Last week, a bunch of people wearing Make America Great Again hats but no sense of irony chanted “Send her back!” while President Trump denounced the Somali-born congresswoman Ilhan Omar at a rally in North Carolina.
No doubt, the people chanting consider themselves patriotic Americans. But by engaging in such blatant xenophobia against someone whose politics they disagree with, they were belittling not just Omar but one of the greatest American values: dissent.
Birukti Tsige knows all about it.
Birukti Tsige (pronounced Burk-tee Sig-gay) just graduated from my alma mater, Malden High School. Like a lot of kids in Malden, she is an immigrant. She was born in Ethiopia and came to this country when she was 7.
She just turned 18 and in those intervening years she learned English, assimilated, and studied hard, making friends and the honor roll.
She’s a great kid, beautiful inside and out.
She’s also a serious scholar, so it was little surprise when she was named a US Presidential Scholar, a program that this year selected 161 graduating seniors from across the United States. They get a medal and a chance to meet the president at the White House.
Last month, Birukti and the other scholars were ushered into the White House for the official meeting and photograph.
But then someone noticed that under her blazer Birukti was wearing a white “I’m With Kap” T-shirt. It’s meant to show solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who essentially sacrificed his career to make statements about social justice issues. Kaepernick believes in the right to dissent, and paid dearly for his beliefs.
Birukti said officials told her to button up her jacket, but she refused. She said a woman told her: “If you’re not going to take it off, or button up your blazer, you’re not going to be in the photo.”
This may come as a complete shock to the nice lady who confronted Birukti but as an African immigrant from one of those countries that the president has denigrated in crude terms Birukti had no burning desire to be in a photograph with Donald Trump anyway.
Instead, she wanted to engage in something that defines America and has made it great: dissent.
Now, you may think she picked the wrong time and place, but the great thing about America is you can hold that opinion, Birukti gets to hold hers, and everything’s cool.
“One of the officials told me that I was representing a lot of different things, including the presidency,” Birukti Tsige told me. “I don’t agree with that. I don’t agree with the president or his policies.”
Birukti said the president came into the room and made some small talk, bragging about how well the stock market is doing. Because, of course, what else would 18-year-old kids want to talk about?
Trump magnanimously invited everybody in the room, including Birukti, to cram in for a photo.
Appropriately enough, for someone wearing a Kap T-shirt, Birukti knelt down in front.
Until, she said, an official pulled her out again.
After last week’s rally, President Trump tried, not very convincingly, to disavow the “Send her back!” chants, sensing it wasn’t a good look.
“I did nothing to lead people on,” he said, “nor was I particularly happy with their chant.”
But then he added, “Just a very big and patriotic crowd. They love the USA.”
So does Birukti Tsige and she seems to understand and appreciate this nation’s core values a lot more than people who wear red hats and chant offensive and childish nonsense.
I’m sure a lot of those people at that rally in North Carolina would like to send Birukti Tsige back to Ethiopia.
But she has other places to go. Like Cambridge, where next month she’ll start her freshman year at Harvard. She’s doing pre-med. Dr. Tsige has a nice ring to it.