When They Say "We Want Our America Back", What The F#@k Do They Mean?
Jill Sobule: When They Say “We Want Our America Back”, What The F#@k Do They Mean?
I wrote this song at the Netroots shindig for The Freedom From Fear Awards – “a new national award that honors 15 ordinary people who have committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees – individuals who have taken a risk, set an example, and inspired others to awareness or action. The award honors unsung heroes who are not professional advocates.”
In deciding what to write, I thought I would include an anti-immigrant history with the still befuddling question I have for the Tea Party folk.
I was detained for protesting against Donald Trump. Here’s what the US Secret Service asked me
Like many events that end up with a person in handcuffs, my story begins in a bar. I was in Atlanta earlier this month for Netroots Nation, the annual meeting of progressive organisers and writers, when I overheard friends discussing how to resist President Trump’s first visit to Trump Tower.
I jumped into the conversation: “Well, you call me, of course.” Twenty minutes later, we had a rough plan that we would unfurl a banner inside Trump Tower the following week. I have been to many protests since the inauguration, and I was proud to do my part.
Together with Ultraviolet and the Working Families Party, we commissioned a painted banner that simply read “Women Resist White Supremacy”. Through sheer luck, not only would Trump be in Trump Tower during my act of resistance, but he would be giving a news conference about 3.30pm. I knew from my previous work as a campaign advancer that the Secret Service would begin sweeps to clear the space about an hour before he spoke, so the best possible time for the action was 2pm.
Unlike previous presidents, Trump’s home is in a public space. You don’t have to sneak into Trump Tower. You enter via an atrium next to a Nike store. Then you pass through airport-style security run by the Secret Service. I wore my banner as a slip of sorts under my flowy dress. It was made of fabric, so it didn’t set off the metal detector.
Like every good political operative I worked for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign and then the MoveOn super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton’s campaign — I run on coffee. Conveniently, the Starbucks inside Trump Tower is located on the second floor and overlooks an atrium — exactly where I’d want to hang the banner.
I sipped a flat white and waited for the right moment, when uniformed NYPD wouldn’t be nearby. Then I unfurled the banner. A security officer grabbed it almost immediately. I ended up on the ground.
Since Starbucks is a public place and I was a paying guest, I knew I hadn’t violated any laws. At worst, I could be banned from the building. I expected from past protest actions that I’d be given a warning and a request to leave. I clearly and politely explained to the NYPD officers who detained me that the protest was done and I was heading out.
They had other ideas.
A detective grabbed my wrist and cuffed me. A gaggle of officers from multiple law enforcement agencies escorted me to a room near the atrium. A few chairs had Trump campaign materials plastered on them. Inside the room with me were more than 10 officers from the NYPD and the Secret Service.
Then the questions began, and they were bananas. A young woman from the Secret Service began the questioning; male NYPD officers tagged in and out. They never asked me whether I understood my rights, and I wasn’t actually sure at that moment what rights, if any, I had. I was focused on not getting put in a car and being whisked away.
It was clear right away that these officials wouldn’t see me the way I see myself: as a reasonably responsible, skilled non-violent political operative who works on a mix of electoral and issues campaigns. To them, I was clearly a threat to national security. It felt like an interrogation on “homeland.” Here are my favourite parts of the conversation, as I remember them.
NYPD: “Why would you come to the President’s home to do this?”
Me: “It was wrong for the President to support white supremacy.”
NYPD: “Don’t you respect the President?”
Me: “I don’t respect people who align with Nazis.”
Secret Service: “Do you have negative feelings toward the President?”
Secret Service: “Can you elaborate?”
Me: “He should be impeached and should not be president.”
They were concerned with who bought my train ticket, once they saw the receipt on my phone. The NYPD officers didn’t seem to believe me that some organisations work for justice and organise these legal protests.
Each time they touched my phone, I said I don’t consent to the search of my phone. (They held my phone during the interview, and I can only hope they didn’t poke around it — although they wouldn’t have found much to interest them, unless they like Bernie GIFs.)
Secret Service: “Have you ever been inside the White House?
Secret Service: “How many times?”
Me: “Many. I was a volunteer holiday tour guide for the White House visitors centre.”
Secret Service, eyes wide: “When was the last time you were there?”
Me: “December.” I explained that I probably wouldn’t be invited back until we have a new president.
The officers ran through a raft of predictable questions about firearms. (I don’t own any, and they seemed puzzled by my commitment to nonviolence as a philosophy.) They asked whether I wanted to hurt the president or anyone in his family. Obviously not. Then came the mental health questions.
Secret Service: “Do you have any mental health disorders?”
Secret Service: “Have you ever tried to commit suicide?”
Secret Service: “Have you ever had suicidal thoughts?”
I was trying very hard not to roll my eyes at the repeated questions when an NYPD detective suggested my protest could be charged as a felony. In the next second, the Secret Service agents asked me to sign Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act waivers so they could gather all my medical records. My mind was still focused on the f-word: felony. But I didn’t want to sign the waivers.
I meekly asked whether I should talk to a lawyer. I was told it was my prerogative but also that it might mean I’d be held longer. Being in a room with that many enforcement agents hurt my ability to reason dispassionately, and I was now looking at a criminal record from a basic, even banal, nonviolent protest. I signed the forms.
Trump was about to start his now-famous news conference, and the Secret Service needed to resume patrols. They let me go with just a ban from the building.
But a few days later, I heard they were canvassing my neighbourhood, in West Philadelphia, looking for information about me, including from people I’ve never met. One woman they approached found my contact information online and told me about this exchange in a Facebook messenger request. They asked her whether she knew me and whether I was a threat to the President. Since I live in West Philly, she replied that the only threat lives in the White House and that the President is racist.
Secret Service: “Do you know Melissa Byrne?”
Secret Service: “Why would she protest President Trump?”
Neighbour: “Because he’s a f***ing racist.”
In the end, I couldn’t stop wondering why they were devoting so much time to me when they could be pursuing neo-Nazis. I was treated as a national security threat when all I’d done was exercise my First Amendment right to free expression. This isn’t normal, and it shouldn’t be how nonviolent protesters are treated by armed agents of the government.
Melissa Byrne is a political strategist living in Philadelphia. This piece originally appeared on the Washington Post
Downtown Boys on tour throughout N America starting this week!
6/26 Providence, RI @ Columbus Theater (benefit show to pass Providence anti-racial profiling ordinance)
6/30 Cleveland, OH @ Now that’s Class
7/1 Chicago, IL @ Subterranean (free show, 21+ sorry)
7/2 Manhattan, KS @ Church of Swole
7/3 Denver, CO @ Mutiny Information Cafe
7/5 Boise, ID @ Neurolux
7/6 Portland, OR @ Anarres Infoshop
7/7 Seattle, WA @ Black Lodge
7/8 Vancouver, BC @ Black Lab
7/9 Olympia, WA @ Old School Pizzeria
7/10 Arcata, CA @ Bat Cave
7/11 San Jose, CA @ Think and Die Thinking
7/12 San Francisco, CA @ Hemlock Tavern
7/13 Los Angeles, CA @ Thee Alley
7/14 Riverside, CA @ Blood Orange Infoshop
7/15 Ensenada, MX @ Euro Bar
7/16 Tijuana, MX @ 1250
7/17 Phoenix, AZ @ Netroots Nation UFCW Afterparty
7/18 El Paso, TX Boomtown
7/19 Mcallen, TX @ AQUInceañera Fest at Yerberia Cultura
7/20 Austin, TX @ Mohawk (Inside)
7/21 Houston, TX @ Walters
7/22 New Orleans, LA @ 1305 Poland Street
7/24 Orlando, FL @ Space Station
7/25 Miami, FL @ Churchhills
7/26 Jacksonville, FL @ Rain Dogs
7/27 Savannah, GA @ QuoLab
7/28 Atlanta, GA @ Drunken Unicorn
7/29 Raleigh, NC @ Nice Price Books and Records
Remember how everyone was disappointed with Bernie for not taking a strong stance on Black Lives Matter at the Netroots Nation conference a few weeks ago? Well, he listened to what the activists had to say and has recently added some content to his usual spiel. I can not stress enough how important it is to have politicians that listen to the concerns of grassroots movements. It is the foundation of democracy that politicians represent the people. Bernie gives me hope that we the people do have a voice.
The rise of Black Lives Matter has presented opportunities for Clinton and her opponents, who are seeking to energize black voters to build on the multiethnic coalitions that twice elected Barack Obama. But the candidates have struggled to tap into a movement that has proven itself to be unpredictable and fiercely independent. It is a largely organic web of young African American activists — many of them unbound by partisan allegiances and largely unaffiliated with establishment groups such as the NAACP that typically forge close ties with Democrats.
At Netroots Nation, the two candidates, who are attempting to challenge Clinton from the left, might have expected to receive a warm welcome. Instead, they seemed to wilt under the questions of protesters, who stormed the space around the stage and recited the names of blacks killed during confrontations with police.
The episode has been seen by many liberal activists as an embarrassment for the two candidates, who appeared surprisingly ill-prepared to respond to questions many thought they should have expected.
Sanders threatened to leave the stage as protesters demanded that he repeat the name of Sandra Bland, a black woman who died in a Texas jail cell earlier this month. Then he canceled a series of meetings he had scheduled with some of the activists following his appearance — something they found out only when campaign manager Jeff Weaver showed up in Sanders’s stead.
O’Malley responded by telling the protesters, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter” — a statement that struck the demonstrators as dismissive of their movement and the unique discrimination endured by African Americans at the hands of the police.
Bernie Sanders…“Of course #BlackLivesMatter ….income inequality in our nation, is the worst of any developed nation and hurts our communities of color, worst of all! This is why we must end Citizens United!’–Netroots Nation, 7/18/15 image via @Jenni Siri
I AM SO DISGUSTED BY THIS! SO COMPLETELY DISGUSTED.
Not only has he chosen to not listen to these voices, he has chosen to patronize them.
This is NOT what a partner in struggle does. This is insulting and offensive. How dare he?!
It’s like he’s patting a child on the head and saying, “What’re you crying for?”
I am so glad that I did not give in to the criticism I was getting before for not accepting that Bernie was already a proven partner in liberation work. Fuck that! Actions speak louder than words and louder that policy platforms. This shows Bernie’s true feelings, and I am disappointed.
The protests must continue! He is clearly not hearing the message!
So I’m venturing out of California for the next two days to do a training session on community management at Netroots Nation.
Netroots Nation is a progressive, non-profitty, do-gooder conference and this is my first time attending. I’m not only stoked to present with two of my friends, but getting to see a good chunk of my DC friends too as this is a DC-heavy conference….in Minnesota!
Each day at work is getting better now that I’m on a team. I’m feeling less like new kid and getting more acclimated. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop out here in terms of a “bad day” but I’m finding myself enjoying every minute of everything I’m doing out here.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about relationships and how I don’t want to be in one again for at least a year. I’m not putting a hard time table on things, but I really need to be in an exclusive relationship with Adam. I’m sure I’ll date and continue to do so to meet new people but even the concept of dating is new to me. My friend Karl Frisch once said to me that dating is awesome because you get to meet lots of people and figure out what you like. That’s really what it’s about for me. When I used to be in pain from a broken heart, I’d find someone else and that would help me move on. That works for some people but not for me. The most recent broken heart taught me a lot. As did driving across the country alone (a concept which still seems to impress people but that’s a different story).
As I drove I processed my whole life and found myself so much more comfortable with being “single and 30” than I ever was before. This year is about listening to Adam to get involved in the things I enjoy and like. I’m kinda digging the whole “find a random event in San Francisco and show up alone” thing, too. It’s scary going into a room alone without knowing anyone. My friend Lauren (who also just moved here) told me she would never do that sort of thing on the east coast. Here, we both do it, because it’s almost as if the fear and uncertainty drives us. I’m happy to report that while I’m meeting people out here, I’m still balancing old friendships both in SF and elsewhere. I wasn’t always good at that. I realize now how much time I used to spend worrying about how I appeared to others. So I’d never say “no” and I’d worry all the time if I upset someone. Now I let it roll.
My aunt told me something before I left. She said as much as it sucks to hear, no one in the world owes you anything and really will always have your back except for you.
It’ll be interesting to see my DC friends and observe how I am around them. I am working hard to have my own back and not need anyone else’s, but I still love being around people. I know it sounds mildly selfish but that’s really not the intention - at least not maliciously.
This conference will be a lot of fun and will no doubt get me thinking about what I miss about DC. But this is life. This is how it rolls.
I will also say though - I’ve been beyond impressed with how hard my east coast friends work to keep in touch with me. Whether they’re in Annapolis, Philly, NYC, or DC. They rule. I only hope I’m holding up my end as well.
To continue with the #YOLO theme I’ve designated for myself this summer, I agreed to emcee the Advocates for Youth #NN13 Welcome Reception! This will be interesting to witness, suffice to say. Come if you’ll be around!