A U.S. Exchange Programme through Washington DC, Baltimore, El Paso and Minneapolis
Date: 17 March 2017
By Giulia Dessi, MDI project manager
Two days after president Trump’s first travel ban, the Washington Dulles International airport was in a frenzy. Instead of bored-looking taxi drivers waiting with a name printed on a sheet of paper, a loud crowd of protestors cheered and welcomed arriving travellers with chants and posters. Dozens of solicitors were offering free legal advice: “Do you need an attorney?” “Was anyone on your flight detained?” The presidential executive order, soon dubbed “Muslim ban”, halted all refugee admissions and temporarily barred people from seven Muslim-majority countries. This prompted both legal challenges and protests. All major U.S. airports that day had similar spontaneous initiatives.
I arrived at that airport on that day and I was overwhelmed by it. I was taking part in a U.S. Exchange Programme on Balancing Freedom and Security. It couldn’t be more timely. The agenda included meetings with professors, NGOs, authorities, and journalists in Washington DC, Baltimore, El Paso, and Minneapolis. I was eager to understand where all this was coming from, how it was received by those enforcing the law and by those opposing it.
Walking with my suitcase across people cheering for the rights of refugees and Muslims to arrive in their country felt as a spark of hope in a time of rising intolerance and racism. Then, as I later understood, this was the first visible sign – in my trip, at least – of a civil society waking up after a long sleep.
This awakening did not manifest itself just through protestors taking to the street (the Women’s March on 21 January 2017 attracted millions of demonstrators in the US and around the globe), but also through a spike in support to nonprofit organisations. ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, has seen both their donations and membership increase. “The 600,000 members before the elections, became more than one million three months later,” told us Jana Kooren, Public Education & Communications Director of ACLU of Minnesota. Small organisations too, such as Planned Parenthood, registered donations 40 times its normal rate, in the six weeks after the election.
“NGOs and society have been dormant during Obama,” said Fernando Garcia, Executive Director of the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR) in El Paso, Texas. The fact that he was first black president of the U.S. inspired so much trust that not enough pressure was put on him. On one side, Obama administration recorded the highest number of deportation of undocumented people, on the other side, Mr Garcia continued, through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), Obama protected undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children (known as “dreamers”). Now, with president Trump, the “dreamers” who registered to be protected from deportation are fearing that they have facilitated their own deportation instead.
Located at the U.S./Mexico border in Texas and New Mexico, the BNHR has been organising the community around education about human rights since the 1990s. This includes human rights cross trainings with community members and authorities. The result is no recent incidents of killing and shooting by the U.S. Border Patrol, and a general decrease in abuses and violation – which still exist and come from a long history of impunity. When talking with two young Border Patrol agents in El Paso, the day after, they made sure we knew that. “Since I started working here, 15 years ago, there have been no killings”, one of them said. “It is frustrating to see that in the media the Police and the Border Patrol are just bad guys and good news is not picked up.”
A similar frustration for under-reported positive work is also shared by the Community Collaboration Division (CCD) of Baltimore Police Department. Their mission is to build a healthy two-way dialogue with and within the community and to implement strategies to reduce crime. As they put it, CCD’s efforts are not just “enforcing”, but also “serving” the community. In a city with a high level of violent crime, those who are enforcing the law must earn the trust of the community. And, indeed, the CCD do. Still, they regret, their good work does not receive any media coverage.
From the majority of the meetings within the programme, cooperation and dialogue between law enforcement, residents, faith-based organisations, businesses, schools, media, government agencies and non-profit organisations emerged as the key. The importance of engaging with communities on a local level seems to be also part of the daily work of reporters and editors.
The fact that the New York Times digital subscription skyrocketed after the elections is a clear sign that people are interested in accurate and fair news reporting, despite a general public distrust in the media and journalists, and despite a complete media failure in the 2016 presidential elections. How did they get it so wrong? Kevin Lewis, reporter at ABC7 News in Washington DC, discussed with me the reasons why national media did not see Donald Trump’s victory coming: “they shut their local offices; they live in the liberal bubbles of DC, New York, and so on.” Indeed, after the shock of the election of a president they were not expecting, media professionals did a self-examination and admitted a disconnection with “ordinary people”, and voters, across the States.
The Star Tribune, the national newspaper on Minnesota, has been working to increase their community outreach. Reporters that might not normally engage with communities are now pushed to do so, but even before the elections, those relationships have always important in Minneapolis. “When you go to talk to communities, you need to find good sources to talk to,” told us Faiza Mahamud, reporter at the Star Tribune. “What I also do is to ask the source what they would like to see in the story,” she added. Stephen Montemayor, a reporter covering federal court and law enforcement at Star Tribune, added that one of the problems within communities is finding a spokesperson. “It’s very presumptive to believe that one person can speak for the whole community, so we don’t just go to the same person and speak to them every time.”
In a nation divided on the lines of social issues, race, gender and the economy, speaking to a wide spectrum of people of different backgrounds (and daily duties) helped me to understand desires, frustrations, and commitments of some of its residents. Police wish to see headlines on their good work, journalists have learnt a lesson and are faithful to the truth, and civil society organisations are ready to fight for human rights. Whatever will happen next, community engagement will be at the centre of it.