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.


  1. I am compelled to comment on this post. I am an African American black man. The Trayvon Martin situation is disturbing on many levels. I applaud those that recognize the situation, protest and speak out.
    That being said I am bothered in the back of mind because of a few things. I have seen violence; I have experienced racism, heck I was one step away from joining a gang myself as a young teen just to feel like I was a part of a family.
    I give my background to point out that my stance is not by any means a negative towards this situation but a call for people to not just observe a situation but to consider how we can better ourselves and the situations of others.
    I have 2 important people in my life that I refer to them on a regular basis as my adopted parents. They did not adopt me as far as taking me in physically but they adopted me emotionally and mentally.
    They took a random kid that, I would assume, peaked their interest enough to dig a little deeper.
    I did not make it easy on them. To be honest, I didn’t really trust them because I was brought up not to trust especially since they were an older white couple. I highly respected and in some ways feared them. I barely spoke to them but was always kind and respectful. They could have easily let me go my way and keep walking on a beaten path that could have led to a life much different than what I have today.
    To make a long story short – they decided to take me under their wings. This movement saved my life on so many levels because of what I was going through at home and what I was going to go through as a young adult. I feel like they were there every step of the way whenever I needed guidance and even the times I may not have wanted guidance.
    My adopted mom (which at one time I entitled her “the apple lady”) – would always tell me this simple phrase when I would complain about circumstances in my life. She would say "Randy – you cannot always change what someone else does; but you can always change what you do" (boy did I find that phrase annoying).
    Here is my point in all this:
    Its great to have a march and recognize when things are wrong – but let us not march with hoodies on for a single situation. March with the lives you lead.
    My two adopted parents (which are white and I am black) – they were marching with their lives and honoring Trayvon Martin before Trayvon was even born!
    I wrap up with this ----
    How many men marching with hoodies have left their own children because they did not want to be fathers and ran from responsibilities? How many women marching with hoodies have children and are neglecting them and not showing them the love they need to endure life? How many older men marching with hoodies are watching the younger men around them failing in life and not willing to take them in and be a mentor? How many older women marching with hoodies are watching women go down the wrong path and are afraid to mother them and teach them?
    I can go on and on but the point is; this is bigger than Trayvon Martin and one situation – we have people killing each other and neglecting each other and refusing to do anything about it. Let’s not just walk away from an event such as this and go back home and do nothing. Let’s consider our own ways. Trayvon was shot because of one man’s screwed up beliefs. But, how many folks are harmed mentally and emotionally because of ones screwed up beliefs? Let us all do better in the little ways that we can and consider how we treat one another. By doing that – such as my adopted parents – then we are making an impact, changing lives and are truly marching with hoodies.

  2. It's good to be reminded that protests rising from the people, are nothing new in this country. Beautiful photos. They show how many diverse, ordinary and concerned people were involved in this event, even though very little of it was covered in the regular news. Imperfect as these rallies may be, history points to the fact revolutions occur when large groups of people make themselves heard and refuse to shut up.

  3. A poem you might enjoy: