Defending American values

  • January 30, 2017
Defending American values

Over the last nine days, it seems the whole world has changed. The President played dirty to win, but once he did win, many of us thought he would calm down and abide by the laws and values that make the American dream so important to so many. Instead, each day since January 20th has rattled my confidence in the lofty ideals and impenetrable strength of the notion of America as the global hegemon.

When I learned of the worst parts of modern history as a child – slavery, the Holocaust, the Jim Crow era, apartheid – I always felt that if I had been alive back then I would never have just stood by and watched. Suddenly, that belief has been given a real-life test. Indeed, we are all being tested to show what we will do: whether and and how quickly we will act to show we are against these recent constitutional and civil rights violations. Is this the beginning of a long dark road spiraling out of control or will Congress and the judiciary step up and hold the President accountable to the laws and values they swore to protect? What happens if they don’t? How can the media protect our freedoms when the first amendment is at risk? Where is the line when enough is enough for the average Joe or Jane in America? How will history view us if that line is crossed and we don’t do anything? How will my children judge my actions when historians speak of this dark period of the 21st century when we regressed 50 years with a few dashes of the pen?

For myself, I didn’t have much of a choice. I have an unpaid debt on which I couldn’t bear to default. Over a decade ago, Bill Gates, through the Gates Foundation, paid for my graduate school at Cambridge University. In doing so, he implicitly asked all Gates Scholars to honour that opportunity by finding some way to make the world a better place. Since that time, it has hung over me, the responsibility to act. There is only right and wrong. And so, in evaluating where “do nothing” sits on the continuum of “act up and protest” or “validate and agree”, my own conscience can’t fairly place it in the “right” bucket. Doing nothing has become an unacceptable action if we care to sustain the rights we hold so dear.

I’ll confess, I procrastinated on the logistics for the women’s march in Washington until I realised every single bus, train and flight from NYC to DC were sold out that day. The more inconvenient it became to get there, the more I wondered if they needed one extra body of support given the hassle. I was spending more to go to DC than a weekender in the Caribbean and the latter would have given me a much-needed respite from all this election stress. But, indeed, it was an incredibly healing moment of love and solidarity. Toddlers walked alongside ninety year-old women with canes for hours in the cold.  There were nearly as many men and boys as there were women. Everyone there felt something special.

And I also knew that, this weekend, when refugees were detained at JFK airport after having fully completed the extensive vetting process to become an American resident, I needed only think of the arduous struggle of my own immigrant grandfather to know that I had to show up to help ensure these new American residents were given the right to give America their best contribution to our society of immigrants. This protest, at its core, reflected our desire to welcome them and also ensure they couldn’t be sent back to the countries they had fled. While they were detained in a cold windowless room without representation, we raised our voices and chanted on their behalf. The crowd was determined to show Congress, the President and the rest of the world that this Executive Order banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries was just that – an order from an inappropriate executive. It was NOT American nor was it lawful and those of us who are lawful Americans would protest to show that distinction.

One might have thought that going to the airport was a bit over the top. Few of us knew any refugees personally. What would it matter if there was one more or fewer person there holding a sign? But that’s the pivot point. The question is, are we okay with what may happen next if no one shows up at the airport to shout out that this order is morally and legally wrong? And, more so, can we expect others to make that modest sacrifice on a Saturday if we are not prepared to do the same?

What happened at the weekend was also an incredible lesson in exactly what this concept of “micro-activism” really means. The crowd stood out there for hours. The police let the protest take over the streets of the Terminal 4 arrivals area in silent solidarity so long as all remained peaceful, which it did. And, within hours, a federal judge a few miles away heard our protests and decided to do what she could to stay on the right side of history. Ultimately, America’s newest lawful residents were released having now seen for themselves just how much Americans cared about welcoming them properly after their long journeys. It was an incredibly moving day. The second such day I’ve had in less than two weeks. There is a thin silver lining in this current crisis: it seems to be increasingly the case that when normal Americans see a bully, they are indeed willing to face him head on, lawfully and peacefully, without fear. And as the world reacts and political and judicial actions result, it seems plausible that someone, somewhere will be inspired by the images of colourful specks of people out there in the cold.

Refugee song

Over a year ago, I watched the headlines on the refugee crisis go by and I had a similar aching feeling: 65 million people were fighting for their lives and I was compelled to act. As a singer and entrepreneur who has yet to follow in Gates’ financial footsteps, the best contribution I could think of was to write a song that would move people to some kind of action and donate whatever came from it to the cause. With renowned trumpeter Keyon Harrold as my songwriting partner, we composed “Running” (aka Refugee Song). We consulted refugees to ensure the lyrics were sensitive and Keyon recruited his long-time collaborators Gregory Porter and Common to record the song for World Refugee Day. It was released on a shoe string budget to honour what was, at that time, still mostly a crisis happening thousands of miles away.

The song had a modestly successful response but nothing earth-shattering. There was a lot of noise in the news during that time. We were in the midst of an election crisis. Americans didn’t think the rights of refugees entering Europe were necessarily their top priority. If “We Are the World” raised $66 million for Africa 30 years ago, we didn’t even come remotely close.

But, as with all acts of micro-activism, you have to give it time and keep pushing forward. In the months that followed, emails and messages from refugees and regular citizens around the world increasingly let us know that people had heard us and hearts and minds were starting to change. We were specks in the sea of refugee sympathisers. We are not lawyers or policy specialists. But, in playing our humble part, we drew in a few new sympathetic specks here and there, as acts of micro-activism often do, until they become monumental events of change and progress.

Returning from the airport protests this weekend, I saw the images of all the other airports across the country that looked just like Terminal 4. It was happening. People were showing up to stand for refugees and our coveted laws that protect those who follow our due process.

Whether we like it or not, we are all now being challenged to decide where we will stand in these critical months and years ahead. Make no mistake. It will likely get worse before it gets better if the last 10 days are any indication. Already it seems our new President doesn't feel particularly accountable to the judges' court order, which is incredibly troubling. But I am so comforted that the early signs indicate America, the real GREAT America, is stepping up to this challenge. Though I remain deeply afraid of what the stroke of an executive pen may bring us next, I am ready to fight to protect the American values that shaped me. But the real change will happen if you and millions of other potential specks in a crowd are ready to stand up too.

*Andrea Pizziconi [2003] is a singer, songwriter and social entrepreneur.  She founded Africa Integras to finance and develop education infrastructure in Africa. She also founded Compositions for a Cause to create cause-related music to inspire activism for social justice.  "Running" (aka Refugee Song) also featuring Grammy Award-winners Gregory Porter, Common and Keyon Harrold can be downloaded on ITunes and all digital media platforms. Proceeds go to refugee NGOs such as Refugees International and Human Rights First.  

Andrea Pizziconi

Andrea Pizziconi

  • Alumni
  • United States
  • 2003 MPhil Land Economy
  • Darwin College

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