I went to the Atlanta Airport Protest. Although that event happened in one place, at one time, featuring one crowd, it paints a larger picture, far beyond the confines of the world’s busiest airport.
We need to have an adequate understanding of what is happening during the wild first weeks of the Trump era. In the past, I have spoken of the speed and weirdness of events in American politics, but not of the size. “The greatest mystery the universe offers is not life but size,” wrote Stephen King. “Size encompasses life, and the Tower encompasses size.” There are no towers here, but there are high spots, and if you had been standing on the wing of a plane leaving Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport at 5 PM on Sunday, January 29, you would have seen thousands of people protesting, right there, in front of the South Domestic Terminal. These protests happened nationally, but Hartsfield-Jackson is where the national life touched Atlanta’s.
I parked in the economy lot at Hartsfield-Jackson airport.
Frankly, I had no idea what to expect at the protest. The global news media, over which I exert such a total and inexorable pull of blackhole-like gravity, hinted in sultry whispers that these were indeed mega-serious encounters of the young and passionate with the geriatric presidency—but who could say how seriously to take them?
My first hint this would be a big deal came from seeing the constant string of wanderers walking through the parking lot, drifting towards the airport. Their baggage consisted of signs on poster and cardboard. I walked to the covered walkway, and caught up to a woman. She was dressed in a hooded coat, carrying a yellow sign, folded. I asked if I could interview her.
She said yes. Name: Mitra. Iranian. Forty. A mother. She didn’t want to give her last name; her family had a collective memory of the days under the Shah, had felt the price for speaking out against an oppressive regime. There was worry in her eyes and in her voice as she spoke. Not raw, red fear, but the gnawing vintage; this was the kind of fear that works on you, not the sort that terrifies you.
I asked her why she was there. She, herself, had never done anything like this. She was not a protester, she said—not really that type of person. This was something new for her. Mitra was a citizen, family woman, had lived in Boston forever, thirty years in America.
“Why do I do this?” she said, as we walked through the parking garage. “I do this because, what’s next? This is the beginning. I’m Iranian. Are we going to be in camps?”
We walked another couple of feet. “I think we go this way,” she said, and we went up a long, upward-angling concrete ramp, built for cars, now used by us.
“I dunno, I just felt if I didn’t stop it, what then—I have to say something. What will I say to my children?”
As we walked towards the terminal, I realized there would be, could be, no mystery about where the event would untangle: the compass of noise showed the way. Over concrete pavilions, on the sunny opposite side of the parking lot and just out of my line of sight, but definitely in the reach of hearing, the low murmuring roar of people could be heard. The tide sounds similar, and like the ocean, it was growing.
We came out of the parking garage and there was the protest. Not really a march; more of a stand.
The road which runs along the South Terminal drop-off is called the South Terminal Parkway. The Parkway would remain open—cars would regularly honk at the protesters in solidarity—but on both sides of the Parkway, the ground was absolutely full of human beings carrying signs and shouting slogans.
The official estimate put the crowd at seven thousand people, which seems reasonable. On every level of the parking garage, people could be seen scurrying here and there, dressed in winter gear. Generally, throngs of protesters seem to be bouncing, in part because of the synchronized motion of thousands of arms and faces moving at the same time. The people were clustered in two areas.
The main group, with approval of the police, had taken over a shuttle pickup area on the opposite side of the parkway. The second group consisted of a long, thick line of people near the electronic entry doors. There was no immediate discernible order to the huge multitude. As with any big public event these days, cameras and iPhones appeared everywhere. Mitra and I parted ways.
The scene made me realize how ideal airports are for protesting. They are:
1) Necessary for global functioning
2) Are tightly controlled by the government, making them ideal centers for state control and enforcement of drastic policy; however
3) This same fact makes them ideal chokepoints for pissed off citizens who want to goose the government but good, and
4) If you seize control of the airports, you are grabbing the ports, and
5) This impresses people more than occupying a bank lobby does.
The airport was practically built for raising a ruckus.
The chanting was growing in volume, and during breaks in the chanting, you could hear the constant meander of speech which is ambient during halftime at a football game. It’s not quite correct to say the noise of a protesting crowd is loud. If I describe the noise as big, I am not saying it is a painful or overbearing auditory experience. The noise of a crowd is not so much oppressive as it is encompassing; the difference between being hit by a firehose of water and being taken out to sea by the embrace of the ocean.
The emotional resonance was also notable. What is unique to political gatherings, at least all the ones I have attended, is a strange marriage of real, manifested grievance to group warmth. The closest analogue is a sporting event or a pep rally, where an omnipresent sense of belonging and brotherhood is attached at the joint to the fear and disdain of a distant rival.
The crucial takeaway from the Atlanta airport protest is that it was unique. Not just in unique in the way that every protest is unique. I mean unique in its context: this many people, this early on in an administration, with such passion. Most remarkable: the spontaneous nature of the event. Like the other protests nationwide, like your parents jiving to “The Hustle,” this event was wholly a creature of a moment.
The Women’s March was planned; this was not. The Women’s March was led; here there was no leader. The Women’s March was deliberate; this was an improvised outpouring of resistance. Despite being an eighth of the size of the Women’s March, this was just as encouraging—if not moreso. As Corey Robin wrote:
About a month ago, we were hearing a lot about how the problem with democracy is that it mobilizes the masses, who then threaten democracy by making it difficult for elites to preserve liberal principles like the rule of law and the integrity of institutions. Now we’re seeing that it may be those very masses who actually save democracy and those liberal principles.
The actions of the crowd had risen up without much prep time. The speakers consisted over whomever was willing and able. The police were polite and accommodating. At one point, I saw members of the TSA holding up iPhones. Not because they wanted to tag and identify anyone; no, their recording was out of simple curiosity and involvement in the spectacle.
There is a Resistance, and it endures and grows beyond Twitter and social media. It has a real body and actual presence in the waking, concrete world of day-to-day life. There is strength in the land, and it can make itself manifest. That was the big picture. If the unlikely rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right are huge, unbelievable events, then so is the counterweight: the appearance of a new Opposition Movement, of the kind that has not been seen since the Sixties and Seventies.
I hustled my way into the crowd. An improvised central speaking point had been chosen, apparently by accident: the lowest level of the parking garage was about four and half feet above the shuttle pick-up area, where most of the protesters were standing. If you stood on that level of the parking garage, on the other side of the railing that kept people from falling down into the shuttle area, you could be seen by everyone. The speakers passed around a megaphone.
To my left, a woman began passing out mini-chips from a cardboard box. “Snacks!” she exclaimed. A man and woman stood in front of me, both in their twenties. On the right was Alex Smith—tall, pale, close-cut red hair, cheerful—who said he had been a refugee once, had fled war zones twice. “It’s terrible,” he said, “it’s dreadful, you have to leave everything.” His parents had been missionaries in Macedonia, and then they’d moved to Texas, and he lived here. To the left of me was Candace Gede, a tall African-American woman, afro, also cheerful. “My best friend is Muslim,” she said, “We need to welcome people here.”
“What do you think will happen?” I asked her.
“I believe that we will win.”
The next speaker was the Executive Director for the Georgia branch of the Council for American Islamic Relations, Edward Ahmed Mitchell. He told everything that this was his younger brother’s first rally. This was a family crowd, it seemed. Big cheers everywhere. He told the crowd to get on Twitter and “at” at Mayor Kasim Reed. “If we do this,” he said, “we make this a trend.” Several thousand phones went up at once; no dice, the net was being over-used. Mitchell went on about the importance of brotherhood between all people; between Jews and Christians and Muslims. “We’re gonna make Atlanta a sanctuary city. No white supremacy is going to divide us.”
“He is not the Emperor!” said Mitchell, “or Chancellor, or the King! We have a new President, but not a new Constitution!” The crowd roared its approval. “Let’s remind him of that. We will fight him until he leaves—for four years,” Mitchell smiled, “or maybe even sooner than that!” The applause was deafening.
Eventually, I went indoors to upload photos. Inside the airport, it was an ordinary day. Nobody complained or looked askance. The only expression of even mild surprise was an older couple leaving the airport; he was pushing her in a wheelchair. As they rolled past the luggage claim carousel, I heard him say “Well, here we go.”
I sat down in the food court. Next to me, a middle-aged traveler was playing a videogame, title unknown, on his phone. As soon as the business was done, I got up. It was then that I heard, and then saw, a large column of protesters marching inside the airport; a long rectangle of bodies in motion. It was very strange in context: I’d assumed the inside of the airport was inviolate, that some kind of legal line kept the demonstrators outside. There seemed to be a group of people in black uniforms and suits at the front. I caught wind of what was happening: the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, had just walked in the building, and the marchers were chasing after him.
“Pursuit” is not the right word—it was politer than that—but they wanted to let Reed know they had caught wind of him. Before him went a scruff of journalists and intrigued camera holders, darting here and there, stopping and starting and pausing and watching and jumping ahead some more, like jackrabbits before a stagecoach.
If I use the words, “It was like a scene in a movie,” I don’t mean to dip the entire moment in cliché or to render down real events to the bare bones of conventional dramatic narrative. I understand how cinema and TV can be reductive enterprises. But that’s just what it was like; it was like a film, where the unresponsive politician or important celebrity is walking through a vast, open, public space, and masses of human beings surround him and the media goes ahead of him.
The crowd followed Reed to the food court, and then to the elevator, where several people shouted “Make Atlanta a sanctuary city!” Several hundred people had taken over the innermost sanctum of the airport, and if you hadn’t seen the entire event, it looked very much like the good citizens of the Peach City had just trapped the Honorable Kasim Reed in an elevator. The doors closed.
To chants of “No Trump, No K-K-K, no Fascist U-S-A,” the drum-banging cluster of protesters made their way back outside. There the protest continued; I stayed to watch. A gentleman with a Syrian flag came out, and the chants went on well into the evening. By the time I left, the numbers had shrunk, but the demonstration was still going on, very much alive.
Being part of this kind of crowd summons complex feelings. It’s a mixture of the happiness of being with people, the pride which comes from doing the right thing, and the deeply fulfilling realization that you can, and must, make a difference in the world. It is a kind of church.
To put it simply: all our lives, we are in communion with our fellow human beings, whether we realize it or not. The good feelings come from remembering that fact.
But I haven’t told you yet about the most important encounter of the day.
After I arrived, I decided to go across the street, to check out the other half of the demonstration. I stood at the crosswalk, waited for the cops to pull traffic to a halt. They did, and a large body of people on the opposite side of the road decided to cross. I figured I’d have to go around or through them.
I got about eight feet off the curb. An older African-American gentleman in a business suit, about my height, bald, was walking from the other direction. I wasn’t paying attention to his face. He put his hand on my arm as if to say “The other way.” Sometimes, when you’re driving on the highway, there comes a moment when you suddenly realize a police car is traveling beside or behind you. It’s a weird feeling, moving from your usual awareness to the heightened attentiveness which follows realization. Some unconscious part of you realizes what’s happening before the rest of you does. I became heedful of my arm being touched, and then, just as suddenly, I realized who that person was.
I was standing next to Congressman John Lewis.
John Lewis. John Lewis, the representative from Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. John Lewis, who speaks for Atlanta, dean of the Congressional delegation of Georgia. John Lewis, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Lewis. John “March on Washington” Lewis, Lewis who was one of the Big Six of Civil Rights, Lewis who was the President of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; John Lewis, one of the Original Thirteen Freedom Riders, who was beaten by a mob, hit in the head by a wooden crate, and was left lying unconscious at a Greyhound Bus station in Montgomery. Six brave people were instrumental in organizing the March on Washington: Wilkins, Randolph, Young, Farmer, Dr. King, and John Lewis. These were true knights, who had fought evil and won. Only one of those men was still living, and he was standing a few inches apart from me.
Here was the last remaining speaker from the March on Washington. It was like finding yourself next to the last living member of the Avengers or the Round Table—or meeting Davy Crockett, John Henry, or Superman. About fifty years ago, men riding on horseback had brought their nightsticks down on the head next to mine. He still has scars from the Edmund Pettus bridge.
All of this happened in about two seconds. We smiled at each other. I could have said “Congressman, I’m Jason Rhode, with Paste Magazine. Mr. Lewis, what brings you here?”
I said: “John Lewis!” He said “Hey!” And smiled. I smiled. And then I said “Thank you.”
I stuck out my hand.
I am the direct descendant of slaveowners.
I shook the hand that choked Jim Crow.
It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.
Honey to the soul, health to the bones: I advise you to make a good cause your own.