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  1. Florida Politics

Romano: At USF, a protest that was more about joy than anger

University of South Florida student Asiya Ahmed, from left, is joined by fellow students Murzia Siddiqui, Aya Samhouri and Reema Bassoumi at Monday’s protest. [JOHN ROMANO  |  Times]
University of South Florida student Asiya Ahmed, from left, is joined by fellow students Murzia Siddiqui, Aya Samhouri and Reema Bassoumi at Monday’s protest. [JOHN ROMANO | Times]
Published Jan. 31, 2017

As these things sometimes do, the revolution got off to a slow start. Too much chanting and sign-waving and not enough coup and d'etat.

The students hurried by, the cops looked bored and a homeless guy got prime real estate next to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bust on the MLK Plaza. This University of South Florida student protest of the Trump administration's immigration ban was starting to have a complaint-by-numbers feel to it.

And then, slowly, the collective chants died down, and the individual voices began to emerge. Some sounded rehearsed, but many were spontaneous and real.

Surprisingly, they were also hopeful.

And that's the paradox of protest. It may start in anger, but it can end in joy. It may seem like it's about policies, but it's mostly about people.

So after 90 minutes in the Tampa campus plaza, after the half-mile march to the Patel Center for Global Solutions, after the delivery of petitions to USF chief operating officer John Long, the crowd seemed unwilling to leave.

And ultimately, that's what mattered. At least to the four USF students standing near the front with their hands clasped together and raised above their hijabs.

"I knew racism was a part of our country's history, but I never really understood it until I started wearing this (hijab) last year and I saw how people treated me differently,'' said Aya Samhouri, 20, a U.S. citizen of Palestinian heritage majoring in biological health services.

"When I saw everyone here standing up for people they've never met in the Middle East, for my cousins being kept out of this country, I was like, 'Wow, you're sympathizing with something you may have never experienced, but you're willing to fight to make things better.' Today, honestly, if it didn't impact anyone else, it had an impact on me.''

It's true this was a political protest, and there were plenty of uncomplimentary chants and signs directed at President Trump. There were also a few snotty rejoinders from some passing students.

And it is folly to imagine that a few hundred students in a courtyard 1,000 miles from Washington will have a meaningful impact on Trump's international policies.

But that doesn't mean there isn't something to be gained every day if we just take the time to ignore the bumper-sticker mentality of today's political atmosphere.

"As a person wearing a hijab, I think of it as an advertisement. I'm advertising my religion,'' said Murzia Siddiqui, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in industrial engineering and pre-law. "Whatever I say or do has to be perfect, and that's how I feel in public. I'm very self-conscious in the sense that I don't want anything I do to reflect on my religion.

"It means so much to me when someone smiles at me because it tells me that they don't believe the stereotype, that they're seeing me as a real person.''

More than two hours after it began, the protest finally began to wind down. There were classes to get to, and appointments to keep. Voices were raw from chanting and campus police were waiting patiently to head somewhere else.

Sitting on a bench outside the Global Studies building, the young women reflected on how well the afternoon unfolded and how necessary they believed it was.

"I've been crying ever since the election because I've been thinking about all the families that could be ripped apart,'' said 18-year-old freshman Asiya Ahmed, whose father is from Pakistan. "I see a lot of people saying it's unconstitutional and it's against American ideals, but it's so much more than that. It's inhumane. It comes down to human vs. human. Not the Constitution. Not the law.

"This is a human issue, and I fear people don't understand that.''

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