Monday, March 26, 2012

OWS, Union Square, Hoodies and America's Gun Laws

On Wednesday, March 21, 2012, New York City’s Union Square was the site of the “Million Hoodie March.”   This was a gathering to protest the death of Trayvon Martin, a young, unarmed black teenager shot and killed in Florida by an undisciplined and overzealous neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman.   I attended the demonstration for a bit over an hour at its beginning, documenting it in the following photographs.

Million Hoodie March, Union Square, March 21, 2012

Million Hoodie March, Union Square, March 21, 2012

Because Trayvon was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when he was shot, demonstrations all over the country are being referred to as “Million Hoodie Marches.” 

This gathering took place at the southern end of Union Square, in New York City, just below the equestrian statue of George Washington.  This sculpture, installed on June 5, 1856, is the oldest sculpture in the large collection belonging to the New York City Parks.   It was designed by Henry Kirke Brown, who had intended it to show Washington as he reclaimed New York from the British in 1783.   Following the Roman tradition, as in the famous Marcus Aurelius on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, Brown’s George Washington sits erect on his horse while giving the sign of benediction.

Better known today than Brown was his assistant in making this statue, John Quincy Adams Ward. Also, the elegant, granite base of his statue was designed by the even more famous American architect, Richard Upjohn.

It is fitting that Washington presides over demonstrations such as this, as it was public unrest--most notably, Shays Rebellion--that brought him out of retirement, re-entering politics, and becoming our first president.

Occupy Wall Street, Union Square,  Direct Action Working Group,  March 21, 2012

Upon emerging up into Union Square from the subway,  I first encountered a group of OWS activists. They were seated in a large circle on the southwest side of the square, just east of the Gandhi statue. They were here because they had been driven from Zuccotti Park five days earlier, when they tried to re-establish their old base in celebration of the six-month anniversary of the OWS movement. The circle constitutes their direct action working group; it is in these gatherings that they discuss issues and agree on future actions.

Historically, Union Square, long known as the “Speaker’s Corner,” has been the focus of many a political demonstration, from patriotic rallies, beginning with the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861 and workers’ parades, such as the first Labor Day Parade in 1882, to a demonstration against unemployment in the spring of 1830 that resulted in a hundred injuries when police prevented protestors from marching down to City Hall.

Given this history, it is not so unusual to encounter two demonstrations in this important city node.  From here, I joined the nearby demonstration in commemoration of Trayvon Martin’s life and condemnation of his murder.  This took place in the very large open plaza at the very south end of the square.

Million Hoodie March, Union Square,  March 21, 2012

The crowd that gathered for the “Million Hoodie March” would grow eventually to over 5,000 people, and already it had swollen to fill most of the open plaza.  Before the speeches began, the demonstrators repetitively chanted statements such as: “We are the one;” “Justice now;” “Do not kill my son/ my brother/ my people/ my children/ my friends.”

I found this event quite moving, and the crowd determined, yet cordial.  Given the circumstances, one might have expected a much angrier crowd.  To everyone’s credit, this was not the case.  It was almost as if this crowd had heeded those words spoken by Robert Kennedy on April 4, 1968 when Martin Luther King was killed: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”  What I experienced made me proud to be an American and part of a city that is so culturally accepting.

Million Hoodie March, Union Square, March 21, 2012

Million Hoodie March, Union Square, March 21, 2012

These two photographs reveal the diversity of ethnic mix at this event.  The demonstrators were black, white, hispanic and Asian, but I found that some of the most compelling images were of some of our black brothers and sisters when wearing, in particular, a black hoodie. They exuded a solemn, compelling beauty.

In regard to the hoodie, I must say I found Geraldo Rivera’s condemnation of it a pathetic and thoughtless reflex, on the same order as that delusion that refuses to die which blames women for their molestation if they wear short skirts.  But then the Miami Heat offered the strongest antidote possible to Geraldo’s poisonous remarks when the entire travelling team wore hoodies. “Well done,” I say.

Steven, Million Hoodie March, Union Square, March 21, 2012

Another form of antidote was offered by Steven from Manhattan. Standing with his right arm raised high overhead and blindfolded by an American flag, Steven carried a sign which read: “They Never Stop & Frisk Old White Guys Like Me.”  How sad and true this is.

I, too, am an old white man. I know that I can walk almost anywhere with that privileged feeling of being safe.   I resent not being able to share this feeling with my black brothers and sisters and I harbor a form of residual shame because I know, as a white man, I bear some responsibility for this discriminatory practice. Several young black men and women carried signs that read, “Am I Next?”  This is an American tragedy.

On a deeper level, Steven’s blindfold can be understood as a statement of hope, of social equality not yet attained.  The flag-as-blindfold is an emblem of America as a land of opportunity, but one that has yet to find its fulfillment.  The blindfold, of course, also symbolizes the absence of bias and can be found on personifications of Justice as a blindfolded woman right back to ancient Rome.

Marsha (Ctr.) & Karin (R.),  Union Square, March 21, 2012

Seated below the main crowd are three women knitting.  I managed to ask the names of two of them, both from Manhattan: Marsha in the center and Karin on the right.  I think I saw a sign that indicated that they had some association with the OWS movement.  But here they sat, knitting. With their folding lawn chairs, they laid claim to a small piece of Union Square, created an island of peace and refuge amidst the teeming thousands.

Knitting, of course, is a productive act, an an act of creativity that is at once individual and communal.  Knitting is an act of solidarity, of finding unity and purpose within a larger group.  We talk of knitting bees and quilting circles.  Often, one knits to give warmth and comfort to future generations, to provide for ones children and grandchildren.  And so, the cardboard sign on the table between Marsha and Karin most appropriately reads:I Want A Better America For My Five Grandchildren.

I don’t know if these three women are members of Code Pink,  a group to which I have referred in previous blog posts when I have encountered them at OWS and peace demonstrations;   but in 2009, Code Pink put out a call for women to sit in front of the White House on Mother’s Day and knit. They took their inspiration for this from the 1870 Mother’s Day Proclamation by Julia Ward Howe, saying: “We will not raise our children to kill another mother’s child.”  Clearly, our country is not there yet. 

Million Hoodie March, Union Square, March 21, 2012

Million Hoodie March, Union Square, March 21, 2012

Million Hoodie March, Union Square, March 21, 2012

Here are three more photographs from the demonstration which again capture the diversity and size of the crowd.  One can find more coverage, including many photographs and some video footage, at sources such as the Daily News,  the Huffington Post, and USA Today.

George, Occupy Wall Street, Union Square, March 21, 2012

I end this post where I began, in the place where OWS had been holding its working group circle. Where they had sat, now only sits George from Queens.  He is seated on a rolling office chair, reading.  Clearly, his intent is to spend the night, sitting upright in the moderate comfort of that chair.  George has been active with OWS since nearly its beginning six months ago; his presence here tests the resolve both of his OWS compatriots and of the NYPD. According to CBS News, city police did decide to enforce a 1:00 curfew.  I hope that George came through unharmed.

In the wake of this curfew enforcement, the Occupy Wall Street organization commented on the futility of such police actions: “It is yet to be seen how long the NYPD will continue this nightly dramatic waste of city resources.  While it would cost nothing to allow homeless protesters to sleep in a 24-hour public park, it costs a lot to kick them out.  And it is a waste--because every time the city has attacked, protesters have stood their ground nonviolently and returned as soon as the police leave and rush hour traffic wakes up.  The NYPD is waging an unwinnable war on dissent.”

Longtime civil rights lawyer, Norman Siegel, writing in the New York Times concurs and implies our need for wiser leadership: “The cornerstone of a democracy is the right to protest.  We need leadership of bringing people together. The O.W.S. people are not going to disappear, and the police are here, obviously. Why stay on a road to confrontation?....the mayor seems to have a tin ear on this.”

Fortunately,  Mayor Bloomberg does have his better ear to the ground and shows the courage to speak truth to the larger issue behind Trayvon’s tragic murder, the insanity of America’s gun laws, written by the gun lobby. This is the greatest danger we face as individual American citizens.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

NHL Reflections With a Nod to the NRA and Faust

Two days ago, the New York Times featured a panoramic picture that ran almost the entire length at the bottom of the first sports page. In it, we could see six NHL hockey players, three NY Rangers and three NJ Devils, gloves off, sticks on the ice, having at it. Although the game had barely begun, these were not the normal starters of a “normal” game (if there is such a thing as normal in the NHL).

Opening Seconds of NY Ranger/NJ Devils Game, March 19, 2012

As Times reporter Christopher Botta wrote, “When Devils Coach Peter DeBoer submitted his starting lineup, he included two frequent fighters, Cam Janssen and Eric Boulton, along with Ryan Carter, another forward who is not shy about dropping his gloves. Taking the hint, Rangers Coach John Tortorella countered with Stu Bickel, Brandon Prust and Mike Rupp. Tortorella employed Bickel, a defenseman, to take the opening face-off against Carter.” Because defensemen don’t normally take face-offs, we already suspect something’s amiss.

Here is a video of what happened at Monday night’s game between the Rangers and the Devils. You will see Ranger defenseman, Stu Bickel, take the faceoff, then drop his gloves and stick and go after Devils’ center, Ryan Carter; the respective wings then took each other on.

Botta also informed us that “it was the third time in the six-game season series that Rangers and Devils players engaged in fights against each other in the opening seconds.”   Now, die-hard ice hockey fans will see nothing abnormal about this state of affairs. But, then, neither would die-hard supporters of the NRA (nor the NRA itself) find anything abnormal about the “Stand Your Ground” laws that contributed to the killing of Trayvon Martin, an innocent teenager in Florida--this week's major news story.

In both cases, the “world view” of North American NHL fans and of American NRA members is myopic and out of touch with the rest of the world (which includes the majority of our country as well). Normal people do not carry concealed weapons in public. Normal state governments do not pass laws that would allow armed citizens to shoot or threaten to shoot someone who either merely confronts them verbally or, as was almost certainly the case of young Trayvon, who was trying to escape them because they were brandishing a gun.

And normal players of team sports, the purpose of which is to outscore ones opponent by shooting or carrying a ball over a goal line, do not take the field with the intention of fighting.   In fact, we just read today that in our most aggressive of team sports, NFL football, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints was suspended for a year because of a bounty program.  This bounty program provided monetary incentives for a team’s players to hurt and knock certain opposing players out of a game.  One could argue that such informal bounty programs at least demand some creative application of the specific skills for which these athletes practice and are actually trained to perform.  This is not the case with ice hockey “enforcers,” who often may not be skilled enough to play NHL hockey were it not for their “fisticuffs.”

Face it, North American ice hockey operates in a completely different category from all other sports.  And I say North American, because the outright acceptance of fighting in hockey, in which the combatants are afforded the opportunity continue playing all of their future games without much risk of suspension, only occurs in hockey on our continent.  Such behavior in the European hockey leagues would lead to immediate suspensions.  Also, as the European rink is wider and longer, it encourages a more disciplined mode of play in which passing and puck movement is paramount.   In other words, the European game is a much more elegant game and more fun to watch--unless one attends games to watch the fights.

Now, in case that earlier video of the first minutes of Monday’s game didn’t satisfy one’s blood-lusting “love” for hockey, here is a video from 2006 of a fight that seems to go on forever in a game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Senators.  This is pure insanity.

Yet, fighting is so much an accepted, maybe even cherished, part of North American ice hockey that Wikipedia has a fascinating and long article on the subject, offering an abridged history of NHL fighting as well as the rules that emerged as a way to control, modulate, and accept it.

One of the many arguments in favor of allowing fighting is that it helps to deter other forms of rough or illegal play, such as elbowing, high-sticking and cross-checking.  Of course, the European league does not allow fighting; nevertheless, it is not beset by any greater amount of rough play or illegal checks.  I would even venture to guess that it has fewer such plays.  This argument in support of fighting is pure malarkey.  Interestingly, specious arguments like this can also be found in the NRA arguments for loosening gun restrictions; how many years have we been subjected to one of its favored mantras: “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” What nonsense!

My intention is not to find some meaningful connection between these two modes of insanity--the NHL and the NRA--although it might be possible.  For instance, after the Columbine incident, George Gund, the majority owner of the San Jose Sharks had his team go to Columbine for a gun control rally.  In response to this "insult" to our Second Amendment, one gun advocate blogger wrote, “It's time to BOYCOTT the Sharks including games where the Sharks are visitors.”

My intention, instead, is to admit to a certain self-realization brought about by that picture in Monday's sports page.  I love sports and I have played team sports most of my life, much of it contact sports.  My main sport was lacrosse, but I also played ice hockey for several years--although not at anywhere near the level that I played lacrosse.  As I prefer playing to watching, I now have switched to tennis as my main sport.  Still, I do enjoy watching almost any sport at its greatest competitive moments--the olympics, the four tennis majors, the NBA and NFL playoffs, the World Series.

What I realize is this: the only sport I never watch (even though I played it) is ice hockey.  Correction: I have watched olympic hockey games, because they play by European rules, but I will never bother to turn on even the finals of the Stanley Cup.   I, and I imagine most sports fans, watch to find in these challenging matches those moments of pure, perfect execution.  We look for the perfect play, by which I mean plays executed not only with wonderful athleticism but also fairly and with proper sportsmanship.  We viscerally feel tension in the final minutes of a close game when a perfect offense challenges a perfect defense; one must yield, but how and when?

North American ice hockey, because of its embrace and even its promotion of fighting, is a sport that has sold its soul.   It is the Faust of professional sports. For me, it can’t rise to the same heights of purity as can other sports, because it is tainted by the specter of fighting.  By its very nature, fighting is unsportsmanlike and unprofessional.  It hangs over the game of ice hockey like a dark cloud.  And when we have hockey games like Monday’s between the Rangers and the Devils [how appropriate is that!], we are dragged down to the depths of hell within the first few seconds of the game.  Give me a tennis racket, any day.