The Atlantic logo

Why I Disrupted Trump’s Speech at Jamestown

I could not place the comfort of the president ahead of the discomfort of his targets.

Opinions & Editorials / August 2, 2019

On Tuesday, Virginia’s general assembly celebrated 400 years since a legislative body was formed by the colonists of old Jamestown. As a member of the House of Delegates, I was given a front-row seat at the festivities. Unfortunately, the celebration, which was intended to be a nonpartisan reflection on our commonwealth’s complicated history, was tarnished by the presence of President Donald Trump, a man whose views are antithetical to the values that the event sought to celebrate: democracy, representation, and the ability of immigrants to seek refuge and self-governance in a new land.

All the Democratic lawmakers found their own way to show their displeasure with the president’s presence. I chose what, for me, was the only sufficient option: I waited for the president’s speech, stood in front of his podium, and told him to his face that he can’t send us back, because Virginia is our home.

In the 24 hours following my disruption of his speech, Virginians debated whether or not my actions were “respectful” or “appropriate” for the event. The Republicans who invited Trump were predictably infuriated. Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment called me an “ill-advised little bastard.” Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox said that my disruption was “inconsistent with common decency.”

What Cox and others really meant was that my behavior was inconsistent with the Virginia Way. That’s the term often used to describe the long-standing, unwritten rule book by which Virginia politics is guided. It dictates that compromise, civility, and elite camaraderie are prioritized over bold policy, uncompromising ethics, and strong voices. The Virginia Way says that despite differences in opinion, everyone is assumed to be a good-faith statesman, and therefore it’s best not to rock the boat, but to get things done behind closed doors. It’s the same attitude that has sustained Virginia’s good-ol’-boys’ club. And this behavior is not uniquely Virginian; those everywhere who maintain the status quo discourage deviation, whether it be in manners or in policy.

What the Virginia Way boils down to is comfort. People in power are used to a certain level of comfort on the job. Republicans and some Democrats alike in Virginia are not used to their comfort being disrupted. And so I was expected to keep the Jamestown celebration comfortable despite the presence of the president.

But this president is a racist and a bigot. That’s the uncomfortable truth. He tells black and brown American citizens to “go back where they came from”; he has called majority-black Baltimore “rat infested” and African countries “shitholes”; he has used hateful rhetoric against Muslims; he has demonized immigrants and compared them to vermin. Even worse, his rhetoric translates directly into policies such as family separation, the Muslim ban, the criminalization of seeking asylum, and the abuse of innocent children. He has overseen the stripping of health-care protections, accelerated the destruction of our environment, proposed slashing food stamps, and presided over the machinery of mass incarceration, all of which disproportionately affect brown and black people.

The president’s behavior and rhetoric add up to dehumanization, and the normalization of that dehumanization. He has demeaned people who look and worship differently than he does and has endeavored to strip them of their humanity. Every time he is allowed to give a fancy speech and perform pomp and circumstance, we normalize his behavior for the nation.

This is the core reason I chose to disrupt his speech. I am a Muslim, Palestinian, brown-skinned American. If anyone really expected me not to stand up for my own humanity in the face of my oppressor, then really, you were expecting me to accept my own dehumanization and the persecution of millions of others. You were expecting me to place the comfort of the president ahead of the discomfort of his targets.

I am not the first to use direct action to disrupt the comfortable, and I certainly won’t be the last. What I did pales in comparison to the courage of the disrupters of Selma, Stonewall, Standing Rock, and elsewhere. But the common thread is a refusal to submit to civility for civility’s sake. Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, written from his Birmingham jail cell and published in this magazine in 1963, best make this case against the Virginia Way:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”

So to the critics of incivility, especially those who “would have liked to see a little more decorum,” like one Democratic member of Congress who commented on my actions, I say it’s time to think critically about whom such decorum has traditionally served: the white, wealthy, and comfortable. When the levers of power are stripped from those who are marginalized, disruption is often our only shot at breaking through.

We shouldn’t throw thoughtful discussion and common ground out the window. In fact, despite the solid blue-leaning nature of my district, I often spend time respectfully listening to and engaging with my Republican constituents on hot-button topics such as taxes and gun control. That’s how we achieve good policy and avoid a perpetually divided society.

But let’s not conflate respect for good-faith discourse with respect for the comfort of an ethno-nationalist. Let’s not sacrifice the need to do what is right at pivotal moments in the name of the Virginia Way. Instead, we need to build a new Virginia Way, one that isn’t obsessed with civility, but rather obsessed with love, equity, and justice for all. We need to do what’s right for our communities instead of what is polite to the powerful. Only then can we honor the legacy of Jamestown and our messy, democratic history, which illustrates the truth that dissent is truly patriotic. ☐