After a week in which federal immigration officials arrested more than 600 people in 11 states and protesters swarmed airports and congressional town halls, writer and producer David Simon convened an event in Baltimore last night to show support for immigrants and raise money for those who work to defend their rights.
Asked how he came to organize “City of Immigrants: A Night of Support,” Simon recalled his initial reaction when he heard about President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration.
“At first, I don’t think I understood the tactics,” Simon said, speaking with The Brew after the event in Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill.
“When I saw that their tactics were leaving families split-apart, and how they were doing it to people with legitimate visas, I realized it was being done to inflict the greatest possible amount of damage,” he said.
“It felt like every claim I had ever made about anything was being challenged,” he said.
That, as Simon put it, was enough to motivate him to “finally get off my ass and do something.”
“Not Representative of my America”
Last night’s sell-out event included appearances by Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center; Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore City Health Commissioner; Beau Willimon, creator of Netflix series House of Cards; Pulitzer-Prize-winner Taylor Branch, author of the landmark trilogy America in the King Years; and Black Lives Matter activist and organizer DeRay Mckesson, among others.
As the crowd filed in before the program’s start, former Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Olesker reflected on what had motivated him to attend.
“What Trump wants to do is not representative of my America,” Olesker said. “My America embraces people of all backgrounds and makes them feel welcome. Donald Trump’s America is one where we tell people they’re not welcome and aren’t worthy of being here. He chooses to frighten and divide us, and calls upon our worst instincts instead of our best.”
One woman in the crowd compared the current climate to when she was protesting in the 1970s to support a woman’s right to have an abortion. She called this “the scariest time in politics in my life so far. It feels like as a country, we’ve lost our minds.”
She mentioned that she has a daughter living abroad who was planning on coming home after the 2016 election, but she is now staying there because of Trump’s policies. And her daughter wasn’t the only member of the family she doesn’t see as much of now.
“I have a sister who is very right wing, and we hardly talk,” she said. “There’s no changing her mind.”
Been Here Before
If the tone in the audience started out as melancholy, it was soon lifted by impassioned stories of immigrants escaping human right abuses and defiant calls to action as the evening’s speakers took turns at the dais.
Simon declared, “I’m very proud of my city tonight,” before reading a piece he had written about a group of his ancestors who were murdered by Nazis because they were unable to escape Europe.
He compared their plight to that facing refugees today.
“Ordinary mothers and fathers and children who an entire world failed to see as completely and irreplacably human, they too were a feared and unwanted wave of chaos, risk, confusion and otherness,” said Simon.
“This now is exactly the same moment, with exactly the same stakes,” he said. “Soon and forever, many more families will have nothing more than names and photographs over which to grieve.”
No Free Pass for Tech
Tech Solidarity, the evening’s co-sponsor, is a grassroots organization that promotes civic values within the tech sector by mobilizing workers and hosting meetings in cities across the country. Founder Maciej Ceglowski explained how some of the tech sector’s greatest breakthroughs have been manipulated and used in ways counter to the intent of their creators.
“There’s been a lot of talk of a Muslim registry in recent months,” Ceglowski said. “But America already has a Muslim registry. It’s called Facebook. All it takes is one subpoena, one hack, one leak, for that information to become a weapon.
In his remarks, Ceglowski pointed to past high-profile examples of corporate malfeasance and compared them to the role tech played in fostering the current climate of misinformation and surveillance.
“When General Electric filled the Hudson River with PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] they were forced to clean it up at tremendous expense,” said Ceglowski. “When the tobacco companies suppressed research proving a link between smoking and cancer, they had to pay billions. Similarly, the tech industry will have to confront the damage that it has done.”
“False Distance of History”
Wen told the story of her family’s experience as refugees from China and challenged the audience to tell their own immigrant stories to “remind us of our common humanity.” DeRay Mckesson said that “people have been seduced by the false distance of history,” and said we’re now seeing the cost of silence.
ALCU attorney Sonia Kumar credited her parents, both immigrants, as the reason she became a civil rights lawyer.
Simon had pledged to match up to $100,000 in donations. Midway through the evening, Simon reported that donations had reached about $50,000, with the contributions still being tallied.
Singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who played a recovering addict on Simon’s The Wire, closed out the evening with his customary strumming and stomping from a not-so-customary perch – the bimah (raised platform) of the synagogue.
Simon dubbed it Earle’s “redneck bar mitzvah.”
Funds raised from the event will go to support the National the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the National Immigration Law Center, the Tahirih Justice Center, and the International Rescue Committee. Admission was free with a ticket and a recommended donation, and the event sold out in less than a day.
Simon said donations made online and at the event will be matched up to $100,000 by his company, Blown Deadline Productions.