STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. This aint the Summer of Love on Staten Island.
What do the mentally ill, Mexican bias crime victims and Muslims without a house of worship have in common? Plenty.
THINKING IN STEREOTYPES
As NLN reported in March (Counting The Least Among Us) stereotyping and scapegoating are social problems plaguing Staten Island. On the receiving end this past year: the mentally ill, Mexican laborers and local Muslims.
IS HOUSING A HUMAN RIGHT?
In March, the issue raised in a legislative breakfast sponsored by the Staten Island Mental Health Council was community members looking to block housing for persons with mental illness.
Over the last two years residents of the St. George community organized to block the conversion of a former convent into a housing program for individuals recovering from serious mental illness. The reasons cited were primarily related to anxiety about personal safety despite the fact that, statistically, the person afflicted with mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator.
Critics of the plan made public statements (on silive.com and elsewhere) indicating that they perceive the mentally ill as stereotypes rather than as human beings. The mentally ill were referred to as pedophiles, drug addicts and David Berkowitz.
HATE SPEECH, HATE CRIMES
Walking hand in hand with stereotypic thinking is scapegoating.
Staten Islands Mexican population is resented by some Islanders because of the perception that the Mexican worker is taking a job that might otherwise go to a long term resident. Others appear to be acting out of some sort of territorial impulse, despite the fact that Mexicans have lived in Port Richmond for well over a decade.
What is fueling the current spate of attacks? There are no easy answers. But there is plenty of talk and some of it is quite ugly.
The Staten Island Advances discussion website (silive.com) is a showcase for intolerance. Because the staff, whats left of it in this post-journalism period, does not moderate comments until after they are posted and usually after someone complains a number of offensive posts appear on the site on a daily basis.
This comment from vincent appeared in response to a piece by staffwriter John Annese that ran on August 8:
Illegal signifies one thing lawbreaker! No one has an issue with having immigrants come here and better themselves. The problem that everyone (not just white people) are having is the fact that they hide in car trunks, pile into cars like clowns in a circus just to get across the border and then scatter like roaches when the lights go on. Is THIS the type if immigrant we want here? NO! They bleed the econony, welfare, section 8, food stamps, emergency room visits, all on the taxpayers tab. Thats why the city and the government in general is finding new ways to rob its (sic) legal, law abiding citizens of its (sic) hard earned money.
The site is full of this sort of thing. Reasonable people can only hope that the prolific posters it seems to be a handful of people do not represent Staten Island. But they do tarnish its image. Particularly when hate crimes are documented by Advance staffers and are subsequently annotated with hateful comments.
THE HATE WAVE CONTINUES
Mexicans seen as stereotypes by bigots wielding weapons have been the victims of 11 bias crimes in the Islands Port Richmond area since April. The beatings have been accompanied by anti-Mexican epithets.
The repeated attacks have not gone unnoticed by the press but the police were slow to react, prompting criticism.
The recent show of force by the NYPD and its Hate Crimes Task Force the deployment of large numbers of patrol cars, sky towers (collapisible mobile guard towers) and extra personnel was welcomed by concerned Islanders but was widely seen as arriving a bit late in the game.
On NY1′s Political Rundown, conservative commentator Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels a number of whom have been visible in Port Richmond since the attacks began noted on July 28 that They had more cops out there yesterday in Port Richmond, Staten Island, than they have at the St. Patricks Day parade.
Sliwas opposite number, El Diario columnist Gerson Borrero chimed in, noting that The NYPD does bring out this show of force after all these people 10 people, 10 men, 10 Mexicans have been beaten. The Guardian Angels forced you to do this Ray Kelly? This is shameful.
Worse yet the police presence did not prevent another attack.
Stunning an already stunned community, a young African-American beat a Mexican worker who was returning home in the early hours of Saturday, July 31. This attack occurred in what police described as a pocket an unobserved area in an otherwise complete dragnet.
MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING
While the police are turning Port Richmond into a militarized zone, local activists are trying to increase the peace by doing community organizing and holding rallies.
Hundreds of Staten Islanders rallied against hate crimes Wednesday, July 28, gathering at the site where Mexican restaurant worker Alejandro Galindo was attacked on July 24. Galindo, who suffered serious damage to his eye in the attack, attended the rally with his wife Blanca.
Blanca Galindos comments where translated by Make The Road co-director Ana Maria Archila. Ms. Galindo said that Perhaps if President Obama decided to do the comprehensive immigration reform we wouldnt be experiencing the experiences weve had here.
After the rally over 300 people marched though the streets of Port Richmond and local residents came out onto their porches to watch the procession.
EMULATING OPPRESSORS V. TEACHING TOLERANCE
One troubling aspect of the bias attacks is that they are allegedly being perpetrated by African-Americans. A 15-year-old Liberian-American man was arrested on August 2 for the Saturday morning beating of the 17-year-old Mexican worker.
Ed Josey, president of the Staten Island NAACP, has been present at the anti-violence vigils and rallies. Josey, a long time leader on the Island, has spoken out forcefully on this issue, urging parents to speak to their kids, and to teach them about tolerance.
Another well known North Shore community organizer, City Council member Debi Rose Staten Islands first African-American elected official has been active in attempting to restore peace to her district. Rose has been working with City Council speaker Christine Quinn and has started a website to get community members involved in the effort to teach tolerance and to get the word out that Staten Islanders oppose bigotry. The site is called I am Staten Island and is located at: iamsi.info
Although Rose and Quinn have been in the front lines of this struggle they are the lone representatives of New Yorks pool of elected officials.
On NY1′s Political Rundown, Gerson Borrero lamented the missing officials.
Where are the City Council members? Where are the state legislators? Where are the Congress members? Borrero asked.
Aside from issuing a blanket condemnation, Congressman Mike McMahon has not been out front on this issue as of yet, perhaps due to his recent problems with a staffer.
On July 30, CBS reported that In an effort to show that Republican challenger Mike Grimm has received most of his financial support from donors outside of New Yorks 13th district, Democratic Rep. Mike McMahons re-election campaign gave the New York Observer a list of more than 80 Jewish donors to Grimm. The list was entitled Grimm Jewish Money Q2.
After the news broke, McMahon fired the staffer, campaign spokesperson Jennifer Nelson, and said that These comments were entirely inappropriate and there is no place for this kind of behavior. I was outraged by these unfortunate remarks which were unauthorized and are in no way indicative of my beliefs or of my campaign.
Stunned Staten Islanders winced yet again when news of this latest example of bigotry was made public by the various news services.
CONNECTING THE DOTS: ISLAMOPHOBIA, INVESTIGATIONS AND INTOLERANCE
Recently, community uproar over a plan to sell a former convent to a Muslim organization killed the deal.
The Muslim American Society was planning to build a mosque in Staten Islands Midland Beach section and struck a deal with a local Catholic church to buy an unused parish convent. In May, when the deal was announced, Community members organized to oppose it, citing concerns ranging from parking to allegations that the Muslim American Society had times to an organization called the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood which in turn has alleged ties to a terrorist organization. All of these ties are speculative and no evidence backing them up exists in the public domain rumors abound in right wing blogs but there is no tangible proof that an organization called the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood even exists, let alone has times to any other organization(s). And, aside from spurious claims, emerging from the right wing blogosphere, that MAS had ties to the, perhaps fictional, U.S. Muslim Brotherhood, there was never any reason to suspect the group had any intention other than to build a house of worship and a day care center.
Joe Zwilling, a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, told the Staten Island Advance in late May that, Ive not heard anything that says this is a terrorist organization.
So I would hate to even use a word like that when that word only serves to inflame peoples emotions, Zwilling said.
But in mid-June, Congressman McMahon, rather than defending the civil rights of the Muslim American Society, asked the FBI to investigate the group. The Staten Island Advances Amy Padnani reported on July 23 that McMahon received notification from the Bureau that the MAS appears harmless.
But this comforting news came too late to save the deal.
In June, bowing to community pressure, Rev. Keith Fennessy, pastor of St. Margaret Mary R.C. Church, issued a statement announcing that he had withdrawn support for the proposed sale of the parish convent to the Muslim American Society. This statement was followed by a vote of the parishs board of trustees, as required by state law. After the trustees affirmed Fennessys decision, the Archdiocese made an official announcement. For his part, Fennessy resigned as pastor.
In response, the MAS issued a statement saying that This denial reinforced an unfortunate notion that the pressures of bigotry and Islamophobia triumphed over a good longstanding relationship between the Archdiocese and the Muslim community.
STANDING AGAINST STEREOTYPING AND SCAPEGOATING
Responding to these events, a group of progressive, non-Muslim, Staten Islanders including members of MDS, Peace Action, the NAACP, the World Cant Wait and Brooklyn For Peace organized a rally in support of Staten Island Muslims. A small group of Muslim women joined the rally which was held outside the former convent on Saturday, July 31. The two dozen protesters were flanked by a half dozen police and surrounded by the mainstream press. It was impossible to walk the picket line without tripping over a reporter.
Why the big turnout of reporters?
The New York press is following the Ground Zero Mosque story and drew a connection to what happened on Staten Island. However, there are differences, despite the common threads of Islamophobia (and the related 9-11 experience reinterpreted as an ultra-right political ideology).
The Staten Island mosque plan was not actively opposed by local politicians, unlike the Ground Zero mosque. Several prominent Republicans, including Gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, are very vocal about opposing the Ground Zero mosque as they desperately look for election year issues to use against frontrunner Andrew Cuomo. And yet, despite the hyperbole and hysteria, that particular mosque may yet come to pass.
Reasonable persons observing the right wing hyperbole and wild accusations spawned by irresponsible internet personas and conservative bloggers, are bound to be unnerved. The McCarthyite strains sound eerily familiar to those who lived through the period or studied it in school.
MURROW V. MCCARTHY
Perhaps an unlikely candidate to reprise the role of Edward R. Murrow is conservative commentator Curtis Sliwa.
Yet on the July 28 airing of NY1′s Political Rundown, Sliwa said, I am for the [ Ground Zero ] mosque. I live next to the biggest mosque in North America, on Ninety-Sixth and Third. Dont worry about it.
And while Sliwa is urging tolerance and acceptance on NY1, his Guardian Angels are in the streets of Staten Island, looking to bring some peace back to the community of Port Richmond.
That peace is slow in coming, in part because the city unlike Sliwa, Make The Road and Debi Rose has been slow to respond to the problem.
On August 2, Make The Road New Yorks Executive Director, Ana Maria Archila, issued a statement urging Mayor Bloomberg to step up to the plate.
It is alarming that Mayor Bloomberg has not taken stronger, decisive action or played a visible leadership role in responding to this epidemic of hate crimes. While the City has dramatically increased police presence in Port Richmond, where many of these attacks have occurred, this surge in police presence fails to address the root causes of this violence.
There are no quick fixes to the problem of hate crimes, but New York City, and Mayor Bloomberg, must do more to address the complex factors that lead to these incidents.
The Mayor should personally come to our community, commit his administration to combating hate-related violence and condemn these crimes whenever they occur, Archila said.
In the short-term, Archila called for city-wide hearings and town hall meetings on the problem of hate crimes. She asked the mayor to initiate a public education campaign about hate crimes are and how to report them, and asked for the creation of a Port Richmond anti-violence task force.
WAITING FOR THE SUN
Bigotry is ugly. The recent attacks on Mexicans in Port Richmond, the denial of housing to the mentally ill in St. George and the Midland Beach protests against Muslims who want nothing more than a place of worship are all facets of a malignancy that starts with a lack of empathy and grows into the grotesque acts of hate Islanders have witnessed in recent days. It is not insignificant that each of these incidents has been accompanied by an outpouring of hate speech on silive.com. And Congressman McMahon, rather than stepping up to protect the civil rights of the least of us, rather than educating his constituents and promoting tolerance, panders to prejudice by calling for an investigation of those who seek a house of worship an act that was followed by the revelation that his staff was compiling a list of Jewish Money donors to Republican Michael Grimm. Perhaps Mr. McMahon should ask the FBI to investigate his staff?
Mayor Bloomberg has declined to take a leadership role in the bias attacks on Staten Island. In a press conference held on Monday, August 2, Bloomberg punted the ball to Ray Kelly. And the NYPD is indeed now patrolling Port Richmond but Kelly and his show of force arrived only after 10 attacks had taken place. And only after the Guardian Angels stepped in.
City Council member Debi Rose and Make The Road New York are leading the effort to re-establish peace in Port Richmond. Local Islanders from several groups, including the NAACP, are looking to promote tolerance of Muslims on Staten Island while conservative commentator Curtis Sliwa is urging New Yorkers not to fret about the Ground Zero mosque. The Staten Island Mental Health Council is looking stop the defamation of the mentally ill. These efforts deserve our support and our praise as wait for the sun to rise again.
Its always darkest just before the dawn. Pete Seeger