NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — A cry for revolution boomed through Rutgers University’s College Avenue Campus and the streets of New Brunswick Tuesday evening, as an estimated 2,000 protesters marched against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
Many of the protesters were university students or faculty members, but people from all sorts of backgrounds joined them. They assembled before 5 p.m. on the steps and in the street outside Brower Commons, shutting down traffic on parts of College Avenue for hours as the nighttime cold fell upon the city.
“This is much larger than Muslim rights,” Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, a Rutgers alumna and founder of the website MuslimGirl.com, told the crowd, stoking thunderous cheers from a sentiment that repeated throughout the protest. “This is about human rights.”
Organizers began advertising the demonstration just two days ago, in the wake of Trump’s executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The passionate, chanting people in attendance also sharply condemned his calls to build a wall along the country’s border with Mexico.
A lineup of more than a dozen speakers fired up protesters, who held signs that bore slogans like “Can’t build a wall from everyone,” “No Muslim ban” and “Deport hate; Make America great.”
Even Rutgers President Robert Barchi, alongside his wife and hobbling from a leg injury, addressed the crowd. He denounced Trump’s executive order, saying it “singles out” Muslims and is contrary to what Rutgers and the majority of the country believe.
Barchi said Rutgers is home to 200 students from countries on Trump’s no-entry list and 8,000 Muslim students.
“Every one of them deserves our respect, our protection and all the rights that we can provide,” he said, “and we’re going to do our best to ensure that that is exactly what happens here.”
The university president’s sharp statement came after student leaders demanded he rebuke Trump’s executive order and put in place strict protections for undocumented and Muslim students.
Despite the presence of notable government and university officials, it was the collective voice of the Rutgers community that resonated most through the affair.
Chants spread like fire, sparking either from the organizers’ microphones or far-flung corners and spreading through the gathering. They yelled “Shame!” when speakers mentioned Trump’s policies, and they filled silence with lines like “Move Trump, get out the way,” a reference to a popular song by the rapper Ludacris.
Before the protest, the demonstrators sprawled a large, blue tarp across a section of College Avenue. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Muslims listened to a man sing and then bowed their heads in prayer.
In that moment, silence sunk in, almost eerily so among a sea of loud protesters. One Muslim man wore an American flag wrapped around his body like a jacket. Upon completing their prayers, some of the men stood up and hugged each other.
Speakers then criticized American foreign policy, its wars in the Middle East and treatment of people of color and religious minorities.
“Am I, as a Muslim woman, worth less than any of you?” a speaker named Hiva Raza asked the crowd. “Is my mother, as a Muslim woman, worth less than any of your mothers?”
The answer? A resounding, throat-burning “No.”
Notable officials, like former Rutgers President Richard McCormick, several Middlesex County freeholders and Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin also attended the event.
The freeholders came as public servants who said they, too, see civil-rights abuses coming from the Trump administration.
Freeholder Shanti Narra, who joined the board last fall as its first-ever South Asian member, encouraged her largely young audience to run for office and bring about concrete change. She also recalled how the U.S. once denied entry to Jewish refugees during World War II, many of whom then died at the hands of Nazis.
“We’re going to march with you all, but you can’t stop tonight,” Narra added. “Tell them you’re here and you won’t stand for it.’’
Many of the activists called for changes to university policy, state and federal laws and how the country formally treats the rights of people who aren’t citizens.
Others, like one young man who spoke on behalf of an African-American rights group, took a more esoteric approach. Instead of using adjectives like “diverse” and “tolerant,” he said, it’s time to speak in verbs like “love” and “include.”
“Complacency is a victory for hate,” the young man said.
At 6:38 p.m., the protest transformed into a march. The thousands of participants moved swiftly along College Avenue, behind a Rutgers police car with flashing lights, toward downtown New Brunswick.
Observers snapped photos of the demonstration with their cellphones. Some cheered and held signs from their windows.
New Brunswick and New Jersey Transit police helped marshal the sprawling crowd through the streets. Several cops on the scene described the march as “peaceful,” noting the absence of arrests and injuries.
The protesters then marched under the train station bridge and down Albany Street, holding up traffic for minutes. They hung a left on George Street and walked through the gate that welcomes visitors to Rutgers’ administration buildings, Old Queens and Winants Hall.
All along, the activists repeated their pro-immigrant and anti-Trump chants. They called for “education, not deportation” and yelled that “this is what democracy looks like.”
As of 7:30 p.m., some protesters began to walk off, pizza slices in hand. Many remained outside Winants Hall, where the university Board of Governors often meets, chanting and braving the cold.
But whatever hope or visibility they might have gained tonight, some participants who spoke with TAPinto New Brunswick said, it must be summoned and nurtured come tomorrow.