Monday night, the Beth Am Synagogue's pews were filled with about 900 Baltimore residents and notables, including city health commissioner Dr. Leana Wen, activist and educator DeRay Mckesson and author Taylor Branch, who gathered to support “The Wire” creator David Simon’s fundraising protest against President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Simon’s company Blown Deadline productions, agreed to match up to $100,000 in donations in response to the executive order to temporarily ban travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The money will benefit the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the Tahirih Justice Center, the National Immigration Law Center and the International Rescue Committee, organizations that provide aid to immigrants and refugees.
The sold-out "City of Immigrants: A Night of Support" had raised around $40,000 online by 8:15 p.m., according to Simon. By 9 p.m., it had raised around $50,000, according to Reena Rexrode, an assistant at Blown Deadline Productions.
“I tend to get mad. It’s kinda my thing. … I’ve been mad about this a long time,” said Simon at the synagogue's podium, describing his reaction to seeing people being detained in airports. He showed pictures of his ancestors, some who were refugees who were slain before they could escape Europe. Other relatves died in Auschwitz. His family history resembled much of what was going on today, Simon said.
“Every time I begin to listen to somebody explain to me the social or political problem of opening our country ... every time someone summons fear or prejudice or uncertainty, I’m steadied by these pictures of my own family history,” Simon said.
“Yes, populations are vast and uncontrollable … but people are people.”
Wen, the city’s health commissioner since 2015, spoke about her life as a Chinese immigrant, who was born in Shanghai and came to America as a child with her parents.
While living in Utah, they struggled to pay rent and make ends meet. Her family was evicted twice in one year and stayed in a shelter, but eventually, they had help, Wen said. A single mother of six offered her family a place to stay.
“She didn’t even know our names. We looked different from everyone else. We spoke a different language, and we had a different religion, but she told us that it was her duty to help those who needed help. ‘This is America,’ she told us. 'My home is your home,'” Wen recalled. She felt an outpouring from the community, she said.
The health commissioner encouraged people to treat others the same way, and for people, especially immigrants and children of immigrants, to tell their stories and stand up against divisiveness.
“This is not them versus us. They are us and our parents and our grandparents,” said Wen, encouraging people to choose to do what is hard and to get into “good trouble,” as U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D.-Ga., once advised.
“This is our country, and everything that is happening is personal, deeply personal … This is our time to stand up.”
Author Branch called America’s history on immigration an “embarrassment” and a “disgrace,” before encouraging the audience to rally around and defend a diverse community.
“We must stand up for stragglers and against bigots, recognizing that no foreign origin is too foreign to yield a fellow citizen,” he said.
And Mckesson, known for his work in the Black Lives Matter movement, praised the bravery of protesters, while reminding the audience members that some of the darkest moments in American history — the lynchings of black people, the Charleston, S.C., church shooting, the attempt to ban immigrants and refugees — are more recent than we think.
Though the audience often applauded and laughed at the speakers’ occasional jokes, Beau Willimon, a creator of Netflix series “House of Cards” and a featured speaker, roused the crowd, enlisting people one by one, then row by row, then section by section to clap and make noise, until the whole synagogue erupted in applause, cheers and people stomping their feet.
Janet Heller, a Roland Park resident who says she's older than 80, said the event was exciting. “Everyone felt good,” said Heller. “I wanted to feel like I was a part of a movement, trying to change what is coming out of Washington with this new president.”
Steve Earle, armed with a harmonica and guitar, closed the night with a musical performance with a message.
“Singing helps sometimes,” he said.
“This land is your land. This land is my land … This land was made for you and me."