Saturday, March 22, 2008

Union Square Today - The Broken Chain, Peacealujah, The Upcoming Vigil, and Feathers in the Sky

The Broken Chain

Yesterday, I hear that at noon today, a human chain will form along 14th Street in Manhattan from "River to River." I get to the corner of 14th Street and 6th Avenue at 12:10 p.m. today and the human chain has hardly taken form.

By the time I decide to get some food, my first meal of the day, the people lining 14th Street get closer together and join hands. I don't want to miss the march of the human chain. I walk off the sidewalk and into an imaginary corridor - defined by the curb and a series of metal gates manned by police.

Between 5th and 6th Avenues, I offer my hand to a man, Gary, who stands at the tip of a line that stretched to the end of the block. I then join hands with Bob, his dad, who suddenly walks up to join the group. We wait a while and chat. A P.A. system set up down the block blares "Give Peace a Chance." We let go of each other's grasps, and a few minutes later we rejoin hands. The line contracts and stretches. Sometimes the line stretches so far that we struggle to stay together.

Finally, the human chain begins the march. But we are told by the organizers that we should do so in walking formation, not as a human chain. I feel disappointed but immediately my attention is stirred by Elizabeth Adam, an older woman who mentions her distaste for the New School's ambition to replace 65 5th Avenue with a state-of-the-art, 18-story "flagship" building, which currently is slated to look like a gigantic shimmering block of windows.

Adam tells me that she is a neighborhood activist who is trying to put a stop to development efforts like these. What about the vermin invasion? What about all the new students? The neighborhood won't be able to handle it. "The Village is under siege," she says.

"NYU's even worse and the students are even worse," she continues. Every day, they're crowding the sidewalks, smoking cigarettes, yakking on their cell phones. They never get out of the way. "I have to say 'Excuse me' three or four times."

She has no problem with education, or with universities, she says. She has a problem with the fact that the New School and NYU can't provide for their students. She tells me: "Give them a place to stand."

We walk into Union Square, now totally packed with people, and Elizabeth sees a friend. They embrace and Elizabeth brings up the New School's soon-to-be flagship. "We don't want that building," the other woman says. I tell them that I'm off to find some food, but instead I just wander around Union Square awhile.


People have set up little tables to sell kitsch. I see some pins made of origami animals. "Feel free to touch them, to fondle them," Jeremy, a black guy wearing a leather jacket and a frog origami earring on his left ear, tells me. The animals are made of "gift paper, origami paper, wall paper," and they are dipped in polyurethane.

"You're a cutie," he adds. I say goodbye and amble to the band nearby, three kids in their twenties playing banjo, mandolin and spoons.

I cut through the center-square to scope out the 9/11-truth placards underneath the statue of George Washington. On my way, a crowd chants, "What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!" When they say "Peace!" a homeless man with long hair, smoking a cigarette, says "Work." When they say "Now!" he says "Jobs."

I somehow make my way back to the southwest corner of Union Square, where I began. There appears in the congregation a tall man with a big, waxed, Elvis-like coif, who is wearing a stark white suit, a black shirt and black gloves underneath, and a white reverend's collar. He holds a giant, white, acoustic megaphone. It's Reverend Billy!

He inches his way through through the mass of people. I begin to follow him. I meet up with Sam Lewis, photo editor of the New School Free Press, and simultaneously run into Kate Goff, a member of the Lang Student Union, and urge them to pursue Reverend Billy with me. We make it to the southeast corner when I buttonhole the man - and notice that he's got a tiny branch of purple berries in his buttonhole.

The Reverend is a large man. He has a square forehead, clear blue eyes and a strong jaw. He gives a striking, pointed stare, occasionally adding some flair of mannerism. Earlier today, The Church of Stop Shopping and Reverend Billy had just been kicked out of the Auto Show, going on at the Javits Center uptown.

"Amen, Hallelujah," he says. "I think we were able to spread the word about our dependence on gas and oil. Our love affair with the automobile must end. But now, coming down to this march here is like the second foot coming down. Our addiction to fossil fuels and the automobile has everything to do with this war."

"Is there anything you have planned, you know, for the next step down?" I ask.

"Well, we won't step down until we have the peace. We're involved now in a momentum. There's a money momentum. Most Americans want to get out of the war and have been for some time, but the momentum of the war is just going forward. The oil companies, the big construction companies, the supply companies. There's a money decision that's being made that isn't democratic."

His brief talk, as direct and driving as a steamroller, is ominously uncertain. "The average American has common sense now about Iraq. We're not saying Saddam flew those planes into the towers anymore. We're not saying that. But, yet, until at least the end of Bush's eight years, it seems that there is no way to curtail this colonial war. I hope we're learning a lesson here, because as you and I are talking right now, innocent people are dying."

"Peacealujah. That's all I can say." He puts his megaphone to his mouth: "Peacealujah, children." He repeats, "Peacealujah!" He drifts into the throng, calling, "Peacealujah."

The Upcoming Vigil

In front of Babies 'R' Us, sandwiched between other protesters, Sam and I see a group waving Tibetan flags, blue and red stripes with a yellow sun, a white mountain and two fearless snow lions. There's a march now, but only a couple blocks up the street.

On a tiny stage on 17th Street, Leslie Kielson, the New York Coordinator of United Peace and Justice, holds up a 8 1/2 x 11" sheet of paper titled, "Traer A Las Tropas A Casa Amara," which in Spanish roughly means, "Bring the troops home." On her sheet, there are three photos of a youngish Latino man, including a family photo. The woman tells us over the P.A. that when she rings the bells, we will share a few minutes of silence. A string of bells chime out.

No one is speaking. Everything is still. Several people hold up sheets of paper that also say, "Traer A Las Tropas A Casa Amara." But they have different pictures on them. One man holds up a skateboard. A giant pink baloon on a stick flutters in the air.

The silence is only broken by the distant call of a zealot: "9/11 was an inside job!"

A recording of "Taps" comes on over the P.A. system. Then a middle-aged woman with golden-blond hair takes the microphone and sings a slow, beautiful song. Some sing along. A woman with a small drum around her neck puts up her drumsticks in a V shape. She is crying. Nearby, a mock coffin draped with an American and an Iraqi flag sits on the ground.

The woman comes back on the P.A. "Probably in the next couple of days, the four-thousandth soldier will die," she says. A candlelight vigil in Union Square is planned for sometime before the end of the month.

"Together, we can end this war," she continues. "Think of something we can do every single day. Let's do everything in our power. ... Hopefully we will not be here next year."

Feathers in the Sky

It's probably after two o'clock and I still haven't eaten. I split up with Sam, happen into a walking-conversation over to Washington Square with a reporter from Agence France-Presse (he wasn't on "super-fast" deadline but he still beat me by over two hours), make my way back uptown and finally to 6 and 12 on 11th Street and 6th Avenue. I eat, then call my roommate Ryan, who had just been at a Tibet rally uptown. Now he's in Union Square, watching a humongous pillow fight.

I walk past a swarm of thousands of people, old, young, colorfully dressed, or wearing pajamas - bigger, I think, than the turn-out of the rally - and find Ryan perked on a tall ledge at the southeast end of Union Square. I stand up onto the ledge. He warns me about the blond woman behind us, who is warding off anybody that attempts to stomp on the grass. We turn to see her tell some kids off, then turn to what everyone is staring at out the windows of Filene's Basement and Whole Foods: an indecipherable mash of hundreds of people whipping around feather pillows.

Men are walking into the melee shirtless. A guy bursts from the mob donning a big motorcycle helmet. Feathers are flying around, sticking to jackets, shirts, hair. Big puffs of feather get whipped around by wind and float into the air. Bits of feather get carried into the sky and fly away.

What, I wonder, does this have to do with the war in Iraq? Ryan, too, is perplexed about how this is meant to commemorate the war. Nevertheless, this seems like an important, even historic moment. After about forty minutes, I go home. Only then do I find out that today is International Pillow Fight Day.

Photos by Sam Lewis.

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