“A riot is the language of the unheard.” Martin Luther King Jr.
On Tuesday afternoon I set off across Central Park, headed for the west side. Alongside the path young trees could be seen, newly planted where the old ones had been toppled in the storm of August 2009. In fact, there are many more being planted than were lost that summer. Last week my friend Beatrice and I spotted tender young willows at the area on the upper west side known as The Pool. I had never seen a willow tree that wasn’t fully grown. What a joy then to stumble across a tender sapling trembling in the first rush of its being, shadowed by the old ones already comfortable in their majesty. Blue signage throughout the park notes a colossal bank-that-shall-not-be-named has underwritten the restoration project. It should be the citizens, I thought, who are the contributors to restoring the park we love so much, our money. Oh, wait… .
On the downtown C train I noticed a poster: Give The Homeless the Kind of Change They Really Need. I opened my book, Field Notes On Democracy by Arundhati Roy. I thought about all that had happened or not happened since the last presidential election. Change indeed.
I was off to see a new documentary about the Stonewall uprising. The year it happened, 1969, was a long way away and I wanted to revisit that time, see where we had come since then.
I was one of a scattered few in the small theater at Film Forum. Most were men, most seated alone. An older woman, about my age, flanked by her male friends sat behind me. It was the middle of the day.
The summer of 1969 I was newly married and marching through my own personal field of doubt. It would not be until I had chucked the marital baggage, divorced and began banging about as my own person that I would again come to have close adult relationships with gay friends. I had gone to the High School of Art & Design when I was younger. Male classmates who sported ascots and dressed with flair were not found in the housing projects where I grew up. They were fellow classmates in a school where all walks of life crossed paths. They were my friends. The boys I grew up with in Asoria who charged into Times Square on a Saturday night to go ‘fag-bashing’ suddenly lost their appeal to me. Straight men? Bah!
Nevertheless I married and got through that dubious rite of passage pretty quickly. After 6 years or so I was an artist again, when freethinking, free living, and free loving came without a warning stamped on the package: Can be harmful or dangerous to your health.
When AIDS came roaring on the scene, leaving a path of destruction so wide and irrevocable, I was among friends in throngs of protesters joining with ACT UP in decrying a New York times reporter, Gina Kolata, and her dangerously misguided reportage.
So I sat back and watched Stonewall Uprising and let this very good documentary fill in some of the blanks. Blanks like the old black and white newsreel clips of police officers warning the befuddled and sometimes, fearful audience of school kids that if any one of them proved to be homosexual they would be found! Lobotomies were prescribed. No less a reporter than Mike Wallace blithely intoned that homosexuals were not capable of lasting relationships. A chortling chorus rose behind me in the theater. When a man named Danny Garvin spoke of his experiences, how he wanted to kill himself and a shot of a young man in Navy whites appeared on the screen I thought, sadly, of my own father. The laws were wildly off kilter then. If one did not have at least three articles of clothing on that were gender-specific then you were given free passage on the paddy wagon. That law seriously threw a fashion wrench into the closets of drag queens.
What did not disable the drag queens was their anger finally rising to an unstoppable mass in the summer of ’69. The Twilight People, as homosexuals were called, were not hiding in the shadows anymore. Lily Law, Patty Pig and Betty Badge had crashed their last gay bar and had cracked their last gay head. Miss New Orleans was not gonna be stopped this time.
Afterwards I walked up to Christopher Street to check out the reincarnated Stonewall bar. Looks a bit like a theme park now, but coming from the documentary the ghosts and the power of the movement were still fresh. Just down the block used to be The Lion’s head where I spent lost hours with a friend and lover, a hard drinking, hard living journalist who eventually died of AIDS. He was one in a long line of many I knew and loved.
There was a rally for Troy Davis, who is on death row, at Union Square Park so I ambled uptown slowly. At the recently shuttered St. Vincent’s hospital a lone protester talked to anyone who would stop. The closing of this historical hospital has been yet another nail in the coffin of a once vibrant and diverse community. The walls of the former hospital were plastered with protest: A Doc In a Box Is Not a Solution; My Heart Bleeds, in Spanish and English. The sign that sent shivers through me? A four-foot high hand lettered word in red paint: CLOSED. “How was St. Vincent’s allowed to close without public input? Without investigations?” the man asked me. I told him a dear friend was one of the last patients at St. Vincent’s, that the doctors had saved his life. Literally. As I waved good-bye he shouted: “Stay healthy!”
At Union Square the crowd of supporters for Troy Davis was small, maybe 20 or 30 gathered with their signs: I AM TROY DAVIS. Mostly the young downtown crowd ignored the blue placards and sipped their Caramel Macchiatos. Men ogled the scantily dressed women being filmed by the now ubiquitous presence of NYU students and the women paraded past the camera, oblivious to the fate of an innocent man on death row.
There are many innocent men and women on death row. I have been in contact with one young man on death row in Texas. His name is Rob Will. I volunteer to type his updates for his death row diary, which is posted on the Internet and can be found at: http://www.freerobwill.org/. In his own words, “In December of 2000, at the age of 22, I was charged with capital murder of a police officer. After a ridiculously unfair trial I was sentenced to death by a Harris County (Houston) judge and sent to death row. I am completely innocent and I am sure anyone who takes the time to look into my case will come to that same conclusion.”
I am passionately opposed to the death penalty. I know to be a fact that our prison system is a torturous, racist, institution. Some people I have talked to, people I would otherwise know as compassionate progressive liberals, people who save animals and the environment, yet stop at being able to protest the death penalty for reasons like having children. It’s the old “what if?” scenario. I am glad to know there are many, many opposed to the death penalty, and a lot of them have children. Some who have seen their own children murdered. “What if” we could be a just society that believes in healing and making time for healing? What if we held accountable those officials who condone the beating and torture of inmates, who throw out appeals from individuals on death row because the ‘Good Ol Boy” system is too firmly entrenched and would rather an innocent man or woman die than lose face.
Many vendors pepper Union Square Park now and hopefully that will continue unless Bloomberg gets his monarchical way. One young man saw the demonstrators at a distance behind him and turned from his wares and shouted, fist raised: “I am Troy Davis!” The demonstrators from CEDP shouted a greeting back to him. The rest continued to amble like eye candy, roll on their skateboards, pour over their tweets and shout into their cell phones unaware.
I stopped in to see Ghandi who resides in his little park at the southwest end of the park. This time the gates were unlocked and I strolled down a curvy brick lane in the garden getting up close and personal to this wonderful statue.
It made me think about the necessity of revolution today, either active or passive resistance. It made me wonder why, with all that has gone on relative to the raping of the economy to prop up the banks, the dreadful environmental disaster in the Gulf, our dwindling civil rights, and a greater emergence of the police state to name a few heinous developments, why we have not taken to the streets.
We don’t really protest in real numbers anymore. I’m currently reading a fascinating book by Nicholas Carr: “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains.” Virtual protest seems to satisfy our need to rebel just fine. Online petitions, facebook postings, hurried tweets. This will never compare with getting out there, side-by-side, talking angry feelings into positive action IN A CROWD! Roused by a real speaker, impassioned by another’s passion to right the wrongs and make the bad guys sit up and take notice that they are on notice. We have let things slip down the Internet Highway and have to step back onto a real dirt road again and stop letting our fingers do the protest tap.We need to find our avenues of rebellion again. We need to shout and scream, protest, demonstrate and demand the kind of change we really need.