Her Mexican father had raised her to abide by the law. Her Guatemalan mother told her that she was crazy to go. But there was Maritza Solano, sitting on the cool marble floor of the Hart Senate Office Building, wrapped in an aluminum blanket in solidarity with detained immigrant children, about to be carted away by a police officer for unlawfully demonstrating with 500 other chanting women. A former teacher from Silver Spring, Solano had never risked arrest as an activist, but this past month — horrified by the stories and images from the border — she’d felt especially angry and powerless. The moment, she realized, called for an escalation.
As Solano, 37, sat on the atrium floor Thursday, watching officers move closer, she thought: Wow. Here I am.
Here we all are. The start of a mad hot American summer in the nation’s capital. A president violating norm after norm. Immigrant children wailing for their mothers. A Supreme Court seat, open like a wound. A midterm election hurtling toward us like an avenging angel, or a killer asteroid. The resistance girding for war, or curdling into hysteria, depending on your view.
Americans are doing things they would not normally do.
“It’s reached a point of desperation,” says campaign strategist Amanda Werner, a D.C. resident. “We’ve been civil and having endless debates, and all we’ve seen is the decimation of everything we care about.”
Two weeks ago, Werner got a text message while on the way to a book club meeting in Dupont Circle: “DHS Secretary Nielsen is having dinner at MXDC. Can you tweet on your account. Get activists here.”
In a moment captured on video that went viral, Werner and a dozen other activists heckled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at the posh Mexican restaurant 1,000 feet east of the White House, broadcasting audio of crying immigrant children as other diners tried to focus on their rockfish ceviche. Management asked them to leave and called the police. One member of the waitstaff, a Hispanic woman, ducked into the kitchen for 15 minutes because the scene was too uncomfortable to endure.
“I think now is the time to start seeking them out and invading their spaces,” Werner said of government officials, “so they have to grapple with what they’re doing.”
Over the past month — particularly since ProPublica released the audio of children at the border — America has confronted itself in off-hours spaces, in places reserved for politeness and deference.
Inside restaurants at dinnertime.
Outside private homes on quiet streets.
In office hallways as people are trying to work.
Warning signs have become alarm bells, and some people are trying to be academic about it, by debating social graces in careful tones.
On Wednesday, the son of Watergate conspirator Jeb Magruder called in to the WAMU radio show “1A” to talk about how, in the aftermath of the scandal, his family was physically and verbally assaulted at school, restaurants and sporting events.
The public was “led to believe that that was appropriate by their leaders and the political left,” Justin Magruder told listeners. “All it did was harden our positions. It didn’t promote a better discourse. And I hope that people will learn from the mistakes of the past.”
To members of the resistance, though, the mistakes of the past are what they’re trying not to repeat. A moral urgency is compelling a sharpening of activism tactics, to satisfy the political dictum “never again.”
Inspired by the MXDC confrontation, Jesse Rabinowitz helped organize a small demonstration last week outside the D.C. condo building of Stephen Miller, the Trump adviser behind the hard-line immigration policies. They knew that Miller was in South Carolina with the president. Didn’t matter. Rabinowitz wanted to remind Miller’s neighbors that they’re living next to “a dangerous man,” that they have a “moral obligation” to confront him.
In D.C., “we don’t have political representation but we do have proximity to people in power,” Rabinowitz said. We’re in “a moment of moral clarity where this is what you have to do.”
Arriving home from the grocery store, Valerie Ploumpis was delighted to encounter anger on her stoop. For two years she had been hoping to run into her neighbor so that she could confront him.
“I’m 56 and, you know, I’m a polite person, I’m a D.C. person, I have very strong political views and I’m a very strong progressive Democrat — but I’ve never been confrontational until this time,” says Ploumpis, national policy director for Equality California, an LGBT rights organization. “I just think this administration is literally dismantling our democratic institutions in real time, in our name, on our watch. And I just don’t think it’s appropriate, for those of us who are watching and seeing this happen, to be silent.”
Ploumpis took some of the activists’ fliers, including a “WANTED” poster that featured a photo of Miller above the words “white nationalist,” and taped them up in her building’s elevators. When they were removed, she taped up more. Then she got a letter from management about condo rules.
Her action “was even more egregious,” the letter said, because it was directed at a fellow resident. Ploumpis dismissed the scolding.
“This,” she says, “is not a normal time.”
Is there ever a normal time? Maybe not. But this one certainly feels abnormal, like a rising fever, or the seconds before a grand-mal seizure. And so the treatment is more extreme. Higher dosages. Adrenaline shots. Defibrillations.
The D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has been demonstrating outside the private homes of what it calls “deportation profiteers”; on Sunday, dozens chanted “No ICE, No KKK, No fascist USA!” outside the Virginia residence of just-retired ICE director Thomas Homan. Mothers have been occupying ICE offices and detention centers from Portland to New York. There were “Families Belong Together” rallies in more than 700 cities Saturday, from Ketchum, Idaho, to Sarasota, Fla., with tens of thousands gathering outside the White House. Activists in Washington are cultivating a network of sources and first responders to spot Trump officials and scramble nonviolent ambushes.
“We had been thinking of potential places to escalate.”
Heidi Hess is co-director of CREDO Action, a progressive advocacy group.
“We decided that going to her house was the right thing to do.”
On the morning of June 22, less than a day after they came up with the idea, Hess and a dozen others parked themselves in front of Nielsen’s townhouse in Alexandria. They held up “CHILD SNATCHER” signs printed the night before. “We’re here to wake up your whole neighborhood,” one protester called. Neighbors peeked out their windows, wondering about the commotion.
“Rightfully so, a lot of people’s attention was on the border, on the tents, on the migrant camps,” Hess said. “But the people in control of that agenda, making those decisions, are in Washington, and it was important that they be held accountable where they work and live.”
Three days later, a Georgetown University student named Roberto was returning to campus from his internship when he got a text from a friend. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was in Copley Hall for a private event. Friends decided on a group text to stake him out, in a mini-protest that came together in less than an hour. They wanted to ask him a question to his face.
“Why are you separating families?” one of them repeated as McConnell slipped into a black SUV.
“Why don’t you leave my husband alone?” snapped McConnell’s wife, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, displaying uncharacteristic anger mere inches from the group.
“How does he sleep at night?” another protester yelled, as a security agent shoved them back.
It didn’t matter that there were only a handful of them. They’d touched a nerve, and maybe given McConnell and Chao something to sit with on the drive home.
“All of us in the group come from an immigrant background,” says Roberto, a native of Los Angeles whose parents are from Mexico. (He requested that his last name be omitted because he says he has been receiving threats). “These issues are affecting us deeply and we have no choice but to act directly.”
On Thursday, Maritza Solano looked up at Senate staffers peering from the balconied hallways of each floor of the Hart Building. Elevators had been cut off, coffee breaks interrupted, meetings conducted over the noise of an angry public disturbing the peace of the private.
“Protests on the Hill aren’t uncommon, but this one was something else,” said one Democratic staffer on the fifth floor of Hart. “Even before we opened the doors to our office, it was loud. We could hear the protesters’ cheers and chants from our desks and throughout much of the office.”
Down on the ground level, officers eventually got to Solano. She rose from the marble floor and submitted to her first-ever arrest. She raised her fist as she was led away with other women. The emotional power of the moment — and what the larger moment had required of her — was beyond her ability to describe it. She was detained outside, fined $50 and released. Eventually, around 8:30 p.m., she called her mother, who had arrived to the United States as an undocumented immigrant 40 years ago.
“She said, ‘I was really frightened that I hadn’t heard from you,’ ” Solano said. “She huffed and puffed over the phone — ‘What are you telling me you did?’ — but then she went on her own five-minute rant about how upset she was about what’s going on.”