Nearly a half-century after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and on the holiday memorializing him, hundreds gathered together in the freezing cold of Times Square for a Rally Against Racism, held in response to President Donald Trump’s most recent inflammatory and racist comments — referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “shithole countries.”
Cara Noel, communications director for 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which hosted the January 15 rally, explained, in an emailed statement, that the “coalition came together to show the world that working people are taking a stand for our sisters and brothers from Haiti, throughout Africa, El Salvador, and other nations that have been targets of the hatred and bigotry of the Trump administration.”
On slain civil rights leader’s holiday, Times Square rally rejects “shithole” label president hurled
She said the coalition made a conscious decision of holding the rally on MLK Day to honor King and show “the world the progress we are making towards helping to achieve Dr. King’s dream.”
It was one of five rallies that day — including ones at Washington Square Park and in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn — against the current administration, according to Take Action NYC (takeactionnyc.com).
Numerous public officials as well as event organizers and members of the public spoke out against Trump’s slur and voiced support for the city’s immense immigrant population. The roster of speakers included Mathieu Eugene, the first Haitian-born person elected to the New York City Council, and Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, the first Haitian-American woman elected to office in the city.
“Today as we celebrate the legacy of a champion for justice, Dr. Martin Luther King, it is important we come together to condemn the words of the president and offer respect for Haitians, Africans, and immigrants,” Eugene, who represents Brooklyn’s District 40 on the Council, said. “Haiti is the model of liberty. Haiti is the model of human dignity.”
Many members in the crowd, draped in the Haitian flag, shouted “1804!” — the year of Haiti’s independence from French colonizers. Haiti is the only nation established as a result of a slave revolt and is considered the first black republic.
Bichotte, representing the 42nd Assembly district in Brooklyn, which has the largest number of Haitian immigrants in the city, explained that not only did the president’s comments come days before MLK Day, but also just one day ahead of the eight-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated the small Caribbean nation, killing as many as 300,000 people.
“We are still mourning,” Bichotte said. “How insensitive can you be, Mr. Donald Trump? But then again, you go around and make money off our backs, off the backs of the countries you call shitholes.”
Daphne St. Valliere, born and raised in Brooklyn, came to the rally with her brother, her husband, and their two children, ages four and six. She is the daughter of immigrants, making her a first-generation Haitian immigrant.
“It is deplorable how our president is speaking about black and brown people,” she said. “I’m here in solidarity with my Haitian people.”
St. Valliere was one of many who brought their children, the next generation, along with them. Erika Drezner, an American Studies teacher living in Brooklyn, brought her son and held up a sign with part of Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again.”
“I’m patriotic, but I’m patriotic in the context of knowing this country was built on white supremacy,” Drezner said. “That’s a tension I struggle with as a white teacher every day.” Saying she goes to about one protest a week, Drezner added, “We need to put our bodies in the way of this administration. It’s so disastrous and scary on so many levels.”
Repeating the phrase “Can you hear us, Mr. Trump?” to the enthusiastic crowd, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said, “The silver lining is that [Trump] has awoken a sleeping giant, immigrants, women, undocumented, LGBT people, people of color, poor people, and union members. We are in the struggle together. Every time he says this, he wants us to feel beaten down, divided. But on a cold Martin Luther King Day, in his name, we are out here at the crossroads of the world, Times Square, standing united, all communities against the maniac in the White House.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio took to the podium to remind the audience to not get discouraged by the racist rhetoric coming from Washington and to remember that America is a “society that welcomes and respects all.”
The mayor also said, “I say to anyone in this city who hears something they find appealing in the voice of the president that if these same standards were applied to your ancestors, you wouldn’t be here in this country. Treat the new generation of immigrants just as we wish our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers were treated, that this is meant to be a place for all.”
Protestors held up signs including, “Stop the Billionaire Bigot” and “America is an Ideal not a Race,” and an American flag with the words “Resistance is Patriotic.”
Ulysses Contreras said he attended the rally because he felt it was crucial to keep King’s legacy and dream alive.
“With everything going on in the country, it’s important for us to carry [King’s mission] on and to understand that his death was not in vain,” Contreras said. “We need to do better as a people, be more inclusive, be more respectful. It’s important to be out here demonstrating, letting the government and Trump administration know that he can’t divide us, we are still here.”