Nearly two dozen women in red gowns resembling the title characters of The Handmaid’s Tale rallied in front of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity Summit in New York City, which Vice President Mike Pence and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen were expected to attend.
“We’re here today because Mike Pence is bringing a real Handmaid’s Tale to America,” an organizer loudly proclaimed to the crowd gathered in front of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House on Tuesday. “He’s a Christian fascist. He’s a theocrat. This couldn’t be more fitting.”
The protest was organized by the group RefuseFascism.org, which also staged a handmaids protest earlier this month in Philadelphia, PA. The vice president, known for his extreme anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ views, has concerned progressive activists since he was tapped to be President Donald Trump’s running mate in 2016. His religious beliefs — Pence has said, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order” — have drawn inevitable comparisons to the religious leaders of the Republic of Gilead, the totalitarian state at the center of Margaret Atwood 1985’s dystopian novel.
“[The Trump-Pence administration] is a regime that’s shredding the rule of law and seeking to radically remake society, transforming the way this country is governed,” Samantha Goldman, one of the organizers, told Refinery29. “Fascism relies upon and foments xenophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy. You see the heart of the Christian fascist movement in this regime.”
The 31-year-old rattled off the ways she believes the administration is implementing fascism: The president calling the press “enemies of the people” even after the mass murder of local journalists in June, the attacks via policy on immigrants and people from Muslim-majority countries, the erosion of women’s rights, the appointing of hardline conservatives to the courts, the mass deregulation of environment-related industries despite the threat brought by climate change, the rollback of protections for the LGBTQ+ community, and the list went on.
Goldman, like most of the women who gathered at the protest, are convinced that the administration is a threat both domestically and globally. But despite the heavy references to Gilead, she avoided making comparisons to other countries that are currently ruled by dictators and that are seeing the same type of human rights violations she fears might take place in the U.S.
Passersby stared at the women as they waited to begin a symbolic procession carrying children’s shoes, representing the thousands of migrant kids who were separated from their families under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.
“Thank you so much for what you’re doing here,” a young man told Lucas Berd, one of the protesters, before scurrying off from the protest.
Berd, 35, told Refinery29 that no matter how small of a protest it could be, this type of action can create progress. “I’m hopeful and optimistic that this administration can be ended,” Berd said. “But it does take people like these individuals gathering today to come out and have the courage to speak up and to commune.”
When asked what specific policies of the Trump administration were concerning, Berd responded: “I would say everything. It’s every aspect since he took office. The list goes on and on.”
But not everyone was in favor of the protest. A middle-aged man approached some of the protesters, repeatedly saying: “Donald Trump is a nice man, guys! He is a nice guy!”
The handmaids pretty much ignored him. Some of the RefuseFascism.org supporters offered passersby flyers and stickers provided by the organization, but many New Yorkers and tourists breezed past them.
That’s not to say that the handmaids were invisible. The curious took pictures and chatted among themselves, with a few venturing to thank the protesters for their work.
Juana Lopez, one of the women in costume, said Pence’s extreme religious beliefs worry her. “For him, looking at the Bible literally, [he thinks] that is the kind of rule that should exist in this country,” she told Refinery29. “Throughout history, the ruling class has used the Bible to enslave people, to make them think that’s their place.”
Lopez also pointed that the rise of Trump and Pence has historical roots. “America is a country built on genocide, on slavery,” she said. “Separating children from their families [like Trump did] is not new. It’s something that has existed in this country.”
The women ended up doing a small procession carrying and laying down the children’s shoes — bright pink rain boots, sneakers, tiny sandals — representing the migrant children that are still separated from their families.
“Nielsen and Pence will be there at the DHS conference. We want to make the point that this is a regime using the Bible to justify the stealing of children and ripping apart of immigrant families,” Goldman, the organizer, told Refinery29. “That was an important statement for us.”
While some press reports said there were a hundred protesters, the number of handmaids and supporters was much more smaller. At times, it felt as if there were nearly as many members of the press as there were protesters.
The event also served as a business opportunity for some local entrepreneurs. As the handmaids placed the children’s shoes in front of the Custom House, a woman stood under the shade of the plaza’s trees with a table full of pins for sale. The #Resist motif adorned most of them.
Refinery29 reached out to Vice President Mike Pence for comment. We’ll update this story if we hear back.
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