Because of the posterboards they were holding, I knew the two young men who got off the Broad Street Line with me at City Hall early Sunday afternoon had the same destination I did. So, together, we walked to the platform for the airport train.
When we got there, I asked to see their signs. “SON OF A REFUGEE,” Dan had written -- his parents came from Hungary. “SON OF AN IMMIGRANT,” Kayer had written -- his parents came from India.
It was the first protest they had attended since the inauguration, partly because the president’s recent executive order freezing immigration from seven countries and suspending refugee admissions felt personal to both of them and partly because it was the first post-Trump protest that didn’t conflict with their schedules as final-year Jefferson medical students. They realized they were late to the party when the only posterboards they could find for sale were neon pink.
We snagged an empty three-seat row on the rapidly filling train.
“Why did you put tape around the edge of your sign?” Dan asked me of my cardboard square, which had been surgically (if not aseptically) removed from the side of a kitchen box in which my roommates and I had been keeping recyclables.
“So I don’t give myself a paper cut,” I said.
“We would’ve had enough epinephrine to get you through,” Dan said. Next year, he hopes to head for a residency in pediatrics. Kayer is pursuing general surgery.
By the time we passed University City, the train had such a unified, jovial buzz that when a woman yelled, “Does anybody need any cardboard? I have markers!” everyone heard her and several hands shot up around the car, quicker than obedient third-graders on a field-trip bus.
Thanks to rows of willing hands, sides of a large cardboard box worked their way down the car, getting smaller as they went, people tearing off pieces for their signs.
Amid the sharp smell of permanent markers, the future MDs talked with me about the pitfalls of an ACA repeal and the tension of balancing a doctor’s humane outlook with the cutthroat competition of med school and residencies.
Meanwhile, my phone kept pinging with texts from friends who were at the protest, on their way, or checking transit routes.
I’ve been to three Philly protests since Trump’s tête-à-tête with Chief Justice John Roberts, and thus far, here’s my modus operandi: Just get there. If you don’t run into friends on the way, make some new ones. Dive into the crowd. Text and triangulate by landmarks like flags, signs, or statues. How and when you’re getting home, and from where, are questions for later. Someone will be going in the same direction.
At the train’s first airport stop, the throng poured onto the platform and into the stairways. Watching for friends whom I knew were on the same train, Kayer, Dan, and I parted.
“Is your shift over?” someone yelled to the crowd on the opposite platform, waiting for a train back to Center City. They cheered and flashed their signs at us.
I collided with my friends in the crowd at baggage claim. The chanting mass of people emerged onto the covered road and ground-floor parking area outside International Arrivals, eddying into the existing crowd, flanked by metal barriers and a long row of police officers. The cement ceiling echoed and magnified thousands of voices, drums, whistles, and the relentless tonk-tonk-tonk-tonk of people hitting cowbells to the rhythm of chants like, “No hate! No fear! Immigrants are welcome here!”
The right kind of reunion
Right now, Philly feels like that high school in teen movies, where all it takes is a word to a few friends to fill the palatial home of someone whose parents are out of town.
The festive atmosphere at the Philly protests (which continue to be as peaceful as they are enormous) and the enjoyment of planned and spontaneous reunions with so many friends seem to belie the seriousness of the stakes: systemic inequality, bigotry, loss of health care, denial of constitutional rights.
But it would be hard to face the things we’re facing — or actively resist them — without being among friends. And as the city turns out in droves again and again, sometimes with only a day’s notice, we begin feel like an extended family — especially now that our elected officials are also showing up.
I don’t think the character of Philly’s Trump-era protests is just a function of social media, or that it's just because Philly is a largely liberal city. The speed, size, peacefulness, and duration of protests like Sunday’s rally at Philadelphia International Airport are probably also the grand sum of thousands of experiences like mine, when the urge to join friends and find new ones in the course of standing up for what’s right makes five thousand people — or fifty thousand — feel cozy.
Deafening, but cozy.
When I made my way back to City Hall, I was pleased to see a pair of familiar people. Hours after riding to the airport with me, I found Kayer and Dan waiting for the Broad Street Line train home. A surprise reunion of new friends from three different corners of the earth was an appropriate finish for a protest in favor of immigrants’ rights. Especially in Philadelphia, it’s a small world indeed.