Here’s the Story Behind That ‘Refugees Welcome’ Banner on the Statue of Liberty

by Ryan Schleeter

March 15, 2017

With version 2.0 of Trump’s Muslim ban set to go into effect this week, I sat down with an activist who pulled off one of the most powerful symbols of resistance to Trump’s anti-immigrant policies so far — hanging a ‘Refugees Welcome’ banner from the Statue of Liberty.

Refugees Welcome Statue of Liberty

Image via @AltStatLiberty Twitter, used with permission.

I was settling into my desk on a Tuesday morning, sipping my coffee and scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw it. At first, the image was cropped so all I could see was the familiar torso and face of the Statue of Liberty. But then I saw the full picture.

“Hell yes!” was my first thought. And it turns out I wasn’t alone. Before the day was over, thousands of people were applauding the courage and creativity of the group from @AltStatLiberty that hung this beautiful message of resistance. 

But even after capturing national attention, we still didn’t know very much about who these activists were or how this bold act came together. So I reached out to one of the activists, David, (who spoke with me on the condition that he be identified by first name only) to learn more about the story behind the action.

Tell me about the group that hung this banner. How long have you been working together? How did you come up with this idea?

There’s no group or organization, just myself and a few other people who decided we wanted to do a thing.

The raw material for the idea is kind of obvious. The Muslim ban had been had been announced, and that symbolism had been around in our politics throughout the election: freedom, what it is to be American, and how we interact with people who are different from us.

After seeing the the outpouring of people at the airport on Saturday morning, I started thinking about what one person can do that can be seen by a lot of people.

It’s two weeks later and we’re still talking about this action. What do you make of the response?

You don’t really know what to expect when you do something like this. The plan was to say something we felt needed to be said, and hope that the tree falls and it makes a sound. But directly after we did it there’s a moment where we’re like “OK, this went off without a hitch, maybe no one cares?”

So I was surprised by how much positive response it got. The next day we were the lead joke on Colbert and one of the top trending items on Twitter, which is the attention that the refugee crisis deserves.

It feels empowering to know that you can do something that demands attention and that resonates with other people. Politics isn’t just reserved for people who work in Congress — everyone can engage and there’s a possibility that everyday people can make a difference.

Since you hung that banner, the Trump administration has released a new version of the Muslim ban that’s set to go into effect on Thursday. What’s your take and how do you plan to respond?

The White House has made clear that this is the same thing, or has the same intent. Just today [our conversation took place last Thursday] the Hawaii Attorney General filed suit saying the original ban was unconstitutional and so is this new one.

The exciting thing about our action was that it was something that a few random people could do, and I would like to see more of that. We saw on International Women’s Day that the Statue of Liberty went dark for a period. The authorities said it was a technical issue and I don’t know the truth of that, but it’s very possible that was all intentional.

If the outcome of what we did is showing folks that taking action is something anyone can do, then that’s a great thing.

Whether it’s your action or going ‘dark’ on International Women’s Day, there’s clearly something captivating about the Statue of Liberty as a symbol. Why do you think it’s become such an important site of resistance?

The poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty — ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ and so on — has long symbolized the dream of America.

But it’s also a symbol of when we haven’t lived up to that promise. During World War II we turned people away from Ellis Island and a lot of those people died. There’s been a lot of talk about how this is the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, and my grandparents were a part of the refugee crisis.

It’s a powerful symbol of the United States that speaks across partisanship.

Was that part of your goal in hanging this banner? To cut across partisan divides?

It was and there was a lot of thought that went into that part of it. If the point is to have a banner with one or two words on it, what should those words be?

We settled on something that speaks to the fundamentally human part of it, which is that there are people who have no place to be. There’s no country where they can be home. I think it’s unfortunate that there’s a political bent to what is essentially a matter of human decency.

Since the election, we’ve seen millions of people unite under the idea of ‘resist.’ What does the word ‘resist’ mean to you right now?

For me, right now it means standing up for what we believe in, and it’s actually unfortunate that that requires resistance.

Colbert’s joke about our banner was that it was redundant. A ‘refugees welcome’ sign on the Statue of Liberty? That’s what the whole statue represents. But the fact that we need to repeat it is an act of resistance.

It’s the same way that saying climate change is real is an act of resistance if the head of the EPA says that carbon emissions aren’t driving global warming.

Resistance can be a radical act, but it can also just be stating the truth.

This interview has been edited for length and to protect the anonymity of the interviewee. 

Ryan Schleeter

By Ryan Schleeter

Ryan Schleeter is a senior communications specialist with Greenpeace USA covering climate and energy. His writing has appeared in National Geographic, Grist, GreenBiz, EcoWatch, and more. Find him on Twitter @ryschlee.

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