The Power—and Danger—of Story in Activism

It didn’t take long after Trump’s initial attempt at putting his promised Muslim ban in place by executive order for the stories to come rolling in.

There were people who disembarked from their planes, only to find they were no longer welcome in what was to be their new country. There were families, some with children, trapped and neglected in the limbo that is an airport on the wrong side of Customs and Immigration. There were heroic young attorneys sitting on hard floors, clustered around the outlets usually monopolized by business travelers.

There were Iraqi military translators who had risked their lives for our soldiers, sent back to a less-than-united country where their service was viewed by some as treason. There were students whose studies and research came to an abrupt halt when they couldn’t re-enter the country. There were doctors stretched thin across rural populations who faced the choice of never seeing their families again or abandoning their already underserved patients.

There were workers coerced into signing away the documents that make them “legal” immigrants instead of the faceless horrors of our national imagination. There were children awaiting live-saving medical coverage. There were athletes turned away trying to compete. There was a photogenic prime minister next door, always ready for slivers of positive coverage.

There were tears and patience and hunger and dashed hopes and confusion and righteous protests against blatantly unnecessary cruelties. There were stories. There were so many stories.

With the stories came protests, news coverage, donations, lawsuits, letters, and phone calls. This is expected. This is the purpose of telling and sharing this kind of story. This is how we move people to act.

Now, after upheld legal challenges and some obvious buckling down and consulting with experts that’s unprecedented from this administration, there’s a new executive order. What’s changed?

  • There’s a ten-day delay before this goes into effect.
  • Iraq has been removed from the list of countries affected.
  • It’s been clarified that no existing visas or work permits are to be affected.

Telling stories made a difference. Telling stories changed the executive order in direct and significant ways.

Telling stories, however, hasn’t stopped this from being a Muslim ban. Despite a significant reworking of the justifications provided in the order (see the line-by-line changes provided by the ACLU of Massachusetts in this pdf), it still doesn’t even target those countries that have imported terrorists to the U.S., much less lay off those that haven’t. Telling stories hasn’t stopped this order from targeting people on flimsy, unfair grounds.

Telling stories has only seen this order reworked to stop us from telling stories. It affects fewer people with friends in the U.S. People from those countries will be turned way at other airports, airports where fewer U.S. attorneys and fewer U.S. cameras congregate. They will never have their hopes raised before they’re dashed.

This isn’t a more fair order. It’s merely a less-storied one. And that might work.

How many of the people who protested, shared news stories, donated, backed lawsuits, wrote letters, or made phone calls will do that for this order? How many people will feel the same motivation to stand up for people whose faces they’ll never see? How many will fight to stop the stories they never hear?

This is still a Muslim ban. It’s still unfair. Will we still fight it, or does the fight end when the stories do? Now is when we find out.

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The Power—and Danger—of Story in Activism

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