Monday, July 21, 2014


While biking home along 1st Avenue this past Saturday, I pulled over near the United Nations to watch a piece of street theatre play itself out. Standing across the street from each other on the corner of 47th Street were two groups of protestors yelling at each other from behind metal barricades, with only one young policewoman acting as resident zookeeper.

These kinds of protests happen near the U.N. whenever unfortunate things happen in the international community (except when Islamic terrorists go to town on innocent civilians and historic artifacts. You know, choosing your battles and all that). The controversy du jour was one guaranteed to inflame deeply-held political viewpoints: the current immigration crisis. 

These protests always seem quite dramatic when covered on the 6:00 news. In person, however, it was a different story. The pro-immigration side, led proudly by the Freedom Socialist Party and self-described "Radical Women," numbered no more than 15. (The radicals appeared to be middle-aged housewives who came straight from the summer sale at Target.) They were a dull, resolute bunch, reciting slogans in a rote, robotic fashion, as if they had gotten their marching orders from HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A reporter from WCBS-TV news was interviewing them. When she left to interview the anti-immigration group ("I wanna make sure I get both sides of the story," she said, as if to be congratulated for doing her job), a camera woman, who had nothing to do with the reporter, stuck around. She spoke to a guy -- let's call him Noam -- who seemed to be in charge of the protestors. Noam then turned to his friends, who by now had turned to face him. With the camerawoman shooting him in mid-close-up, Noam started giving a speech, as if he were addressing a much larger rally, instead of the dullards he showed up with. It seemed to be for the benefit of a like-minded group who would later watch the video in somebody's Upper West Side apartment while sipping a Riesling that they made sure had come from a co-op vineyard.

The anti-immigration crowd easily outnumbered their counterparts by almost 3-1 -- which means there were still only around 40 of them in a city with a population of over eight million. These folks were much livelier, often taking the time to get the occasional "Impeach Obama Now!" chant going before petering out. They were definitely angrier, too, their slogans shouted with passion, compared to their somewhat bloodless opponents. An especially excitable woman wore a placard reading, with a wit rivaling that of S.J. Perleman, MR. OBAMA MY MIDDLE FINGER SALUTES YOU! One Latino anti-immigration fellow jumped the barricade to verbally take on a hermano on the other side. By then, a few burly male cops had shown up and separated the two. Too bad -- it was the most exciting part of the show.

In one of those only-in-the-movies moments that seem to happen every day in New York, an Asian tourist group accidentally entered the fray. Many of them were school kids, and seemed baffled by the commotion. One middle-aged Asian with his family started a discussion with the woman on the left in the accompanying photo. A male protester, apparently believing that the interloper was a Chinese spy, yelled at him from behind the barricades. "What would happen to me if I tried to sneak into your country? What would you do to me? Would you arrest me and execute me? Or would you give me food stamps?" Thanks for giving a foreign tourist such a fine example of New York hospitality, bub. 

Many of the Asian tourists, though, were just thrilled when the police woman allowed them to pose for pictures with her, as if she was a wax figure of Nicole Kidman outside of Madame Tussaud's in Time Square. If I were her husband, I'd want her to stay on that detail permanently.

As the protestors duked it out, I realized I was watching a perfect metaphor for our current Congress: Two groups of people yelling at each other, with no one trying to solve the problem by working together. Even where they were standing -- the left-wing on the north side of the street, the right wing on the south -- was so obvious, I would have called it out as a cliche if I had seen it in a Rob Reiner movie. 

There are no simple solutions to this problem. But I wish the reporter from WCBS asked each side one question: "How would you feel if Latino immigrants tended to vote Republican instead of Democrat?"


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