Women’s March Organizer Linda Sarsour Speaks about Activism under Trump Administration

Ethan Ehrenhaft – On Wednesday, April 12, Davidson College hosted speaker Linda Sarsour, one of the four co-chairs of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Sarsour spoke in the Duke Family Performance Hall and conducted an interview with The Davidsonian and College Communications earlier in the day, the latter of which was filmed and streamed online. The evening event was hosted by Sammy Syed ‘19 and Elizabeth Welliver ‘16, and was co-sponsored by Muslim Students Association, the Chaplain’s Office, Better Together, and twelve other campus organizations.

Sarsour is a Muslim-American political activist and commentator who has risen to prominence in recent months for her organization and leadership of the Women’s March. She was a surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary and is the former executive director of the Arab Association of New York. Sarsour is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.

“The most important part of my bio is that I’m from Brooklyn,” said Sarsour during the opening of her speech. “There’s something a little unique about us. We weren’t born with filters. We tell it like it is.”

For roughly the next hour, Sarsour went on to give a keynote speech to a large crowd of students, faculty, and community members. Her talk focused mainly on being a Muslim under the Trump Administration, the dangers of marginalizing others, and what it means to be an activist. Sarsour was a dynamic speaker, moving swiftly from one anecdote to the next. She was humorous at times to lighten the mood, but consistently delivered passionate statements that drew raucous rounds of applause.

Sarsour gave a full narrative of her sixteenplus years of experience as an organizer and activist-a long time, she remarked, for someone who is in her mid-30s. For Sarsour, activism grew “out of the ashes of 9/11.” She described how, living in Brooklyn at the time, individuals in her community were rounded up by authorities from restaurants and cafés without notice or warning. Women would come to the mosque, she explained, and they would say, “Someone took my husband and I haven’t heard from him; I don’t know where he went.”

“I didn’t really think these things happened in the United States of America,” said Sarsour, who quickly began volunteering as a translator for families dealing with these questionings and detainments. Sarsour thought, “This is wrong. This should not happen in a democracy. There should not be a whole group of people that is determined to be connected to a horrific attack that they had nothing to do with. That they be punished for the acts of a very small evil few.” The prejudice exhibited against Muslims following 9/11 proved to be the spark she needed to begin a career in activism.

Throughout her talk, Sarsour warned the audience of the dangers of repeating past mistakes. She described visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and the powerful impact it had on her. During her visit, she noted that she saw a sign labeled “Early Warning Signs of Fascism.” She said the sign listed “disdain for human rights, disdain for the arts and intellectuals, powerful nationalism, rampant sexism, supremacy of the military, obsession with crime and punishment, controlled mass media, oppression of labor powers, protection of corporate power, obsession with national security, identification of enemies as a unifying cause, and fraudulent elections” as indicators. As the audience sat in silence, she asked, “Is there actually anything on this list that is not already happening in this country?”

Responding to critics who call her an alarmist, Sarsour stated, “I’d rather be overly cautious and be a little alarmist than to be here and try to rationalize what is going on and have something really horrible happen on my watch.” She stressed how Americans must not try and normalize the current state of affairs in the country, lest it lead to the further persecution of various ethnic and religious minorities. Sarsour warned that “the folks around [President Donald Trump] were normalizing this. They were making it okay to be publicly racist.”

As an example in which Americans failed to defend each other, Sarsour brought up the exnews ample of Japanese-American internment during World War II. “75 years was not that long ago,” she said of the internment. And Sarsour did not limit her talk to issues affecting Muslims in the US. “We’re also still watching raids on undocumented immigrants,” she warned. “We’re watching raids on women who are victims of domestic violence who are trusting the system to help them report violence and report crimes, but are being picked up.” Sarsour was referring to specific stories about ICE waiting outside domestic abuse shelters and rounding up victims. She also mentioned the Chinese Exclusion Act in comparison to Trump’s Muslim ban as a time when our country has excluded entire groups of people based on their country of origin.

Perhaps the most impactful part of Sarsour’s speech came when she lamented how critics tell her, “You’re not a patriot. You hate your country.” She expressed her gratitude toward America for providing her parents refuge from occupied territory, but said that “just because I had a good opportunity does not blind me to the reality of a country that I live in that has done really horrible things in our history.” Recognizing the atrocities of our past, she urged, will help us to never commit them again in our future.

“Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” Sarsour proclaimed. “I want our country to be the greatest nation on Earth. I want to be able to say that I am proud to be an American because my country treats all of its residents equally, regardless of their religious background, their ethnicity, their race, their gender, their sexual orientation.” Everyone in America, she argued, deserves the same opportunities, dignity, and respect. “That’s what I want, and that’s what I fight for every single day.”

Trump’s election and presidency thus far were clearly major threads throughout the talk. Sarsour told of how she cancelled an interview with the BBC on election night, returning home to be with her three children who were watching the results in their living room. Her youngest daughter burst into tears as soon as she entered the room. “Here we were watching a horror film unfold before our very eyes,” said Sarsour.

Regarding the election results, Sarsour explained how Americans lacked a “village mentality.” By that, Sarsour meant that in the US we have a prevailing “every-man for himself ” ethos. “We tend to be individualists. It’s all about us.” When she went to the polls, Sarsour said “[I] imagined myself as a resident of a village,” much like the little one on the West Bank from which her parents came. She put herself in the shoes of others, and imagined the impact her vote would have on other communities.

“When I went to the polls, I thought about indigenous people of Standing Rock, I thought about women of color, I thought about undocumented immigrants, I thought about Muslim communities I came from that suffered in silence for 15 years.” She argued that we as Americans cannot afford to engage in “self-righteous politics,” such as those exhibited by the “Bernie-orbust” crowd or those who simply abstained from voting.

When the results finally came in, Sarsour said she truly felt despair for the first time in her life. That despair quickly turned to anger: “For me, outrage is a motivating factor to allow me [to] think about what am I going to do about [the election results] right now.” The next day, while browsing Facebook, she noticed an event page about staging a potential march for women in D.C. She was surprised to see that Muslim-American women were not one of the page’s mentioned groups. “I felt like under an administration like this you might want to center a group that was quite targeted in this last election.” She commented with her concerns, and “the next thing I know I’m the National Co-Chair for the Women’s March on Washington.”

Sarsour closed by saying she knows that activism is not easy and that it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Nonetheless, she says, there are easy things we can do to have our desired impacts on our communities. “We all have a role to play,” she told the crowd. “We all have something we can do.” Sarsour encouraged everyone to listen to the stories of others, get to know neighbors, and try to donate a couple dollars a week to various charities and organizations. Simply showing up to protests and knowing the names of your local representatives is key, too. Sarsour has all of her local politicians on speed dial. She says she’ll call them when she’s happy or upset with what they’re doing. She attributed the survival of the Affordable Care Act to people calling their elected representatives and urging them not to repeal it.

Above all, Sarsour told her audience not to remain silent, to never forget the most marginalized who live amongst us. Her speech was one of warning, but also of passion to work with the American people and to reaffirm the best attributes of our country. Sarsour’s closing lines were, “I will commit to you that I will continue to stand at the forefront of fighting for justice and equality for all people and that I am willing to put my life on the line for that. That’s how much I truly believe in making my nation the greatest nation on Earth.”