Terminal Democracy

At airports, ideals of free movement collide with protocols of restriction and privilege. That makes them vital sites of protest

On January 28, the news was flooded with images of stranded international travelers, crowded airport spaces, and frantic airline employees — all the result of Donald Trump’s executive order imposing an immediate travel ban on visitors from seven nations in the Middle East. Travelers’ stories were told, but ethnography seemed hapless in the face of Trump’s cruel, sweeping order. By that evening protests were being held at airports around the country, at large airports and small. Even JFK’s airport tram — that humble form of limited public transit — became a contested place after protesters were temporarily blocked from it. Collective action at or around airports could be seen all over social media, and soon enough, the hashtag #OCCUPYAIRPORTS was gathering momentum. Within days, a website dedicated to the airport protests popped up, offering state-by-state plans of action, resistance, and recourse in the event of arrests.

In these images of protest, the sterilized backdrops of airport architecture stood in stark contrast to the masses of protesters and their hastily scrawled signs. A prayer session occurred in the DFW baggage claim, urgently sanctifying the “tight spaces” of airport waiting areas. Airport curbsides were no longer interstitial space but became effective staging grounds for highly visible demonstration. As Christopher Hawthorne argued in an article for the Los Angeles Times, “the airport is a hospitable host for protest precisely because of how poorly it works in terms of civic design on a typical day.” This is true, but the traction of the protests wasn’t just a matter of opportunistically seizing on the choke points in airport layouts. The ways in which airports do work as intended — the way they manage to consistently sustain flow-through for millions of passengers every day, at times facilitating the movement of some at the expense of others — has also played a role.

History professor Jacob Remes pointed out on Twitter how airports are the perfect places for contemporary protests, “key sites of employment (often the biggest worksite in a city), surveillance, migration, and movement of goods and people.” Not only that, the countless stories of racial profiling at security checkpoints and of passengers getting kicked off flights for speaking languages that others found suspiciously foreign suggests that racism and nationalism had long been acutely manifest in the routines of air travel.

If airports are designed to facilitate “loungification,” the protests were able to use these design principles against themselves

Positioned at the nexus of so many different frontiers, physical and conceptual, airports seem to be foretold sites of vulnerability and inevitable chaos. They are linked to a long history of hijacking and terrorism, of course, and 9/11 propelled this aura further into the American cultural consciousness. Over the first decade of the 21st century, surveillance and identity checks have become ever more intense at U.S. airports, indices of broader national and global tensions. Even those Americans accustomed to comfortable passage through whatever spaces they inhabit have felt airport misery in muted forms — not only during delays or cancellations but by the basic security clearance and boarding procedures that recast the traveling liberal subject as carefully tracked bio-cargo. Especially since 9/11, airport security checkpoints in the U.S. have seemed like minor police states, perhaps even to those inclined to trust the police.

After Trump’s executive order, tensions inherent to airports exploded to the fore, and two different kinds of chaos, each specific to a particular vulnerability, began to play out. The first of these had to do with the nature and extent of authority at airports. Behind the customs barriers and in waiting rooms, travelers were converted into suspects as airline employees and customs officials scrambled to make sense of (and enforce) Trump’s executive order. In these enclosed spaces, among some of these officials and their targets, it must have felt as though all the xenophobic pressure that had built up over the past 15 years or so had broken through. Authorities with prejudices and personal axes to grind suddenly found themselves with the leeway to grind them unilaterally, exploiting the ambiguities and uncertainties around the executive order to discriminate, intimidate, detain, and block people at will — at least in the early hours of the ban.

This chaos was the murky underside of airport security: a toxic blend of ideological, logistical, and functional rule. Just beneath its ordinary procedures linger questions about who gets to be protected, who gets treated as threats, who gets to exercise arbitrary power, and who gets singled out for persecution. While global air travel seems to rest of on ideals of tolerance and fair treatment across disparate geographies and nations, these ideals are unevenly distributed at best. And Trump’s executive order, beyond its practical snafus and blunders, exposed an underlying anti-democratic nature within air travel. Behind all the superficial order and worldly scope of modern flight, it turns out, are fractured dimensions of fear and hatred that can be exacerbated in an instant.

Later, as the protests began to mount, a second kind of chaos — a spatiotemporal chaos — took shape: crowds on the sidewalks, clogging the terminal buildings, basically blocking the open spaces and flows of bodies that airports depend on. If airports are designed to facilitate temporary inhabitance and relatively rapid and constant transitions — what has been called “loungification” — the protests were able to use these design principles against themselves. As Hawthorne described it, “The narrow sidewalks; the pedestrian bridges leading to and from parking structures; the little islands of pavement where we wait for shuttle buses; the bi-level ring roads that encircle every airport: These were the stages on which the protests were most effective on their own terms, both in clogging traffic and producing media-ready images of an angry, loud and unnerved public.” Yet this was no mere matter of poor design: It was always in airports’ very nature to welcome, shepherd, and display such collective action — passengers routinely clump up and board together, linger around baggage carousels in masses, and cluster and fume together when there’s a hiccup in the system. The protests were like a major wave of airline delays or cancellations, but instead of domestic flights in question, people were responding to entire ontological trajectories suddenly put on hold.

It’s no wonder that protesters were so deft at mobilizing and occupying public airport zones. Travelers on private jets, like Trump, have an experience that is utterly incommensurate with the grind of commercial air travel. Whereas Trump disingenuously lashed out at U.S. airports as “third world” in the first presidential debate — how many hours had he himself ever spent in these places of dead time, indignity, and rote work? — ordinary American travelers have internalized the spaces and procedural logics of air travel, and could put that knowledge to use in a readily legible public expression of resistance. Security was built-in (TSA agents aplenty); amphitheater-like areas were easily improvised; a continually renewed public audience passed by; the routes to the sites of protest were well established: These familiar aspects are all part of what I have called “airportness”: the ways that ordinary travelers internalize — and come to naturalize — the routines of air travel.

But not all travelers experience these routines in the same way. Earlier that week, before the ban was signed, something else happened at JFK: a 57-year-old Massachusetts man was charged with hate crimes after harassing and kicking a Delta employee who was wearing a head scarf, saying, among other things, “Trump is here now … He’ll get rid of all of you.” This incident occurred not in the open spaces of the airport concourses, or in the sorts of places where the protests would occur a few days later, but in the Delta Sky Club lounge.

The protests were like a major wave of airline delays, except that people were responding to entire ontological trajectories suddenly put on hold

What Trump seems to despise about airports is precisely what makes them airports: the tenuous messes, the congestion, the high visibility, and the people there. His rhetoric describing U.S. airports as “third world” raised their profile as sites of crisis, places where some supposed form of un-Americanness could already be seen plainly. But the nature of what is “unacceptable” remains open to contest, and the shared indignities and hopeful fantasies that airports structure for ordinary, non-elite travelers provides an entirely different basis for determining that and expressing it. Little did Trump realize that in directing further attention to airports, he was loading a weapon that would not be entirely his to wield.

Airports were already fraught borderlands where disconcerting, seemingly arbitrary regimes of identity checks and detentions are carried out, where the class privilege to avoid much of the procedural despair could literally and explicitly be bought. But after the travel ban, the airport’s abject zones — customs lines, waiting rooms, blazingly lit hallways leading to secret interiors — became public spectacles anew, where it wasn’t inconvenience and inefficiency on display but something like the rapid degeneration of democracy. And alongside it, something hopeful was happening: people were discovering that airports were primed for swarming by the resistance.

What goes on at airports never stays at airports. What occurs in these nodes ripples outward, affecting distant geographies, logistics, and emotions.

On Apple News, a Washington Post article “How the World Is Responding to Trump’s Travel Ban” was given a cover illustration of a stylized route map, similar to the sort you find in the back of an in-flight magazine. The airports were glowing blue dots, with the lines of flight paths gracefully arcing up and over a slightly tilted earth. A common enough image, it was nonetheless an odd one to use given the context. Once a diagrammatic expression of the hope of cosmopolitanism and a wide-open world woven together by flight, it has taken on new meaning in the context of the ban and the protests. It now suggests not safe points of origin and destination but contested sites of capture, deportation, and resistance. These are no longer curvatures of connection, but stark lines of division and discrimination. It now resembles something more like a battle map for the Trump regime, or a chart highlighting the epidemiological spread of what it regards as unwanted elements, vectors of transmission that demand containment.

What Trump seems to despise about airports is precisely what makes them airports: the tenuous messes, the congestion, and the people there

Airports, in Marc Augé’s oft-cited term, are “non-places”: in-between zones that facilitate various patterns and circulation cycles of modern life. If the airport is a non-place, it is now the site where Trump’s administration is trying to turn people into non-persons. With Trump’s travel ban we are seeing how such generic sites, supposedly devoted to any traveling subject, can be used to heat up and vent simmering forms of nationalism: They can be turned against specific traveling subjects, at will. However, this generic quality also allows airports to be occupied, to become sites of resistance. Any airport stands as a readymade point of protest. This double-sided feature of airports is itself rising in temperature. As much as Trump and his ilk can use airports to sort and intimidate people, others have discovered that airports are useful flashpoints in terms of their sensitized public status.

Trump’s clampdown on international airports is less about the experience of air travel itself than a symbolic rejection of cosmopolitanism and tolerance. But it is also much more than a symbolic gesture. Or rather, Trump’s travel ban symbolizes much more than its supposed limited and temporary scope. It does not involve just the few countries named and the travelers following these routes, and it doesn’t merely involve international airports. The executive order appears to have be rolled out by design in a confusing and disruptive fashion, allowing no time for airlines or government officials to prepare for its implementation. This has had significant financial implications for the airlines, who will be forced to adjust to the executive mandate at their expense (at the very least in terms of time, reputation, and so on). And it has placed officials in the position of having to deploy state power with no clear sense of the legality of doing so, as court orders were issued and variously defied.

Disrupting both state and airline protocols without warning, and instigating an enormous waste of time, money, and resources would seem to run counter to Trump’s expressed wish to make airports great again. But in fact, this action sheds far more disturbing light on what his regime takes to be “greatness”: extreme vetting, ever deeper insecurity, and even more paranoia. The executive order is a naked demonstration of the current regime’s willingness and intent to suspend the rights and protections afforded by the Constitution on the basis of religion, nationality, or ultimately any other arbitrary marker of identity, even at the cost of vast economic inefficiencies or the disempowering of the judicial branch.

Even if Trump’s order gets scaled back or curbed, the damage has been done: Trump has shown himself to be president of a terminal democracy. As liberal democracy teeters or, perhaps, reaches its unfortunate apotheosis, airports are now places to be watched not only for the emergence of nationalist politics but also for collective acts of resistance. Airports have never been neat and tidy border spaces. Now more than ever we may see these sites as vulnerable not just just in terms of who can enter and and leave, but also who can occupy them. Terminals can be places where the universality of certain human rights can be championed and defended, and not merely a place where such ideas are terminated.

Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, and the author of The Textual Life of Airports (2011), The End of Airports (2015), Airportness (2017), and The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth (2018).