The challenge for me in writing a commentary is to figure out which
of many items I want to comment on. Every time I sit down to write this something
different captures my attention. So, instead of zeroing in on one, here’s a few snapshots
of things that are on my mind…all under the heading of WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE???
Item 1. Today, March 22nd, the Public Safety Committee of the New
York City Council is convening a hearing on the Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit. It
was four members of this elite unit that showered 41 bullets on Amadou Diallo on the night
of February 4th in a working class, residential neighborhood in the Bronx. The Police
Commission, Howard Safir, has been asked to testify at this public hearing. According to
news reports his office has indicated he has a scheduling conflict and so may not be able
to attend. Safir was seen on camera at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles last night.
Item 2. Over this past weekend a mammoth canvas advertising sign in
Times Square was ripped apart by high winds. Large and heavy strips of canvas plummeted to
the street, along with some of the metal poles that were supposed to secure the sign to
the side of the building. A few people were injured and we can only imagine what might
have happened if this accident occurred during rush hour. It turns out, according to the
head of the NYC Office of Emergency Management, there are no regulations or safety
standards for this new wave of advertising throughout New York – canvas ads that are
sometimes as much as five or six stories high, strapped to the sides of buildings.
Item 3. There is an ad on TV and in mass magazines these days for a
product that is supposed to help stop hair loss in men. (Didn’t we used to call this
balding??) At the end of the ad they warn that women who are pregnant or might some day be
pregnant should not take this medication…should not even touch it…as it might cause
birth defects. This product is but one of many prescription drugs advertised in the mass
media. Does anyone else find this – the conscious effort to create a demand for
prescription medications through advertising – offensive and alarming?
Item 4. The other day I got announcements about two different
demonstrations: one focusing on proposed cuts in state funding for HIV/AIDS services and
one focusing on proposed cuts in money to reduce class sizes in public schools. Both
extremely important struggles, both actions deserve our support, and both are scheduled
for the exact same time and location. On March 26th, New York’s Governor Pataki is
speaking at the annual breakfast meeting of Crain’s Business Weekly, an important
publication of New York’s ruling elites. The breakfast should pull a veritable who’s who
of this city’s very rich and powerful and that alone makes it a good place for these
demonstrations. The good news, of course, is that organizers are taking advantage of the
governor’s appearance to publicly protest. The bad news, is that as best I can tell,
organizers of each action did not even know the other was being planned.
Item 5. Last week I went to a "political funeral"
protesting the murder of Billy Jack Gaither, a gay man in Alabama, as well as other
vicious murders and assaults on gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. No
less brutal than the murder of Matthew Shepard last October, this protest brought out less
than 1,000 people, a significant difference from the over 6,000 last fall. As best I can
tell, the organizing for these two events was pretty similar. So what explains the
difference in turn out? For sure, this case did not generate the same level of national
media interest, but is there also some way that we all too quickly get used to murders and
lose our moral outrage?
Why, you might ask, did she pick these five items…they don’t seem
to be tied together in any way. In each instance we see a little bit of what is wrong in
this country, and in the movements which are still our best tool to make things right.
Part of the problem is that we have yet to develop adequate and
varied ways for people to express their outrage. I can’t believe I’m the only one in New
York City upset that the Police Commissioner is partying at the Academy Awards while
communities of color are targets of police harassment and abuse, or that the overwhelming
presence of advertising (which is bad enough in and of itself) might actually lead to
serious accidents and bodily harm. Where do we get to say these things out loud, how do
our ideas enter the public discourse?
I know I’m not the only one upset about both the governor’s HIV/AIDS
and education policies and I can’t believe I’m the only person to realize that these two
events are planned for the exact same time and location. How do those of us who would love
to see a protest against the governor cover a range of issues help make that happen?
The real question is what are we doing about all of this? Here’s
some food for thought, a few of the questions we need to start answering:
How do we articulate an honest assessment of how bad things are and
at the same time help energize people and project the possibility of change?
How do we focus on specific problems and at the same time make
connections to the big picture?
How do we share information and help educate people about the nature
of the problems and at the same time mobilize as much public protest as possible?
How do we link different struggles concretely and not just
More on all of this in future commentaries.
Leslie Cagan is a decades long organizer in a board range of peace
and social justice movements, Leslie is presently involved in struggles to defend Open
Admissions at the City University of New York (CUNY) and against police brutality. She is
a co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence and is on the board of the Astraea National
Lesbian Action Foundation. Leslie is also part of the growing effort to re-invigorate a
left/progressive voice and practice in the lesbian/gay/bi-sexual/transgender movement.