Wisdom Wednesday: What I Learned From the ‘Return the Children’ Protest
Since April, over 2,500 children were separated from their parents or guardians at the U.S.-Mexico border. The kids were sent to detention centers all over the country while their parents were jailed or even deported. This is a direct result of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy which sought to deter immigration by taking children from their parents if they crossed the border illegally—or even if they were legally seeking asylum with children. (Before this, crossing illegally was a misdemeanor; if you were caught, you usually weren’t prosecuted.)
I felt sick to my stomach reading about babies and toddlers being kidnapped and put in cages. It is inhumane to forcefully separate a family, withhold information about where the family members are, and send people in opposite directions with no plan for how they will find each other and get their lives back on track. After a public outcry, a federal judge ordered the government to reunite all of the families by July 26, though it failed to fully do this. (As of September 3, more than 500 children are still separated from their parents.)
On July 25, I went to a demonstration called “Return the Children,” in which members of the activist group Rise and Resist protested the policy. Though I am passionate about standing up to Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric, rather than joining the demonstration, I took the opportunity to report on it because I wanted to learn more about the role of protest.
This was not my first action—I had demonstrated against gun violence, police brutality and racism—but it was my first time reporting on one.
Protesters Push Empty Strollers
Outside of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, I dodged police officers telling me to get out of the way while protesters shouted “Return the children that you kidnapped!” and “You take children, we take the streets!” Their voices echoed in the busy street while they pushed empty strollers, holding signs that read “Asylum is legal! Abolish ICE” and “Where are the children?” One said simply: “Deport Trump.”
Pedestrians stopped and stared—some encouragingly and some in disgust. Others barely seemed to notice. I spotted a tall white man with AirPods in his ears, wearing a light blue button up shirt tucked into navy blue slacks. He didn’t even look up from his iPhone at the people shouting right next to him.
Then 11 activists stood in a line from one side of Fifth Avenue to the other, holding a huge banner that read “RETURN THE CHILDREN” and continued to chant. They stopped traffic for around 45 minutes, so long that passengers got off the buses and walked. Some drivers got out of their cars and took videos of the demonstration, but surprisingly, no one honked. Some passersby took videos and posted them on social media, while others stayed and joined the protest. More and more police arrived on the scene, but the protesters blocking traffic didn’t budge until the officers restrained them with white zip ties and led each person to their van. The crowd cheered as each protester was arrested.
Do Protests Effect Change?
Watching this unfold, I felt a sense of pride that there are people who care enough to go out and risk arrest in order to demand that these children be returned. It was empowering to see the activists holding their heads high as they were taken away.
I was interested in knowing what passersby thought of the demonstration. I spoke to a European couple about their thoughts on the protest. “The story of the children is surprising for us. It’s not our image of America,” said Christophe Boudon, who is from France. “It’s a normal way of expressing disagreement with a policy,” added Mechela Toppano, who is from Italy. “[Separating families] is not a normal way of solving this kind of [immigration] problem.”
I saw a young white guy recording the protest on his phone and asked him what he thought of it. He told me that the people participating in the demonstration were pathetic. He refused to talk further, so I couldn’t find out what he thought was pathetic. But his response got me thinking about what protests actually accomplish, aside from allowing citizens to exercise our right to assemble and empower one another by coming together. Do they really work to change policies?
“If you don’t do something, then you are complicit with what is happening,” said Jamie Bauer, one of the protest organizers. “What I’m doing may not be working, but at least I’m doing something.”
I agree—it’s important to me to speak out against injustice. But throughout history, public demonstrations have worked to change policies, for example during the civil rights movement. Without years of peaceful protest gaining national attention, it would have been a lot harder to pass laws outlawing segregation and guaranteeing equal voting rights.
I asked Jamie what makes a particular protest successful. They stressed that the message has to be clear, and the people you want to reach need to hear it. “I think it’s more powerful to have 100 people outside of a dinner that Mike Pence is speaking at than to have 10,000 people march down Fifth Avenue when there are no people in power there,” Jamie said.
Covering this demonstration helped me see protests can effect change. In fact, Trump’s administration stopped the family separation policy after public outcry. In the future, whether I end up organizing protests or just participating in them more often, I’ll be thinking more strategically about what these demonstrations achieve for the movement.