baby Bjorned to a parent’s chest. Lots of fellow Jews, too. I can tell from the placards: “Jews Against Trump—Because We’ve Seen This Before,” “If Not Now #JewishResistance,” “Our Jewish Family Stands With Muslim Refugees.”

There are some self-identified Muslims, too, and a smattering of other minorities. Still, the more I shoulder my way through the crowd, the more I feel like I’m looking in a mirror. We are a fleece-clad, ferociously liberal lot; exorbitantly educated, excessively affable, and overwhelmingly white.

There’s nothing to be had on H Street, so I head to Farragut Square, just a block away. I’m still flashing a poster board that reads, “We Welcome Refugees” and getting lots of receptive, staccato honks from oncoming cars. One cabbie even rolls down his window, shakes his dark-skinned fist in the air, and shouts, “Alright, man! Alright!” I’m horrible with accents, but I’m guessing he’s from somewhere in Africa, or the Caribbean. Hard to tell.

Eventually, I make it to Farragut Square, and after a quick survey of the perimeter, spot a Subway a half block down. They’ll have water. Bathrooms, too. I’ve been humming “History Has Its Eyes On You” from Hamilton. Indignation and adrenaline course through my veins. Yet, when I enter the Subway, I am suddenly subsumed by the prosaic. Tinny pop songs gargle through overhead speakers. A few customers impassively hunch over their food. The manager, dancing back and forth behind the counter, looks Indian or Pakistani. His African-American subordinates are silent, stone-faced, and subdued.

I grab a jumbo Smart Water in one hand while holding my “We Welcome Refugees” sign in the other. I nonchalantly grip the sign at just the right angle for all to feast their eyes. I want the persecuted proletariat to see that I’m here for them. I want every “Sandwich Artist” to know that I care, that, despite my white skin and my free weekends, I’m a brother, a fellow fighter, a Jew who, back in the day, might have marched with Gandhi or King, but who today, for better or worse, has taken his rightful place in Lafayette Park next to a protestor who I overheard turning to her friend and exclaiming, “I forgot to tell you! Rebecca got accepted to Northwestern! No Ban! No Wall!”

If anyone sees my sign, they don’t applaud. I pay for the water and hurry out, glad to be free of the restaurant’s gloomy florescence. I make it back to the park and find my family just as the assembled lot has begun marching to the Capital. The kids seem ready for more adventure. They rehydrate and then lift their signs high, plowing into fellow protestors who greet their clumsiness with convivial grins.

From 15th Street, we make a left on Pennsylvania. The Capital looms large in the distance, a zealous breast threatening to pierce the high heavens. We run into good friends of ours who have also brought their kids. Our children all go to school together, so everyone immediately gabs and giggles. The kids show off their homemade signs. We all make a pit stop, too, this time at a Pret A Manger, its staff exclusively minorities, its bathrooms reasonably hygienic. The kids, we can tell, are losing steam. So are we. We’ve all got a long drive back to the ‘burbs.

Outside the cafe, our friends give us hugs and head off home. Just as we’re about to call it a day ourselves, a reporter approaches us. He represents a paper in Finland, he explains. If it’s not too much trouble, would we mind answering a few questions?

“Why are you here today?” he begins.

I hesitate. I can’t imagine this kindly Finn writes for a highly-circulated Scandinavian press. I’m guessing my words won’t make it much past a protracted first draft. But my kids are standing on either side of me, entranced by all the attention. They’re listening intently. I must weigh every word.

Why are we here today? Because we can be.

“We’re here because we’re Jewish,” I answer. “Our great-grandparents were persecuted immigrants. We know what it means to be refugees.”

The interviewer nods, thanks us, and then moves on. We call an Uber, driven by an African-American woman who, as we negotiate protest signs and seat-belts, waits patiently without comment. She does, however, roll down her window and drop some coins in the cup of a wheelchair bound beggar.

“My son just enlisted,” she tells us. “That could be him one day.”

“God forbid,” my wife responds.

“Yes,” the driver echoes, “God forbid.”




Author: Benjamin Shalva

Photo: Wasik/Flickr

Editor: Lieselle Davidson







Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Benjamin Shalva