Protests Define New Interest In Activism

By Bill Dries

Usually when the Shelby County Commission’s committee room is filled, it is with those from various county government divisions making presentations during budget season. Or it might be filled with representatives from several organizations seeking or getting county grants.

A prayer in the courtyard of the National Civil Rights Museum below the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 marked the end of this week’s march protesting President Donald Trump’s immigration travel ban order.

(Daily News/Patrick Lantrip)

But the standing-room-only crowd that packed the committee room Wednesday, Feb. 1, is part of a new activism that has emerged locally in the two weeks since President Donald Trump took office.

Most of the several dozen people at the committee sessions Wednesday were there to urge the commission to approve a $115,000 state grant to Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region for a free condom distribution program.

“I think we all know what this is,” Mauricio Calvo of Latino Memphis told commissioners. “I think is a matter of who.”

The commission has approved other grants to other agencies for the condom distribution, which is a pass-through of state funding. But some commissioners object to any funding for Planned Parenthood because of the abortion services it provides.

The grant at issue does not involve abortions.

Calvo and others who turned out at the committee session to push for the Planned Parenthood grant were part of a much larger and diverse crowd of around 1,000 who marched Wednesday evening from Clayborn Temple to the National Civil Rights Museum.

The march, organized by the group Comunidades Unidas En Una Voz, included immigrants from the Middle East, Mexico and Latin America, as well as members of various religious faiths, all protesting Trump’s immigration travel ban order.

Muslims in the march brought prayer mats and prayed in the museum’s courtyard below the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Dr. Yasir Qadhi, assistant professor of religious studies at Rhodes College and resident scholar at the Memphis Islamic Center, led the prayers and then told the diverse crowd in the courtyard, “America will not become great by cutting itself off from its neighbors. … We also owe an allegiance to the rest of humanity. We are all equally human.”

Qadhi also said Trump’s actions have done a lot to bring groups involved in different causes together.

“Because of you,” he said, referring to Trump, “each of us have a greater sense of patriotism.”

Children in the march wore cardboard headbands reading “Proud to Be an Immigrant.”

The crowd chanted, “No ban, no wall,” and, “We will win.”

Signs included the slogans “Dump Trump Resist,” “We Will Not Be Silent” and “Mexican Born, American Built.”

Video monitors in the courtyard of the museum cast a light on the faces of some of the children in the crowd as evening turned to night. The images on the screen included marchers from the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike preparing to march outside Clayborn Temple nearly half a century ago.

The speakers included immigrants from various countries as well as first-generation Americans whose parents are immigrants. Some talked of encountering discrimination and struggle mixed with opportunity, albeit limited. Others said coming to America had improved their lives and that they cherished American values, including those espoused by King and others in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Qadhi was among those urging those representing various causes – ranging from Black Lives Matter to immigration reform to a $15-an-hour minimum wage – to support each other’s causes.

“We will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends,” he warned.

Nabil Bayakly of Muslims in Memphis urged the marchers to “flip the Senate” in the 2018 congressional midterm elections and to make U.S. Rep. David Kustoff, who was elected in November to represent Tennessee’s 8th District, a “one-term congressman” for his support of Trump.

“America never stood for religious tests,” Bayakly said of the travel ban order. “This is not what America is.”

He also equated Trump’s style of populism with fascism and accused Trump supporters of “hijacking terminology.”

“When they say, ‘Let us work together,’ they mean, ‘Listen to what I’m saying,’” Bayakly said.

Veronica Marquez of Comunidades Unidas En Una Voz accused Trump of “trying to push us back into the shadows.”

“We will never cease our struggle for the rights and welfare of undocumented immigrants, for those who suffer for practicing their religion or expressing an ideology, for victims of racial discrimination and for those who are attacked because they defend our natural resources,” she said in a speech that was translated to English. “We are tenacious and we are here to stay. We will overcome obstacles by building a powerful movement to defend our rights and our families.”

The city of Memphis had earlier indicated it would not grant a permit for the march because the city ordinance governing such permits requires 14 days’ advance notice. But the city declared the march “lawful” after organizers pointed out an exception in the ordinance for protests that are a response to “spontaneous events occasioned by news or affairs coming into public knowledge within three days of such public assembly.”

Trump signed the travel ban order Jan. 27, affecting those from seven majority-Muslim countries.

The County Commission’s Jan. 9 decision to send the Planned Parenthood grant back to committee without approval drew little response from the public.

The packed committee room this week encouraged Democratic commissioners who will attempt to add the grant to the agenda of their Monday session and round up the votes of all seven Democratic commissioners to approve it.

“We really don’t need to make this a partisan political issue,” said commissioner Walter Bailey, who is leading the move to approve the grant.

But commissioner Eddie Jones was among those urging a heavy turnout.

“Bring your kin,” he told those in the committee room. “Bring your next of kin and the kin next to them.”