As blizzard conditions blanketed the Lansing area Friday night, three Michigan State University students sat cross-legged and sprawled on the floor of the Islamic Center of East Lansing, waiting for a bus to take them to a Washington, D.C., protest the next day.
Rachel Kries, Bianca Alagon and a third MSU student, who wished not to be named, were among about 50 people on the bus out of Lansing. They were joined by 10 other buses departing from other Michigan cities and many more from around the country.
As the trio waited for their ride, the conversation turned from the upcoming protest to the new “Hunger Games” movie, their favorite famous social experiments and their upcoming class schedules. With a different backdrop, one might have thought they were a trio of long-time friends out to dinner or catching up.
But at approximately 9:30 p.m., they packed up their posters, which likened the lives lost in Gaza to a genocide and gave President Joe Biden the moniker “Genocide Joe,” and they boarded the bus.
Nearly everyone was wearing a kaffiyeh, or a traditional Middle Eastern headdress tied out of a piece of square cloth. The Palestinian kaffiyeh is a black and white pattern, and most were worn around the neck or tied around the head.
As the Lansing group got settled, storing baggage overhead and finding seats, Thasin Sardar, an architect who is the outreach coordinator at the center, checked off names. He handed out water bottles and brown bag lunches, complete with a sandwich, chips and an apple.
When everyone was on, the bus was filled to just before the packed-like-sardines point. Sardar said the center had to set up a waitlist for the bus after receiving so much interest.
The announcement about the march was made several weeks ago, he said, which gave the Michigan groups time to plan and coordinate, including renting out buses.
Sardar said the weather was a concern from the time it was forecasted several days ago up until the bus crossed the state line into Ohio.
The bus driver started the trip at a slow crawl, slowly picking up speed as the snow turned to rain and eventually clear skies.
“Personally, I take weather in stride,” Sardar said about the decision to push through, “but my wife was worried about it. So many other people, even just before we left, were actually in disbelief that we were going through the storm.”
But he said the group was eager to get on the road regardless.
“We’ve been pleading for a ceasefire ever since the attacks on Gaza started, and we’ve been unsuccessful with our lawmakers at the congressional level,” he said. “We’ve tried locally, at a city level, up to three months (after) the conflict. While most southeastern cities have passed ceasefire resolutions, we’ve still been struggling with Lansing and East Lansing.”
On Jan. 10, the East Lansing City Council voted 4-1 to reject a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Sardar said that the more groups like his are able to amplify their message, the more awareness will be spread, and they can hopefully come closer to ending the conflict.
“The mainstream media here in the U.S. does not show the pictures of what’s happening,” he said.
Since Oct. 7, Hamas’ attacks on Israel resulted in nearly 1,200 deaths. The Palestinian Ministry of Health claims the resulting Israeli offensive has cost over 23,000 Palestinian lives and injured over 60,000.
Sardar said it felt like Michigan’s congressional delegation — he mentions Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters and U.S. Rep Elissa Slotkin, whose district includes Lansing — “seems to be unmoved.”
He said Slotkin has paid a visit to the Islamic Center to hear their concerns, but he said the trip felt more like placation and less like a sincere effort.
“Despite all our pleas, there are people writing and calling them daily, and they’re just turning a deaf ear on our calls,” he said.
As the bus rolled through Michigan and Ohio, Carly Lesoski was making some of those calls.
A parent of two young children, Lesoski was seated next to her husband. She said she decided to get on the bus for her kids, to help improve the world they will soon be a part of.
“There’s definitely some images and videos that I’ve seen that I think are just forever burned in my brain,” she said, describing an image of a Palestinian mother on her knees cradling her child. “I hold my children the same way.
“The reason that we connect with this so much is because we know what it takes to bring these little people into the world,” Lesoski said. “And all the love and all of the care and, yeah, just to see this happening to them. It’s devastating.”
Lesoski said she channeled her sadness, along with the sense of excitement and nerves around protesting, into making these calls.
The group of around 1,000 phone-bank members, which Lesoski said she recently joined, sets goals each day to contact their representatives. She said some goals have been so lofty as 500 calls in a day.
There are similar groups in 20 other states, she said, which have made over 5,000 calls to members of Congress and senators in the last several days alone.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned from following activists, people who’ve been doing this for a long time, it’s that the most powerful movements start as grassroots movements,” she said. “It’s small community, it’s saying, ‘No, we’re standing up to this.’”
The portion of the Lansing community brought together on the charter bus included John Polany, the oldest protester in attendance at 71 years old.
It also included Mona Eldahshoury, an American-born former resident of the United Arab Emirates and an MSU theater graduate student.
When the bus disembarked at Union Station in Washington, Eldahshoury herself was prepping media release forms.
As part of her independent study, she was recruiting protesters to recite “The Gaza Monologues,” first-person testimonials written by the members of the ASHTAR theater in Palestine back in 2010, after the first war on the Gaza strip.
Eldahshoury said the monologues give important insights into what Palestinians face even today, but attempt to make light of the situation while providing awareness.
“The first time I read them, I was like, oh, these are fun. Like this is how they’re coping with it being so absurd.’” she said. “It’s turned comedic in a way.
“The artistic director of the theater company put out a press release on these monologues and he said, ‘Share it with whoever you want. Talk about it at dinner. Just let it out into the world. These are our stories. We don’t want to be forgotten,’” she added.
Eldahshoury said she sent the 30 monologues to her professor, who loved them. She initially thought about performing them herself on campus.
“But that’s just about me,” she said, explaining how she and her professor came up with the idea to involve other protestoers and invoke a sense of community.
Eldahshoury said in 10 years she didn’t want to look back and realize she hadn’t done anything as a Muslim artist.
“There’s a privilege of being an American Arab right now and living in this country and being away from that region of the world, “ she said. But that privilege comes with guilt.”
Eldahshoury said she’s been protesting every single weekend since Oct. 7, and sometimes even twice a weekend.
“There’s this beautiful thing about when you bring people together who fight for the same movement, and believe the same truth, you know, and you’re there and you’re screaming for it and you’re yelling at it and you’re staring certain people in the eye saying what you want and what you want and how you want it,” she said. “There’s a courage and a camaraderie, I think.”
As the group walked from Union Station to the White House, Eldahshoury led their chants, saying things like “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, the occupation has got to go,” and “Free, Free Palestine.”
The response on the street was mixed, with some drivers honking and yelling their support, and others doing the same in dissent.
Eldahshoury remained unphased, and stopped only to wave her flag over the highway overpass to the cars below.
When they arrived at the White House, covering the distance in about 40 minutes, other groups from Michigan gathered and several artistic demonstrations were being set up.
Protesters tiptoed through a metaphorical minefield, as hundreds of teddy bears were scattered across the pavement in front of the White House.
Each was accompanied by a laminated sheet of paper, with the face of a child that had been killed in Palestine since Oct. 7.
Nearby, a young child poured red paint into a fish tank filled with teddy bears.
A group of men stripped down to their underwear. They were blindfolded, zip tied and forced to kneel by a woman dressed as an Israeli soldier. She tossed a handful of blue powder at one man who had been pulled from the group, and he toppled over, which she explained represented those who had been killed in Palestine.
After the pin-drop silence during demonstrations at the White House, the rumble of Freedom Plaza, where the majority of protesters gathered, was almost deafening.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the plaza, spilling into side streets, to listen to a slate of speakers that included presidential candidates Cornel West and Jill Stein, Democratic Colorado state Rep. Iman Jodeh and family members of those killed in Gaza.
Through a sea of green, white and red flags, faces of all ages looked back. Some chanting, some crying, some praying.
The Lansing group found themselves to the right of the stage, near a satellite broadcasting van that was later used as a vantage point by some protesters, before chants of “get down” drove them off.
To the right, a man scaled a lamp post.
He was wearing a blue and red Spiderman costume and obscuring his face with a red and white kaffiyeh. Similar to the cartoon Spiderman, he perched at the top of the lamp post, and caught the attention of protesters in the area.
Sardar, grinning, ran over to hand the man a Palestinian flag to wave.
In total, protesters stayed in Freedom Plaza for nearly four hours before the call to march was given.
When it was made, just as the sun was beginning to set, hundreds of thousands of people flooded onto 14th Street NW.
The sea of green and red was interrupted at intervals by the red and blue flashing lights of police cars, which lined the side streets. Snowplows blocked traffic.
One group of protesters scaled the David G. Farragut Memorial, a large statue placed atop a granite pedestal to honor the U.S. Navy admiral and civil war hero of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” fame. They hung a flag before being chased down.
They were briefly detained by U.S. Park Police, who retrieved the flag but left behind “Free Palestine” that had been written on the statue’s side.
But a large majority of protesters stayed along the path carved out by police, ending at the White House.
Those lagging behind had not a dream of seeing the White House, however. The streets were bottled up for blocks, and some people were ultimately diverted. Most media estimated — perhaps underestimated — the crowd in the tens of thousands.
Those who remained crowded around those protesters with the foresight to bring bullhorns, and chants rang into the night for several hours more.
Members of the Lansing group slowly broke off and headed back to Union Station, where they packed around tables in the food court to hug and share their stories from the day.
Some said they felt the day had been a full lifetime long, while others expressed frustration that they couldn’t stay longer.
Sardar moved between the groups, providing updates on the bus’s arrival and continually counting heads.
Across the station, Kries and Alagon shared a meal. Eldahshoury was one of the last to arrive, her face flushed and excited.
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