A High School Student Organizes a Protest Against Islamophobia

Protestors gathered together at Washington Square Park
Protesters gathered at Washington Square Park. (The Ink/ Sana Ali)

More than 50 protesters filled Washington Square Park Tuesday night to oppose what they see as President-elect Donald Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric. It was just one of many demonstrations in the city since the election but what made this one unusual was the organizer: a 16-year old high school junior.

Avifel Gutierrez  lives in Manhattan and studies at East Side Community High School. Gutierrez, a convert to Islam, said she was moved to organize the demonstration after many of her Muslim friends told her they were fearful. She said that one of her friends had her hijab pulled off at a bus stop and was called a terrorist. Another friend told Gutierrez that she doesn’t want to take public transportation because she is afraid that a Trump supporter will tell her to get out of the country.

“They confess these things but they always confess it to the community,” she said. “They never confess it to anyone outside of their own community.”

Her goal for the protest, she said, “is to get the message out. You can for a fact ignore our votes but you can’t ignore our voices.”

Gutierrez was raised Catholic but said she converted to Islam in June. She said she initially learned about Islam from her best friend, who is is from Guinea.“Obviously I’m a very young individual,” she said. “I didn’t get into Islam to like try to join ISIS. I got into Islam because I actually fell like in love with this religion a lot…I found a stronger faith in Islam than I ever did find in Christianity and Catholicism.”

Avifel Gutierrez speaks to the protesters.
Avifel Gutierrez speaks to the protesters. (The Ink/Sana Ali)

Gutierrez spread the word about the protest by going to stores patronized by Muslims and by telling friends to share the event on social media. “Somehow the word got out on Facebook more than I thought it was going to get out,” she said. “My dad called my sister when he saw that I had almost 2,000 shares.” She said her father didn’t want her to participate in the protest.

By mid-afternoon Tuesday, the protest’s Facebook event page had 1,700 shares and 443 people had clicked  “going.”

Ultimately only a fraction of those who had said they were going showed up. Some  said they had attended other anti-Trump protests. “I have gone to two previous protests,”  said Badr Alsaidi, 19, a student from Yemen living in the Bronx.  “One was on Friday and the second one was Saturday.  I saw this on Facebook like right below the first two protests.”

Alsaidi said he had given out over 250 flyers about the protest around his college, Borough of Manhattan Community College. He said he also went to seven mosques and handed out the flyers. He brought cough drops with him in case any of the protesters needed them. At a protest earlier this week, a woman had given him cough drops when he lost his voice yelling during the protest.

Another protester, Tatyana Hladki, 23, of Brooklyn, brought markers for making posters. It was her first demonstration since the election. “I think it’s beneficial to have a peaceful protest,” she said. “I know that protests sometimes cause riots and people get angry. I think this is a great way for the collective efforts of how everyone is feeling and the dismay that we all feel following the Trump election as our president-elect.”

Iman Khan, 24, a footwear designer, brought signs that read “#Got You Covered Girl.” That’s the name of a movement she supports that tries to encourage non-Muslims to wear the hijab in a gesture of solidarity. She brought scarves with her that some of the protesters put on.

Around 6:30 p.m., Gutierrez addressed the crowd of protesters that she had brought together starting with a denunciation of Trump.

“He is considered our president but he is not my president and you know why,” she said.  “It’s because if you are our president, I think you should feel like everyone has rights — not just the whites, but everyone.”

A number of protesters came to the center of the group one by one to share their own stories. One protestor said he doesn’t want to feel ashamed to be American but in light of the elections he does. Another woman whose son who teaches in Boston told how he has had seen Muslims verbally harassed on a bus the day after the elections.

The protesters chanted slogans like “Love Trumps Hate” and “Not My President.”

Afterwards, the protesters marched up Fifth Avenue to Trump Tower. Gutierrez updated the Facebook event page to let others know where they were going. At the end of the night, she posted a thank-you. She plans to organize similar events in the future.