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How 30 grassroots groups organized that 5,000-person airport protest — and what’s next

The Jan. 29 protest at PHL International. March 7, 2017 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongMethod
There have been so many large-scale protests in the months since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, it can be hard to keep track of them all.

There was the Women’s March on Washington, with local factions marching all over the world, on Jan. 21; the #DayWithoutImmigrants on Feb. 16; and widespread general protests in the immediate post-election days.

Locally, Philadelphians saw a March for Humanity on Feb. 4; a People’s Inauguration on Jan. 20; an MLK Day March for Resistance on Jan. 16;  a Queer Rage(r)” dance party/protest held outside of the Center City hotel where Trump was staying on Jan. 25; and a mass walk-out at one of our city’s largest corporations protesting Trump’s travel ban of seven Muslin-majority countries on Feb. 2.

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That last event was inspired by the countrywide airport protests that took place on Sunday, Jan. 29, immediately following the announcement of the ban, including a reported 5,000 people who descended upon Philadelphia International Airport.

How do these protests come together? What’s the lasting impact? Can the organizations behind them continue to work together toward likeminded solutions?

Because the issue of the travel ban is as relevant as — since Congress put forth a revised version of the ban on Monday — we caught up with one local grassroots organization behind the protest at Philly’s airport to seek answers to those questions.


At midday on Saturday, Jan. 28, leaders of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Philadelphia learned Syrian families were being deported from PHL International and knew they wanted to act.

JVP leaders noted the protests in other cities. Steering committee member Matthew Berkman, who’s working on his political science Ph.D at Penn, said their first step was reaching out to the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which serves the city’s immigrant community, documented and not.

“We didn’t want to do anything without having groups that weren’t directly impacted by the executive order,” Berkman said of partnering with CAIR and New Sanctuary Movement. Once they were on board, JVP created a Facebook event, Protest Refugee Deportations at PHL!, for the following day.

And from there, the Facebook event “kind of snowballed.” JVP did intentional outreach to many groups, but Berkman said a majority of the event co-sponsors came from people who reached out to JVP after seeing the event on social media. More than 30 groups joined the original Facebook event as co-sponsors, and they represent a broad range of people, some of whom had never worked with one another before.

Co-sponsors included the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Pennsylvania, Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club, Philadelphia South Asian Collective, Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania, West Philly Coalition Against Islamophobia, Earth Quaker Action Team, and Women’s March PA.

PHL airport protest JVP

(Photo by Alaina Mabaso)

In this case, the definition of co-sponsor was a broad one, Berkman said. Sponsors ranged from groups helping with logistics and planning, to those who simply wanted to attach their names in moral support of the protest, to those who broadened the event’s reach by spreading it through their own social media and email channels.

At a planning meeting at an organizer’s home that Saturday night, which drew about 30 people, JVP knew some of the attendees from prior collaborations, but some were new faces. Things were rushed, because just as organizers were sitting down to plan, Councilwoman Helen Gym issued her call for locals to head to the airport.

By mid-afternoon on Sunday, sign-wielding participants packed SEPTA’s airport line and paralyzed nearby traffic. Those flooding the international arrivals terminal joined a crowd of thousands who marched and chanted well into the evening.

Over the last five years or so he’s been an organizer with JVP, Berkman said its events typically draw 20 to 50 people, “so to have thousands of people come out was shocking.”

With a massive citywide coalition converging within 24 hours, he said the event does mark a new era of engagement in Philly. And he doesn’t credit JVP for the turnout: “It was more like people were really angry at Trump, and this gave them a way to come express themselves.”

PHL protest airport JVP

(Photo by Alaina Mabaso)

“It definitely feels like an emergency situation in a way that I’ve never experienced,” Berkman said of how so many groups pulled together, including multiple groups that ordinarily would not work with JVP, which is primary focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict. “I thought [it] was great they overcame ideological impediments to working with JVP in at least a small way.”

And the impact was real.

“It definitely brought a huge amount of public and political attention to the fact that there were people being held at the airport at that very time,” a spotlight that helped politicians and lawyers secure the processing and release of some of those detained, he said.

So, what happens next? While Berkman doubts JVP will spearhead similar events in the future, they are poised for more collaboration, especially with groups like CAIR and New Sanctuary Movement on immigration issues. It’s a new pool and a new willingness to work together that will serve Philly well in the months and years to come.

“We definitely have a whole range of contacts that we didn’t have before,” he said. “We didn’t know how to reach those groups, but [now] we have personal contacts. We can get them together.”

The story includes additional reporting by Julie Zeglen.

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