Polarization and Privilege: A Protest in Northern Michigan

Guest Writer: Colleen Fantozzi; United States

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I stared across the street as a group of adults, some strapped with guns, yelled at me for holding a “Racism does not equal Patriotism” sign. I’m not even seventeen yet and I’m terrified. I was at a protest in a small northern Michigan town 40 minutes from mine, protesting their village leader for a racist and Islamophobic post he shared on Facebook. A group of us gathered on one side of the road, and on the other, emerging from the pubs and surrounding buildings, was a growing crowd of middle-aged white men and women with guns. They began yelling at us, and some had on t-shirts saying “F*ck Islam”. A woman and two men started walking into the road and targeting me for my sign, screaming about my disrespect for our country. I simply stared at them, soaking in the surrealness of the situation. Their faces were red from the yelling, their fingers pointed at me, accusingly.

 My sign felt like a target and, for a moment, I wanted to hide it and put it down, but I thought about why I was there. For other Americans, their religion and the color of their skin is a target that they can’t ever hide or tuck away. They are under the constant stares and outcries when they wear a hijab and when they are racially profiled. I felt a fraction of their fear, barely a glimpse of what it's like to be Muslim and to hold a marginalized identity in America. The police surrounded us, while only a few officers were on the other side of the street monitoring the counter-protesters, and, after about an hour and a half of chanting back and forth, the armed counter-protesters started to come over to our side of the street. Worried about the situation escalating, my older sister grabbed my arm and ushered me to our car.

 During the car ride back, I was shocked--so rarely have I faced such blatant hate and intolerance. It opened my mind to the reality of today’s polarized society. I know it stems from ignorance and fear--they don’t want another 9/11, and I don’t want one either--but as a patriot and member of American society, it's only right to speak up for all Americans regardless of their religion and race. Living in a small town with a similar homogenous population, I’ve grown up surrounded by many people who feel the same way as the counter protesters. It's hard for me to understand why they have the beliefs they do even when I grew up in a post-9/11 America, with the War on Terror as a part of my childhood. During the protest I spoke with two veterans standing on our side of the street with a giant black banner that had a phrase on it in Arabic that translated to “I am with you”. I asked them why they were there and they told me that they had served in the Middle East and they were done seeing people die because of religious intolerance and prejudice. I wish the people on the other side, who seem to think that to be a patriot you must have served in the military, would have come over not to yell, but to listen. In the current political climate in America so rarely do you see the other opinion. Seeing how different people reacted to those Facebook posts helped me understand more about the people that share northern Michigan with me.  

On the car ride back I was a sobbing mess. They scared me more than I wanted to admit, the things they said ran through my head. I was crying because if they were comfortable threatening me, what were they were capable of doing or saying to a young girl wearing a hijab. I’m privileged because I don’t live in constant fear like many of my fellow Americans do. I’m not scared of dying when I get pulled over for a traffic violation, my employers don’t treat me differently because of skin tone. My white privilege and my hometown have created a bubble of ignorance around me, that day the bubble started to burst.