Mayor Bill de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer visit the "Fearless Girl" statue in Lower Manhattan after the permit for the beloved statue will be extended through next year on Monday, March 27, 2017. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The Fearless Girl Statue Shows What’s Wrong With How We Define “American Values”

There has been quite a hullabaloo lately about two statues standing on Wall Street: the “Fearless Girl” facing off against an angry bovine. The controversies are many, but they reached a high point this month when the artist who made the Charging Bull created a media storm by challenging the petit provocateur. His point seems to be that the girl, this newcomer, shouldn’t be allowed to remain and that her very presence changes the meaning of what came before, of his work and legacy. Viewed from the perspective of a tiny parcel of land in the financial district, it’s hard to say if this controversy is worth the column inches devoted to it. But the girl and the bull have become symbols, and the jingoism of the bull’s creator reflects a larger and far more important global debate about who belongs—when, where, and how.

Consider, for instance, what also happened last week across our northern border, albeit with much less fanfare in American media. Malala Yousafzai was made an honorary Canadian citizen. Malala is a young Pakistani woman and education advocate who, at the age of 15, was shot in the head for going to school and for advocating for girls’ rights to an education. Malala survived the attack and went right back to her activism for girls. She embodies fearlessness, profoundly more so than a bronze statue downtown. By conferring citizenship upon her, the message from Canadians is this: you are welcomed here because you exemplify the best of what we aspire to as a country. Belonging is defined in terms of shared values, not where you started life or how long you have been standing where you are now.

The message today in the United States is very different. Our nastiest instincts, not our best values, are on full display and are driving a national effort to circumscribe who is an American. Not Daniela Vargas, who has been living in the U.S. since she was seven. Only a couple of weeks after Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) arrested her father and brother, Daniela spoke at a press conference on behalf of DREAMers like herself in Mississippi—undocumented and unafraid. ICE officers arrested her moments later. Although she was ultimately freed, the message was clear that she does not belong.Fearless Girl statue at Bowling Green, which was installed to celebrate International Women’s Day on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Nor does Maribel Trujillo, a mother of four who came to the United States 15 years ago, fleeing drug cartels that had targeted her family. She has no criminal record, but was recently deported under a fear-mongering framework that conflates those who may be exploited in the process of migration with the “depravity and violence” of the exploiters. Daniela, Maribel and thousands like them have not participated, in Jeff Sessions’ words, in “brutal machete attacks and beheadings.” Far from it. But in our current paradigm of immigration enforcement, they must go.

What can we learn about fearlessness from these women and girls? From Malala Yousafzai, we know that fearlessness does not mean the absence of fear. When she was 11, Malala started an anonymous blog on her experience of violence in the Swat province of Pakistan and the Taliban’s ban on schooling for girls. Her first entry was titled, “I Am Afraid.”

Eight years later, when receiving her honorary Canadian citizenship, she spoke again of fear: “Like the refugees in Canada and all around the world, I have seen fear, and experienced times when I didn’t know if I was safe or not…. I remember how my mom used to put a ladder at the back of our house so that if anything happened, we could escape.”

Fear is real and tangible—the barrel of a gun, the separation of a mother from her children. Fear is created by some to have power over others. Meanwhile, fearlessness metabolizes that emotion and turns it into power for oneself and her community. We see this constantly in New York City, well beyond lower Manhattan. Dozens upon dozens of Know Your Rights forums where immigrant families learn how to respond if ICE knocks on the door. Hundreds of appointments for free, safe immigration legal services. Thousands marching in the streets. Yes, immigrant communities are feeling fear in the current political environment, but they are also standing strong.

The fandom surrounding the Fearless Girl suggests on a very small scale that bravery in the face of a froth-mouthed bully is still an American value, one that defines who we are and who belongs. But it is the courage and confidence of immigrant women and girls—and boys and men too—that gives that value broad-sized meaning. We are the United States of America, and we are here to stay.

Commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs

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