On the south side of Myrtle Avenue, just across the Ridgewood border into Bushwick, sits a storefront that shares space between a beauty school and an Army recruiting center.
Sixty Bushwick students handed out flyers and performed street theater there last Thursday afternoon in order to protest the war in Iraq and the military’s recruiting practices here at home.
“I heard some stories from Iraq,” explained one of the protesters, Bryan Lopez of Bushwick Harbor School, “like that 24 civilians were killed in a village by U.S. Marines, including a one-year-old girl. What keeps going through my mind is the pain her mother must be going through.”
Another student, Julia Bryan, played an Iraqi civilian during the street theater. “They tell you you’re going to get money for college,” she said of the army recruiters across the street.
“But some of them don’t ever get to go to college,” added Kenyon Harris, referring to the 2,500-plus U.S. soldiers that have already died in Iraq. Harris, a student at the Bushwick School for Social Justice, wore Army fatigue pants and portrayed a U.S. soldier during the street theater. His classmate, (Make the Road by Walking Youth Power member) Adilka Pimentel, symbolized an Iraqi insurgent, pointing a fake gun at Harris, who in turn was pointing one at Bryan.
“People from Iraq want revenge when their families get killed,” reasoned Lopez after the demonstration, “and then American families want revenge when our soldiers get killed. Everyone is just going to keep wanting revenge. We might as well just end this war and stop fueling this never-ending cycle of revenge.”
“People of color,” commented Pimental, “from Bushwick and Brooklyn, are getting killed over there. We’re here to prevent any more recruiting, and to bring our troops home.”
The event was organized by the Youth Power Project of Make the Road by Walking and by El Puente’s Bushwick center. Johnson Nazaire, a Haitian immigrant who now works for El Puente’s summer youth program, echoed Pimental’s analysis. “The recruiters plan to come to low-income neighborhoods,” he accused. “They try to trick us, they tell us the Army has basketball, baseball, football programs, they tell us about the money, they only tell us about the good things. But what they don’t tell you is that they usually put us on the front lines. They figure if we’re poor, we must not be educated. Poor and stupid, that’s how they see us.”
Bushwick Councilwoman Diana Reyna agrees with Pimental and Nazaire, up to a point. “In the City Council,” she told the Ledger/Star by phone, “we’re paying a moment of silence to more and more New Yorkers that are dying in Iraq, and the majority of the names are Latino or African-American. But I won’t say in a blanket statement that the Army targets low-income people. I would need to know more about what they are doing in other neighborhoods to say that for sure. A quick look at the demographics, though, makes it seem that way. Take a look at who’s coming back in a casket.”
Her colleague from across the borough border, Ridgewood Councilman Dennis Gallagher, had a much different take when the Ledger/Star told him about the student protest. “That’s unfortunate,” was his immediate reaction, “that they would do that. The armed forces offer great opportunities to many young men and women. I have a lot of family currently serving, and we are all better for their service. We have an all volunteer army and people who want to serve should be entitled to enlist.”
When asked if he thought the Army was only targeting minorities, Gallagher, who is white, responded, “My [17-year old] son is considering it, and I encouraged him to do it if that’s what he wants. He’s going to go to college first, and then decide. It’s a calling for many people, whether black, white, Asian, or Hispanic. The values of the armed services are shared by all ethnic groups.”
Thad Krasnesky, company commander for Army recruitment in Kings County, made sure to be at the Bushwick location during the protest. “There was a guy there from the army,” recalled Bryan. “He just listened though. He wanted to see what we were doing.”
When the Ledger/Star caught up with Krasnesky afterwards, he spoke diplomatically about the young protesters. “I appreciate anytime kids get involved,” he said. “Obviously I disagree with their views, but the reason I wear this uniform is to protect their rights to do that. In fact, I’m glad they chose my station.”
About the street theater that dramatized violence toward Iraqi civilians, Krasnesky said, “Killing is wrong. It’s right to be outraged about it. But direct your anger at the person who committed the crime.”
In other words, blame and prosecute the individual soldier who committed the illegal act, but don’t vilify all soldiers. Krasnesky went on to make an analogy with teachers who are caught having sexual relationships with students. “It’s an awful thing,” he said. “It’s an abuse of trust. But why aren’t they protesting at the Board of Education trying to tell other kids not to become teachers? They should save their anger and outrage for the guilty parties. Their anger is justified but misdirected.”
The students’ reaction to recent reports of civilian massacres in Iraq is just part of their anger, however. They are especially concerned about recruitment in their schools and neighborhoods, and they feel they are being unfairly targeted for service. Further bolstering their claim is the fact that the first U.S. soldier to die in Iraq, William White, was from Bushwick. “Why did it have to be a soldier from Bushwick, of all places in the U.S., who was killed first?” asked Lopez.
Speaking of all the soldier and civilian deaths, Lopez commented, “People in this neighborhood don’t know what’s actually happening.”
Krasnesky, meanwhile, claimed it was Lopez and his co-protesters who don’t know what’s really happening. “I have been to Iraq several times,” recalled the career soldier. “I speak Arabic. I know the culture intimately. The time I spent in Iraq, the time I spent getting shot at and shooting at people is miniscule compared to the time I spent doing toy drops, giving out school supplies, planting gardens, upgrading sanitation and sewer systems, and rebuilding bridges.”
While the students at last week’s protest wanted to see an end to all military recruiting in their schools, their political representative, Reyna, is not willing to go that far. “I considered joining myself,” she admitted, “to help pay for my education. But my parents said, ‘Absolutely not,’ and it turns out I was able to pay for college in other ways. If there’s going to be recruiting, it shouldn’t be a one-sided or exclusive showcasing. We should invite CUNY and SUNY to have a booth right next to the Army’s booth.”
In fact, Reyna has already reached out to CUNY to see if they can put a storefront outreach center right next to the Army’s storefronts on Myrtle Avenue in Bushwick and on Broadway in Williamsburg. “They’ve already done that in Washington Heights,” she said. “We shouldn’t say, ‘Don’t join the Army.’ But if youth are joining because they see nothing else around them, then we need to challenge them and say that’s not true.”