NEW YORK CITY—When I pop out of the subway in Foley Square, an angry crowd throws its message on me—and it feels oddly familiar.
“This is why capitalism must be overthrown!” an older woman standing on the curb shouts. “It’s unsustainable, people. It is the monster. It uses you up and spits you out when it’s done.”
Behind her stand two more people, holding a banner: “This system cannot be REFORMED—It must be OVERTHROWN!”
I came down here this morning to cover the Families Belong Together march, part of a week-long series of nationwide protests lambasting the federal government’s policy of separating the children of illegal immigrants from their families on the United States’ southern border. It’s a complex debate, still unresolved. Earlier this week—and in the wake of mounting Democratic pressure—President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning the separation of families at the border.
I had expected the protest this morning to focus on the border, not on this verbal war. But the 8,000 protesters gathered here want to take Trump down—for good.
As I walk past the socialist lady rallying the workers of the world, I spot a young woman standing near the Foley Square fountain. She’s wearing a Soviet-era Russian military cap and is beaming in the 90-degree heat. She raises a “Trump is our Hitler” sign high into the sky.
I ask if may take a picture.
“Of course!” she says. “I made it all by myself. See? It’s double sided.”
She flips it over proudly and shows me the other side, which bear the same message.
Near her stands another young woman in a Hillary Clinton campaign hat. When she notices the socialist preacher, she pulls a RESIST sign out of her New Yorker tote bag and waves it around. A bit further away from the center of the square, a man with a scraggly beard carries an “Extremist for Love” sign. Hundreds of people chant NO HATE, NO FEAR, IMMIGRANTS ARE WELCOME HERE, while various speakers rile them up with impassioned cries about how “Donald Trump is attacking New Yorkers.”
An older socialist tries to sell me her newspaper—The Socialist Worker—for 50 cents.
“No thanks,” I say.
“Don’t you support children?” she asks.
“I mean yeah, but—”
She’s not listening anymore. The rest of her group have joined her and they’re singing songs about tearing down the capitalist mental madhouse. They’re on verse five when they meet us, and beckon me to join.
Our song goes like this:
Remember WACO! Remember Vietnam!
Democratic Party we know which side you’re on!
Remember Philly MOVE! Remember Vietnam!
Democratic Party we know which side you’re on!
One of the socialist singers parades a sign that, among other grievances, tells Bernie Sanders to do something unprintable to himself.
None of this is shocking. The post-2016 protest scene—once so novel to the media—follows an incredibly predictable path. I’m surrounded by hundreds of people wearing “Nasty Woman” t-shirts, old codgers sporting their Obama 2008 hats, and of course, dotting the whole scene, young people carrying their black-and-white New Yorker bags (free with the $12 for 12 weeks deal!). Wistful nostalgia coupled with a fear of impending doom: This is an American crowd.
But it’s too hot and I need to get out of Foley Square. I start pushing toward the front, where the mob is preparing to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.
As I excuse my way through the throng, a mariachi band strikes up “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (which it will continue to play for the next two hours). A Hispanic woman in front of the band holds a sign supporting the socialist and surprise Queens primary victory winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ocasio-Cortez spoke earlier this morning at rally near her neighborhood.
Two young women hold me up with a conversation about Trump.
“I feel like his policy is to take anything Obama did and undo it,” one says.
“Yeah, but we’re sending our message,” the other replies. “There are 10,000 people here. This is like a really big deal.”
“I mean, it’s a big deal,” the first one says. “Especially with the possibility of getting arrested.”
I interject: “Is that a possibility?”
“No, no not here,” the first one says. “But there was that thing with the ICE building protest last week. We have the mayor on our side with this one.”
She smiles. Mayor Bill de Blasio has spoken in favor of the Families Belong Together movement this week, apparently unconcerned about the socialist takeover—and even as rowdy protesters scared officials at a Manhattan ICE building away from daily operations a few days ago.
I peer up ahead and realize it’s a long walk to the bridge. A younger guy holding sign that reads “F*CK TRUMP, we are all humans,” looks back over the crowd streaming behind him. His sign reminds me of the woefully unhelpful bumper stickers pro-life people would put on their cars in the early 2000s. These stickers featured a quote from Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “It is a poverty that A CHILD MUST DIE so that you may live as you wish.” Intended to shock first worlders into rejecting abortion, they only confused people who could only read the bolded—and terrifying—letters.
But this is more of a “F*UCK TRUMP” than “we are all humans” march anyway. Planned Parenthood officials are handing out literature on the bridge—clearly not concerned with the separation of unborn children from their families.
We’re on the bridge now. It’s so narrow that only five people at a time can walk abreast comfortably. And we’re jamming in many more than that. It’s hot—and suddenly I know that no matter how much water I drink after this, standing on the Brooklyn Bridge for two hours in the direct 90-degree heat will give me sunstroke.
No Borders! No Nations! Stop the deportations!
“This is as radical as it gets,” the girl in front of me titters, as the chanting intensifies.
We’re not moving quickly. I feel sick. A woman in salmon shorts elbows her way past me and the chanting socialists.
“There’s too much f*cking literature,” she says. “Not enough action.”
She’s right. We’re practically at a standstill on this bridge—and even though the cars rolling by are honking in encouragement—we’re not getting anywhere anytime soon. I see a sign in the distance: “We Care A Lot.” Is it an intentional riff on the Melania jacket scandal, or a more sarcastic reference to Faith No More? I push through the crowd for answers.
But I never find out. The march pushes down off the bridge and into a public square in Brooklyn. I gaze longingly at the other side of the road, where a sweating man is selling Budweiser and water bottles for $3.
The Brooklyn rally is almost indistinguishable from the Manhattan one. We chant more about resisting. Local politicians champion minority communities in the Bronx and Queens. I miss Al Sharpton’s speech by a few minutes—but I hear he said the sorts of things Al Sharpton says.
Rise up. Resist.
I find a park bench after gulping from a park water fountain. Soon a woman sits down next to me. Her name is Maria, and she tells me she’s been an activist for a long time. Her graying hair her tells me that could mean decades.
“But I’m not a revolutionary by any means,” Maria tells me. “I made my own sign, see?”
It reads: “Walk in another’s shoes.”
Maria explains that she comes from a family of Trump voters, but isn’t one herself. She just wants to love people. She’s talkative and kind—in my sunstroked haze, I feel like I’m making a friend.
“Can I tell you a secret?” she asks, beckoning me with a whisper.
“Yeah of course.”
She gestures at the loudspeakers on the lawn and sighs.
“None of this is new. This is just the same old stuff they told us to chant in the sixties—and nothing changed then either.”