Typically, Chamber of Commerce breakfasts are uneventful affairs, attended by local entrepreneurs who exchange business cards and chat amiably over coffee and mini-muffins, but Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s Monday morning coffee klatch broke that mold when protesters interrupted a panel conversation composed of New York City’s only GOP Congressman Dan Donovan, along with representatives Yvette Clarke, Hakeem Jeffries, Carolyn Maloney, and Nydia Velazquez. By the meeting’s end, at least half a dozen members of the audience had been escorted by NYPD officers out of the National Grid Auditorium at One MetroTech Center. “You’re not being thrown out,” Deputy Chief Charles Scholl told one protester. “You’re being asked to leave nicely.”
But protesters were in no mood to be nice, nor to be told to sit down and be quiet. From the moment Representative Dan Donovan was introduced, audience members were booing and many stood holding aloft signs that said “BAN DAN.” “We’re here because Representative Donovan doesn’t hold town hall meetings. His staff doesn’t answer the phone. Many of us in Bay Ridge [Donovan also represents Staten Island] feel utterly abandoned by Dan Donovan,” said Dan Hetteix, an IT professional and protester who identified himself as a member of a group called Bay Ridge for Social Justice. Hetteix noted that his neighborhood bodega participated in last week’s strike—“it closed for the first time in 26 years,” he said—and that immigrant businesses and families in Bay Ridge are being deeply affected by Trump’s policies. “We want Dan Donovan to acknowledge that his district has a majority immigrant population. I can’t imagine how he’d think that [vetting] procedures aren’t already in place,” Hetteix added. “I mean, he’s on the Homeland Security Committee.”
While Chamber staff, Deputy Chief Scholl, other audience members, and some of the Democratic panelists called on protesters to allow Donovan to speak, Donovan’s constituents complained loudly that their representative’s failure to listen to them gave them no recourse but to show up at the Chamber’s breakfast to voice their concerns. They persisted despite Deputy Chief Scholl’s threat to charge them with trespassing. Many were concerned about the Muslim travel ban, which Donovan supports and to which he referred not as a ban, but as a policy of “pause.” Members of audience, which numbered nearly 300 people, continually directed the panel to address the ban, with some laughing out loud and expressing disgust when the panel’s moderator asked how the Muslim ban would affect tourism in New York City, and Brooklyn in particular. “That’s the most important question you could ask?” one audience member demanded.
Democratic representatives acknowledged that the Muslim ban has already affected the local economy. Representative Clarke mentioned a situation in which a doctor at one of Brooklyn’s “safety net” hospitals was prevented from returning to the U.S. because of the travel ban, jeopardizing the health and lives of patients. “This is not about tourism only,” Representative Velazquez agreed; “it is about human lives. It is about our standing around the world.” Velazquez, along with Representative Jerry Nadler, who was not at the breakfast, has been outspoken about the ban, and told the audience that “this has been the most painful experience for me as a legislator who has been in office for 24 years. We expect from our government more and better. It is an interesting, excruciating time in Washington.”
Representative Jeffries, who described his district as perhaps the most diverse in the nation, agreed that the two weeks since the inauguration have been challenging for legislators. “Look, it took Richard Nixon six years to provoke a constitutional crisis,” he said. “And it took Donald Trump about six days.” Jeffries said he’s paying attention to all of the policies the new administration is issuing, from tax proposals to the Muslim ban, as they will inevitably affect his constituents. But Donovan, who was seated next to Jeffries, seemed to suggest that his Democratic colleagues were overreacting. Referring to the Muslim ban as a mere “inconvenience” and saying that he thinks the effect of the ban on tourism and on Brooklyn’s economy “won’t be as dramatic as people are thinking,” Donovan’s remarks provoked outrage throughout the 90-minute event and he left quickly upon the panel’s conclusion.
Velazquez, however, seemed to welcome the dissent and outspokenness from attendees, addressing them directly at the end of the event. “Thank you for your activism and your energy,” she told the audience. “I come home to my district every weekend to recharge my batteries. You inspire me.”
Images by Julie Schwietert Collazo