Tuesday, October 18, 2011
For those of you who don't know, this week is Sukkot (or sukkos). I'm not an expert on these things, and there's certainly no shortage of more qualified people to explain this to you, but Sukkot is a Torah mandated festival that involves an outdoor structure that looks like a walled booth with some kind of plant material covering. This structure is called a sukkah, and it is meant to represent the makeshift dwellings that the Jews lived in during the exodus from Egypt. Sukkot also includes repeating specific prayers and blessings, recited while holding a yellow citron (called an Etrog) and a date palm frond (called a Lulav).
Now, if you live in New York City, you are most definitely aware that during this one week of the year there are both stationary and mobile sukkahs strategically located around town. Seriously, who doesn't love a sukkah-mobile? And accompanying these multiple sukkahs are young orthodox Jews carrying Etrogs and Lulavs. Personally, I think it's terrific that these young guys are so committed to their traditions and practices that they wander around town wanting to share the joy of this sacred festival with others. I don't know exactly how it's phrased in the scriptures, but because it is mandated for Jews to take part in this festival, these young orthodox guys ask passersby, "Are you Jewish?" This would be fine too, but several times when I've been asked, "Are you Jewish?" and I've responded, "No." The guy just turns around and goes hunting for the next potential Jew.
Dude! If you're going to be asking people if they're Jewish, there are most probably going to be a number of people who are going to say, "No." In this case, I would suggest that the appropriate and polite response might be, "Okay, enjoy your afternoon." or "Very well, thanks man. Have a great day." or "Sorry for disturbing you." or "May the love of God be with you." or possibly a handshake and a friendly nod. But somehow me being a non-Jew qualifies me for immediate dismissal. Call me sensitive but this REALLY PISSES ME OFF!
This very scenario happened to me earlier today, and when the young Jew dismissively turned and walked away from me, I wanted to chase the guy down and say, "Hey, haven't you been taught about the teachings of Rabbi Hillel? About how he said, 'That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbors?' What part of that very simple interpretation of the golden rule do you not understand, Putz?
But I didn't. I had a moment. I stopped. I breathed. I remembered that justified indignation is rarely a good idea, and, truth be told, I'm glad that I live in a city where Jews are celebrating this ancient and joyous festival all over town, and encouraging others to join them. So I was able to shift my focus from one of anger to one of gratitude. Seriously, I love seeing a sukkah-mobile working its way down an avenue, and most of all, I love New York.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
The occupiers have been camped out downtown in Zuccotti park for thirty four days. There doesn't seem to be any end in sight, instead the movement is only escalating and gathering momentum. Earlier today, I saw online that #OccupyWallStreet had planned a march from Washington Square park to Times Square. The marchers were scheduled to arrive at Times Square at five o'clock. I was home this afternoon working on some homework, so I walked my dog at around quarter after four, then I headed out the door, and down to Times Square on the subway. As soon as I got above ground at forty second street, I could feel that something big was going on. There was just an electric buzz in the air, I don't know how else to describe it. I crossed from the west side of Broadway over to the other side of forty second, and then I saw them; thousands of protestors marching up seventh avenue from downtown, many of them carrying banners and signs; young people, older people, some with children on their shoulders, some made up as zombies, veterans, union members, nurses, Teamsters, students, thousands of people as far as the eye could see, all gathered to express their grievances and discontent with corporate greed and economic disparity - all gathered at the crossroads of the world beneath blazing electric corporate logos; a brilliant metaphor of we, the people versus them, the gleaming corporate machine.
I was quickly ushered by a cop into a penned off area in the middle of the street between police barricades. I slowly inched my way uptown, trying to get further into the heart of Times Square, but I could barely move because so many people were jammed into the penned in area. Thrilled and excited to be part of this movement as it gathered momentum, I snapped photos and chanted with the crowd, "the whole world is watching!, the whole world is watching!" and "We are the ninety nine percent!, We are the ninety nine percent!" I got bumped into and jostled, and began to feel a little claustrophobic and concerned that I might get caught in the middle of the crowd, so I continued to inch my way uptown. It took me about a half an hour to go the single block to forty third street. Once I got to forty third street, I quickly shot east to sixth avenue to go uptown a few blocks so I could maneuver myself back into the thick of it. Walking up sixth I could see the police presence that I couldn't see when I was in Times Square. The whole avenue was lined with cop cars and cops on motorbikes and a few paddy wagons. There were also countless police on foot, some in riot gear, others with plastic hand ties, and orange crowd control netting.
I turned left onto forty sixth street and started heading west toward the big plaza in the center of Times Square, but about three quarters down the block, I saw that the crowd was so thick that there would be no crossing. I didn't want to get trapped in the middle of it like I was earlier. I got as close to the intersection of Broadway and forty sixth as I could when the police started calling for the crowd to get on the sidewalk. Helicopters could be heard overhead, and still the unrelenting cheers and chants from the people, "We are the ninety nine percent!" The sky was beginning to grow dark, and on the diagonal corner across the plaza, a Bank of America sign blazed brazenly red, back-lighting the impassioned scene below and in between.
The police continued to call for the crowd to get onto the sidewalk. I jostled for position at the curb, craning to watch the action, still trying to take pictures though it was getting too dark for my camera. There was a handsome young cop right in front of me, Officer Campanelli.
Me: "Any idea of how many people have shown up for this? It looks like there's about four or five thousand police here."
Officer Campanelli: "Yeah, there's at least that many of us here. No, they haven't said how many protestors they think are here."
Guy from the crowd: "Where's the Mayor?"
Officer Campanelli: "I dunno. In the Hamptons, eating a steak dinner."
There was some more friendly banter with Officer Campanelli. He told a couple of us how he wasn't supposed to be working tonight, and he'd rather be at home eating dinner. I chatted with a few other people around me too; a guy from Australia who said he fully supported what was going on and that protests have started down under too. I chatted a little with a nurse who was standing next to me, a middle aged Asian woman, who held a hand-written sign that said, "Nurses against corporate corruption." I also spoke with a young Latina, who told me that she's been going down to Liberty Park after work a few days a week since the protests have been going on to show support and solidarity for those who are camped there. She also told me that she wants to go down this week to hear Poland's former President address the crowd (Lech Walesa has said that he supports the Occupy Wall Street movement, and is coming to New York to speak to the protestors!). Then police in riot gear approached from down forty sixth street, some holding their clubs, others with their hands poised atop their pepper spray nozzles. They stretched the width of the street, shoulder to shoulder, and began moving slowly toward the plaza. I noticed police on horseback across the plaza, silhouetted by the Bank of America sign. I silently cursed my camera, knowing it wouldn't read in this darkness. Other cops were walking beside the cops in riot gear, carrying orange police netting, and it looked like they were getting ready for something. I had the horrible thought that the police might start pepper spraying the crowd - it was then that I decided it was time for me to leave.
I knew that there was no way I could make my way through the crowd and get to the subway, so I walked back toward sixth Avenue, and walked up the block to forty seventh through a small plaza between some office buildings. Forty seventh street was also lined with police cars, but I saw no riot gear and no lines of police readying themselves for aggressive confrontation. I walked toward seventh avenue, stopped at the blocked street and looked down from the corner at the crowd. Signs, banners, cheering, people, horses, celebration, madness, mayhem, hope, revolution; all of it perhaps signaling the beginning of the change we were promised and never got. I sidled up seventh avenue, crossed over to Broadway when I could, still constricted by the massive crowds, and made my way to the fiftieth Street subway station.
I'm encouraged by the huge escalation of this movement, and I'm optimistic that this will make some difference. I know that as long as bought politicians continue to decide legislature, nothing can or will change. I'm proud that this movement began in my city. I'm proud of my countrymen and women, and I'm filled with respect and gratitude for the occupiers and their dogged determination and commitment. I can't help thinking that if I were a little younger, or a little braver, I'd be camping out in the street downtown too.
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Libya, Wall Street; The United States should be set to experience the same sort of grassroots, youth-driven uprising that we’ve recently seen surge in other nations. Yesterday, police led protestors onto the Brooklyn Bridge, penned them off, and then arrested more than 700. This happened just one week after explicit videos of police brutality hit the Internet, showing an unprovoked police captain pepper-spraying a group of young women, as well as numerous excessively violent take-downs of peaceful protestors. While these videos have stirred shock, anger, and allegations of excessive force, they’ve also, I believe, dissuaded older, more middle-of-the-road, and even conservative leaning concerned citizens from joining the fray. People are pissed off. There are distant, and not so distant sounds of underground rumblings getting ready to erupt, and in my view, these numerous unwarranted arrests along with the use of excessive force on peaceful protestors are all part of a systematic strategy to deter people from joining the cause.
Last week, I went downtown to #OccupyWallStreet to see if I could take some pictures, and even show support for the cause. What I found hanging out in Liberty Park was a bunch of mostly young grunge-y looking folks who looked like they might be leftovers from a Lollapalooza festival; shirtless women, pot-smoking kids, boys banging drums, girls braiding one another's hair, etc. The crowd almost immediately erased any feelings of significance or urgency, and gave the whole movement an amateurish, disorganized impression. That was last Sunday, the day after the pepper spray and violent arrest incidents, and the systematic operations of the NYPD seemed to have accomplished their goal of stripping the demonstration of its legitimacy.
At first, I wondered why the police; hard working union folk who make roughly fifty grand a year, would side with the establishment over the principles of the demonstrators. Then it dawned on me that the police work for the Mayor, and the Mayor is a billionaire, who, while perhaps partly responsible for a decrease in crime, is also mostly more concerned with tourist revenue than with the city’s public education or transportation departments. Also this last week, it has come under some public scrutiny that JP Morgan Chase donated an unprecedented 4.6 million dollars to the NYPD, the largest donation in their foundation's history, so it should come as no surprise that the po-po are working for the man rather than the people.
The occupation of Wall Street has been going on for twenty two days now, and it doesn't seem as if there's any end on the near horizon. Even if the police have managed to intermittently make the crowd look like a bunch of disenfranchised misfits, the fact that the Teamsters Union, the New York Transit Workers Union, and even United Airlines pilots joined the protest is compelling evidence of the demonstration's equilateral message. The ramifications of corporate greed, social and economic inequities, and this country's current political oligarchy are worldwide - no one is invulnerable to its consequences. This relatively small movement downtown is only the beginning. It seems that the revolution has started, and this time it will be webevised.