KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Over 1,000 citizens assembled in Market Square on Wednesday, Feb. 1 to stand in solidarity against President Trump’s executive order banning refugees from entering the U.S.
The silent vigil began at 12:30 p.m. with protestors milling about, discussing their take on the immigration ban. Organizers encouraged the group to stand in a circle and recognize a 30-minute moment of silence for those whose chance of entry has been curtailed. Spanning the entirety of Market Square was a circle of solidarity equipped with signage and paraphernalia depicting their opposition to the ban.
“The executive orders are devastating to our organization,” Katie Willocks, a case manager at Bridge Refugee Services, said. “Without arrivals, we can’t provide services for the people we do have here. So we’re trying to raise awareness for that.”
A City of Knoxville representative spoke on behalf of Mayor Madeline Rogero denouncing the ban. She expressed Rogero’s support of the silent vigil in words of encouragement to the group.
At 1 p.m., the crowd marched down the sidewalk of Gay Street to Main Street where they delivered letters to lawmakers Sen. Bob Corker, Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. John Duncan, Jr. regarding the ban.
The protest appeared to cut across demographic lines, attracting a wide array of people from various walks of life. Those in attendance wore colorful hijabs and donned American flag apparel, held signs in various languages and cited scripture from both the Bible and Quran.
The protest included sympathizers of the movement, as well as those who identified with the ban on a personal level.
Jeannine Fort is a Peruvian immigrant who works in Knoxville as a Spanish interpreter. According to Fort, it is a “universal mandate” to welcome those who have nowhere else to go.
“I am here because I believe that when your country is being destroyed from the inside or the outside, sometimes you have no choice but to leave. Refugees have been vetted for many, many, many months if not one or two years. It’s not like we don’t know who’s coming. That is not true,” Fort said, shifting conversation to the rhetoric of fear in the U.S.
Polly Murphy, retired special needs teacher, said that it is difficult to get the “true truth.”
“We have to work very hard, all of us, on both sides to make sure we are getting true information, true facts, true news…There are many other countries that are taking refugees that are doing fine. We need to all find out what’s really true and take a deep breath and do what we know is right,” Murphy said.
Another immigrant at the event was Yakob Tekie, a UT graduate student in the counseling psychology program. His country of origin is Eritrea, a small country nestled on the banks of East Africa surrounded by Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Red Sea. Tekie spoke fondly of his Eritrean’s ability to peacefully coexist, regardless of religion. “For the last 200 years or so we have not seen any conflict. Religion is not even an issue with the exception of the recent political situation that has been going on overseas.”
Tekie spoke positively about his past five years in Knoxville. “I’ve always felt welcomed here and safe. But right now it feels as if I’m not welcomed… I feel hopeful to see all these thousands of people coming here to support humanity and justice.”
Pastor Dixie Lea Petrey was among those in attendance who sported a sign with a religious message.
“God created the universe and all humanity. And we are a part of the family of God—all around our planet and our country. Get to know your neighbors. Because basically we all want the same things for our children,” Petrey said.
In direct contrast, another protestor held a “#ChristianWhenConvenient” sign.
There was tension at the event.
A group of 5 middle-aged men stood on the outskirts of the protest, exchanging negative yet hushed remarks about the message of the ban. When asked to comment, they denied.
West Pointe graduate Kurt Greene attended the event claiming a lack of partisanship. “I’m the least partisan person out here. I’m fairly neutral on a lot of this stuff…but as someone who has had the honor and privilege of leading soldiers, what we’ve seen so far from Mr. Trump, regardless of your political stripes, really fails to meet any minimum standard or level of competence when it comes to leadership. I’m just here to express my disgust with that.”
The New Colossus, a poem appearing on a plaque mounted on the Statue of Liberty, became a rallying cry of the event. While organizers delivered letters to lawmakers, a collection of activists rallied across from the Court House reciting its words in unison:
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”
The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted from Jan. 30 to Jan. 31, 49 percent of American’s agree with the executive order. The order suspended refugee resettlement from seven majority-Muslim nations due to the need to “protect the nation from potential terrorists.” Citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen on immigrant or non-immigrant visas are effectively barred from the U.S. until further notice.
To see your congress member’s opinion on Trump’s executive order, click here.
Video footage of the recitation can be found here.
Edited by Kaitlin Flippo
Featured Images and Video by McKenzie Manning