Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
A police officer stands guard as demonstrators at Philadelphia International Airport protest against the executive order that President Donald Trump signed clamping down on refugee admissions and temporarily restricting travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries on January 29, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Demonstrators gathered at airports across the country in protest of the order.Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
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A Letter From Philadelphia

Dispatch from the airport protest against the new administration’s immigration ban, where online activism morphed into the poster-wielding crowd

Sean Cooper
February 03, 2017
Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
A police officer stands guard as demonstrators at Philadelphia International Airport protest against the executive order that President Donald Trump signed clamping down on refugee admissions and temporarily restricting travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries on January 29, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Demonstrators gathered at airports across the country in protest of the order.Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

On Sunday afternoon I got on a train in Center City and headed out to see the protest already underway at the Philadelphia airport. At the next two stops, we picked up huge groups of sign holders—huge, so many that the train was too packed to pick up any additional passengers. In front of me, a silver-haired woman wearing art-museum jewelry scanned the Wesley Morris piece in the latest Times magazine. The man beside me graded school papers of short-form essay questions in between glances out the window at the graffiti-splattered walls that lined the tracks. The car smelled like arts and crafts on account of the uncapped markers, the sign holders making their final touches to their day’s project.

We pulled up to the poorly marked stop for the airport and the paper-grader asked, “Going to the protest? Is this it?”

“I hope so,” I said. “I’m following the signs.”

“I’ll follow the people,” he said as we stood up at the same time. “You have to hope someone up front knows where we’re going.”

Just after getting inside the airport I could hear drums and a tambourine in the distance. It was a curiously festive atmosphere, with a surprising number of small children. Kids in strollers, kids wrapped up in bright fabric slings on backs and chests, kids up on shoulders holding signs. If there wasn’t the permeating subtext of bearing witness to the beginning of the end of the American experiment I could have sworn I was on the outer edge of a free concert in the park, the parents keeping the kids back from the weed smoke. I got closer to the doors and heard the rapid-fire chant, “This is what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like.” I tried to walk through but my movement was restricted. Some would later estimate the total number at 5,000, and that felt about right. The protest was barricaded onto one street, and the space was tight. The thousands of protesters looked just like the ones you see on TV, the similarities uncanny. The volume was all-consuming, the energy high.

After an elaborate game of “excuse me,” I emerged out of one side, just as the march began. I double-stepped ahead of the pack to turn around and take it all in. In one visual sweep I counted three signs of the Statue of Liberty in various forms of distress, Lady Liberty crying, Lady Liberty cracked in half, Lady Liberty covering her eyes. I fell back into the crowd and heard a woman with a fanny pack ask quietly, more to herself than anyone else, “What would Jesus do?” The pace was quite pleasant, leisurely even. The temperature was cool with little wind. If not at the airport we might have been taking a stroll around a lake, all 5,000 of us. I had no idea where we were going.

The group reached the end of the airport road, just before the on-ramp for the highway. A line of bike cops had ridden out ahead of us; one of them waved his arm to guide us toward the parking lot, like he was on crowd control for a concert. The crowd played the hits, revolving through a catalog of perhaps 15 chants. “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go, hey hey, ho ho.” I broke off and asked an officer sweating profusely behind his face covering where the march is going. “They’ve got a route, doing a loop around,” he told me without looking at me. A burly cop with a short neck and a low gut chimed in sarcastically, “Yeah they’ll keep going around and around, same thing, just the same thing for hours.” An older woman with a “no human is illegal” poster thanked the officers for their service. A young cop with a perfectly square jaw told her she was welcome, “And please, keep it up. Seriously, we’ll be out here.”

I walked back against the flow of the crowd, off to the side. Intentionally or not, the march moved in segmented groups, like timed intervals of a 5K race. Through the gap between waves I saw a family of four off to the side, a boy, two girls, and a woman taking a break to eat orange slices from a blue lunch box. I kept going until I reached those who stayed behind, chatting up the crowd before I encountered an immigration lawyer named Jonah who’s office was helping out with the detained passengers. Since the executive order signed on Friday night, at least four immigrants were held in custody after arriving at the airport. Jonah’s colleagues, other civil-rights organizations, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania had been working all night and into Sunday until the migrants were released. Now the lawyers were sticking around in case any others made it past the screening at their port of departure and got hung up by the U.S. Border Patrol agents here in Philadelphia.

Jonah is tall and lanky, with a ball cap that sits up over his forehead. He specializes in relocating Syrian refugees, many of whom are now stranded in precarious situations. “This woman was here, you know, here in the States, with refugee status. But her husband and daughter were still in Damascus, where’d they’d went to get away from the war. Their paperwork was just about to go through, so the woman flew back out there with her refugee documents to fly back with them. But she’s Syrian, which means that now she can’t come back. And her husband can’t work there, there’s no work to support a family anymore. She’s a vetted refugee, they were all about to be cleared, and now she’s stranded, and they have to depend on the aid organizations to eat.”

The marchers start to flow back into the main road from their loop around the long-term parking lots, filling in the crowd. Jonah tells me he’s just as concerned about all the newly allocated money going to build new detention centers and to hire prosecutors, but how little of it is being spent to bring in more judges to handle the caseload. “It’s going to grind to a halt, the whole system,” he said. I said to him that it reminded me of the Republican congressional strategy to render the political process moot by abusing the rules of the game. “Yeah, true,” he said, and then thought for a moment. “You spend all your time grinding it out in those immigration courts, though, day after day. To see all this here, all these people fighting and standing up, it’s incredible.”

I made my way toward the drums and off to the side found a circle that I assumed was gathering around some kind of dancing. In the middle, a young woman moved to the beat, rotating and hopping around while holding up a “we are all Muslims” poster. The inner circle took photos, the outer circle took photos of those taking photos of the woman. My cynical side couldn’t help but find a similarity between the protest before me and the social-media platforms through which the images of this protest were being distributed. The defining characteristics of both were the sheer number of voluntary participants and the blunt, rudimentary nature of the messaging. When I examined the crowd online or in real life I was confronted by a sea of people and a sea of voices, each one essentially saying, “This is not how it should be.” Watching the woman in the circle, I thought how protests and uprisings have long been a default mode of expression for distressed populations under the rule of undesirable authority, how historically resistance movements across the centuries begot change, for better or worse, peacefully or with violence. But going back for the last half-decade or more, at least since the Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and now the postelection protests happening almost daily, the reoccurring gatherings of hundreds of thousands of Americans have left unaltered the widening income-inequality gap, the social and institutional racism that withholds equal access to justice and prosperity for African-Americans, and a political system that since Obama’s second term has become the instrument of power for a cavalier class of billionaires stripping the Earth of its resources while flipping Western meritocracies into personal bank vaults built atop the dilapidated fever-dreams of the growing global poor. Without proper leadership, and regardless of their scale, in this moment, public displays of resistance have been reduced to a lifestyle activity, practiced by enthusiasts who know all the hashtags. When those with financial and political power grow weary of the noise they can turn it all off with a screen tap and a sip of Glenfiddich.

Away from the thick of it to catch some air I found a spot of wall to lean against while I looked at the photos I’d taken on my camera. A few yards away, about a dozen officers had been standing outside a door to the terminal for international arrivals, where some protesters had been staging a quiet sit-in. I’d already passed by a couple of times; the cops milled about, some on their phones, there to direct anyone trying to use that entrance, or join the sit-in, to find another way in.

I then turned to a young woman in a herringbone coat with long purple-blond hair underneath a black hat. She was leading a sizable chunk of protesters from the larger group over to the door of the sit-in. She and the others began shouting at the police, which got their attention. “Let us in! Let us in!” they rallied. The woman and another protester inched forward toward the door, where they met the outstretched arms of a cop keeping them back. I watched another policeman speak into his walkie-talkie and then, suddenly, as if they’d been hidden behind the curtains, literally dozens of police appeared from either side, rapidly forming one long human chain, then another, then another, three or four rows deep, a thick block of black jackets shoulder to shoulder facing the howling crowd. I was stuck there with them, in the middle of the back row against the building, a cop on my left shoulder and a cop on my right, unable to ignore the comedy of their little number, trotting into formation with me wedged in like a crew member who’d been pulled out from backstage. I had to, and did, laugh under my breath to relieve the tension quickly building between the yelling throng that wanted something and the armed wall of police preventing them from having it.

The protesters backed up to consolidate their position, creating a denser formation that mirrored their opposition. I reached my arm up to take photos, catching the eye of a young man in a hoodie who seemed perplexed at the sight of me, a decidedly out of uniform bespectacled bearded backpacker standing out amongst the wall of police like an off-color brick. I checked the photos for visual evidence that this was what had become of my life, my reality. The photo made the eight-point police hats look like navy-colored beach umbrellas, the kind bought in bulk by midrange resorts striving for brand continuity. I was brought to by the escalating volume of the chant, “Let us in! Let us in!”—until it suddenly stopped.

The contumacious herringbone coat and a few others huddled at the front as if they’d taken a quick 30-second timeout. They talked with lowered heads, so their game plan could be poached by an astute lipreader. They broke and the chant resumed, loud but slightly modified. “Let them in!” they shouted. “Let them in!” They’d elevated their demand above their own desire to join the ranks of the sit-in to the more abstract and news-peg plane of clashing ideals, with religious discrimination on one side and the principals of an adolescent democracy on the other.

The police held firm and silent, salaried bodies and state-assigned guns that seemed calm and hardly moved, a dark navy canvas there to absorb the buckets of hurled invectives. I saw the protesters that were around my age and younger, college students, grad students, activists, hair disheveled, clothes dirty from a day spent in the streets, jeans and denim jackets that would later be washed in dormitories or in houses shared with four and five roommates whose combined rent maybe covered the round trip of an international plane ticket. They were stuck here, angry, and I couldn’t tell if that loosened or strengthened their spiritual adhesiveness. There was a similarity visible on their faces, in their tone and taut body language, a frustration boiling over, something that said these were not our choices, this debt we’ve inherited is more than we can pay, too much is broken, there’s too much to fix. The police kept together, waiting until those chanting their slogans ran out of steam.

Eventually, the microprotest disbanded, retreating back to the stairs of the parking garage to see if they could climb over the terminal and find another way to join the sit-in. The police loosened the wall and I made my way out. It was dark now. The larger protest had thinned out, headed back home to warm up and eat dinner. I walked along the sidewalk outside the terminals, where hours earlier there’d been the passengers whose arrival coincided with the protest. Most didn’t appear to mind the long delay to get picked up by friends and taxis held up at the airport entrance. Some held up scrap paper signs of solidarity, “all are welcome” scribbled in pen. They’d had their cellphones out, taking shots of the marchers holding bigger signs, with hand-drawn illustrations and witty turns of phrase. On my way to the train, I stopped to pull an apple from my bag. Two wide-shouldered men in their 50s came out of the terminal with their luggage and golf bags in plastic shell cases. They realized they’d arrived at just the right time. The one hailed a cab and then said to the other, “We really dodged a bullet.”

Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.