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Never Shut Up, New York | The Nation

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Never Shut Up, New York

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The courage of New York firefighters was honored during the "Concert for New York" at Madison Square Garden on October 20, and David Bowie noted the privilege he felt to play for his "local ladder" heroes, who step into danger to save innocents and extinguish fires. Among the entertainment all-stars present, the actor Richard Gere didn't merely talk or sing about courage: He did something brave.

Al Giordano is currently a free-speech defendant in the New York State Supreme Court [see Mark Schapiro, "Drug War on Trial," September 17, 2001].

About the Author

Al Giordano
Al Giordano (narconews@hotmail.com), a former Boston Phoenix reporter, publishes The Narco News Bulletin (www.narconews...

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Many compared it to marching through a dream.
After seven years under siege by 70,000 Mexican Army troops in the
jungles and highlands of Chiapas, the Zapatista National Liberation
Army (EZLN) sent twenty-four delegates, including its pipe-smoking
writer-spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, on a triumphant two-week
motorcade that landed in Mexico City on March 11.

"I don't
believe that in any place, in any space in this world--and I have the
memory of my own revolution twenty-six years ago--I don't remember a
more moving moment than I lived yesterday," declared the
septuagenarian Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author José
Saramago the next morning.

The US press coverage of the
march, limited though it was, hinted at such an apotheosis: the
cheering multitudes that greeted the Zapatistas from the roadsides
and at mass rallies in twelve states along the route, the flowery
words of peace and civil rights coming to Mexico's mythical newfound
democracy. But for the Zapatistas and Mexico's indigenous movement,
the struggle now turns into a battle to codify the movement's
progress into law.

The caravan came to demand
constitutional recognition for Mexico's 10 million indigenous
citizens, subjected to generations of repression, poverty, racism and
exploitation of their lands and labor. As Mexico's President Vicente
Fox passed his hundredth day in office, he reiterated calls to the
Zapatistas to negotiate a peace. Not until the government fulfills
the promises it has already made, answered the rebels: release of
Zapatista political prisoners, closure of seven of the 259 military
bases in Chiapas, and congressional passage of the law that would
ratify the 1996 San Andrés peace agreements signed by the
government [see Jerry W. Sanders, "Two Mexicos and Fox's Quandary,"
February 26].

The geographical advance was accompanied by a
steady rise in the popularity of Marcos and the Zapatistas in opinion
polls, an average gain of two percentage points per day, with over 50
percent in support. The implementation of the San Andrés
Accords is now the sticking point. Marcos and the Zapatistas, with
more than 1,000 delegates from the Indigenous National Congress,
encamped at the base of Mexico City's Cuicuilco pyramid--a circular,
370-foot-diameter stone monument that has survived at least 2,600
years of lava flows, earthquakes and urban
sprawl.

Underscoring their credo, "We will not sign a false
peace," the Zapatistas caused a fierce uproar when, as the caravan
was launched from San Cristóbal, Chiapas, they named architect
Fernando Yáñez Muñoz as their representative to
the federal Congress. Mexican police agencies have long claimed that
Yáñez is Comandante Germán, the feared national
guerrilla leader of the 1970s and '80s who, they say, helped found
the Zapatista army in the jungle in 1983, a charge that
Yáñez has denied. The Zapatistas have also, for the
first time, called upon other guerrilla movements to protect their
journey and remain alert, implying that if the state doesn't keep its
word, an armed guerrilla response could explode
nationwide.

María Luisa Tomasini, 78, a Chiapas
native designated by Marcos as the "grandmother of all the
Zapatistas," analyzed his call to the other insurgent groupsas she
was returning from the March 7 Zapatista rally in Iguala, Guerrero, a
state with at least sixteen armed clandestine guerrilla
organizations. "Clearly," she said, "it was a threat to the
government that it had better comply."

The powerful sectors
that have always gotten their way in Mexico--bankers, chambers of
commerce chiefs, right-wing clergy, the TV networks and key
legislators--are working furiously to sabotage the road to a genuine
peace. Fox's party, the PAN, teamed up with the former ruling party,
the PRI, against the left-wing PRD party to propose that the
Zapatistas meet with twenty congressional leaders instead of the
entire Congress. Marcos, noting that the indigenous of Mexico have
always been hidden "in the kitchen, on the back porch," rejected the
offer, arguing that the Zapatistas and the Indigenous National
Congress deserve to address the whole Congress. Hard-liners continue
to seek any roadblock to passage of the full indigenous rights bill
with hysterical claims that autonomy would fracture the nation, and
they vow radical surgery to the initiative.

On March 19 the
Zapatistas announced they will return to the jungle, citing the
"close minded" attitude of "cavemen politicians," saying, "Nothing
will be able to stop the popular mobilization" that stems from the
Congress's failure to act. "We will return with everyone who we are."
Immediately, thirteen national peasant-farmer groups pledged
nationwide marches, students plotted direct action and five major
indigenous groups in Oaxaca vowed to close the Pan American Highway
until Congress passes the accords. Congressional leaders begged the
Zapatistas to stay, Fox urged the Congress to meet with the rebels
and the drama now moves in unpredictable directions.

The
guiding principle of the San Andrés Accords is autonomy. The
word has galvanized many beyond Mexico's indigenous populations. The
battered Mexican left--peasant farmers, urban workers and especially
the nation's youth--view themselves, too, under the banner of
autonomy. Indeed, the popularity of the Zapatista struggle around the
world derives at least in part from the coherent language of
opposition to globalized and savage capitalism that they have
constructed. French sociologist Alain Torraine, who accompanied the
caravan, praised the Zapatistas during a March 12 discussion with
Marcos and the comandantes in Mexico City, marveling, "The entire
world, and we are speaking of the left, is looking for a new
language." Comandante David, a Tzotzil delegate who was a chief
negotiator and architect of the San Andrés Accords,
acknowledges that the demand for autonomy goes far beyond indigenous
rights. "We are going to explain directly to the indigenous and
nonindigenous brothers of the country that indigenous rights are for
the good of all the peoples," he said while preparing to leave on the
caravan.

Autonomy--what might be called "home rule" in
other parts of the world--includes local control of land use, a sore
point for big business in Mexico, its eyes on natural
resources.

Beyond Mexico, US investors and corporate
interests, with expectations that Fox will be the most effective
deliveryman yet of Mexican resources under NAFTA, are stoking the
subterfuge. Former US Ambassador to Mexico James Jones, now a
railroad baron and rainmaker for the Manat, Phelps and Phillips law
and lobbying firm in Washington, is on the board of directors of TV
Azteca, the most notorious manipulator of public opinion among all
the Mexican media. TV Azteca joined the other broadcasting giant,
Televisa, to present a March 3 Concert for Peace live from Aztec
Stadium, featuring a laser light show, a Woodstock-style logo and the
usual condescension toward "our indigenous brothers." The prepackaged
video aired with the concert didn't mention autonomy, or indigenous
political prisoners, or 500 years of conquest--certainly not justice
in connection with the 1997 massacre of unarmed indigenous peasants
at Acteal. The only proposed solution was to send aid to the poor,
barefoot indigenous communities, an approach known in Mexican
politics as "clientism." Many analysts saw Fox's fingerprints on the
TV peace show, as both stations rely on state permission to broadcast
in Mexico. Indeed, one of the demands of the San Andrés
Accords is the right of indigenous peoples to break that control by
forming their own media, including the use of radio and television
frequencies.

The question of indigenous autonomy also has
consequences for the US-imposed "war on drugs." The San Andrés
Accords would restore indigenous rights to the use of currently
illicit sacred plants and codify the pre-eminence of ancient forms of
community justice. Luciano, a spokesman for the Zapatista community
of Polho, explained to me in 1998 how the autonomous system works
without constructing a single prison cell: "If a young man grows
marijuana, he goes before a municipal judge to be disciplined and
oriented so that he won't ever do it again. If the youth does it
again, there is no response whatsoever: He cannot be pardoned a
second time. He would then be expelled from the
community."

That the Zapatista communities have had far
more success in driving out the narcotraffickers and preventing drug
and alcohol abuse than any other region of the Americas is of little
concern to the big talkers of law and order. Opponents charge that
autonomy in matters of criminal justice would "balkanize" the country
and subvert the "rule of law."

Indigenous and social
movements across Latin America--in Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru,
Panama, Brazil and other nations--had representatives quietly
observing the caravan. In spite of the powers stacked against them,
the Zapatistas, newly strengthened, their national support deepened,
have many cards yet to play in forcing legislative victory. In the
latest of the ironies under NAFTA, autonomy may thus, and soon,
become Mexico's leading export product.

Gere knew what he was stepping into. Five days prior to the concert, he had been slapped by The New Republic and its adolescent "Idiocy Watch" column for using words as inappropriate as "love and compassion" and speaking of the "negative karma" of terrorists. At the concert, Gere steered clear of any reference to his well-known Eastern religious tendencies, but he did repeat the newly explosive Western expletives. He seemed to anticipate, anyway, the boos that hailed down upon him from many of the 20,000 seats. His response was decidedly different from that of Sinead O'Connor, who had once burst into tears upon being jeered at a 1992 MSG all-star show. The officer and gentleman of the silver screen utilized the rejection artfully, like an expected stage prop, to remark that it is the same "love and compassion" that the firefighters demonstrate when saving lives. "That's apparently unpopular now," Gere closed, implicitly acknowledging that booing is, too, a form of speech, "but that's OK." It was a classy New York minute.

It took guts for Gere to turn the hose of his art upon the flames of wartime in a crowded arena. In that, he deployed a decidedly New York weapon: Speech.

New York City's historic refusal to shut up is now one of the national treasures that some newly minted sunshine patriots wish to bulldoze under the rubble of Lower Manhattan. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer lectured that we must "watch what we say" after the September 11 attacks, and even some journalists--formerly the warriors who defended free speech--have signed up as speech cops. As the networks obey federal "requests" to deny airtime to Osama bin Laden, some journalists have argued that Al Jazeera, the Qatar TV network, should be censored too. CNN sent six questions to bin Laden but roared that it will air the responses only if they are "newsworthy," while a Fox news official criticized CNN for even asking the questions. The New York Times and an illustrious media partnership spent a million dollars to recount the Florida 2000 presidential vote but have now bounced the project from public view on the grounds that the results--the elite of the Fourth Estate, alone, have seen the data--might have "stoked the partisan tensions," according to one Times reporter. (This suggests that the next Daniel Ellsberg may have to leak documents from inside the Times rather than to the newspaper.)

Is all this watching of what we say really how we are supposed to honor our dead in New York? Is that the way to pay our respects in the city that never sleeps nor shuts up?

Before speech becomes a "quality of life crime," artists and communicators are going to have to face the crowd, as Gere did, employing all the creativity and chutzpah we can muster. The changing political landscape is not entirely negative for this effort: The imminent exit of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani--he was pro-censorship before censorship was cool--further heightens the unpredictability of the drama now under way. To shut up or not to shut up? That is the question. It's up to you, New York, New York. To wit:

New York's greatness was not built of "tower(s) to the sun, brick and rivet and lime"--but by the likes of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney, penning "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" in the wake of the last huge disaster to hit the nation through New York: the Great Depression. The Broadway show for which they wrote the song, New Americana, lacked paying customers, had to close its doors, and the cast was laid off. Two days later, in October 1932, Bing Crosby went into a New York studio to record that protest and lament. It became the number-one song of the year as it lifted the hearts of down-but-not-out Americans higher than any elevator could ever take us.

Now, in place of the authentic one, we're being fed a virtual New York: that of Gordon Gekko snarling from virtual Wall Street, "When I get ahold of the son of a bitch who leaked this, I'm gonna tear his eyeballs out and I'm gonna suck his fucking skull"; of Rudy Giuliani poking around the rubble looking for his unconstitutional term extension and for sheiks to scapegoat for the loss of liberties that he was already busy eliminating himself; of Donald Trump calling for us to build new phalluses into the sky where David Rockefeller's twin vanity towers stood; and of New York bankers lobbying in Washington so that the hunt for the terror money trail looks under every rock except theirs.

The Jets and the Sharks were street gangs in Hell's Kitchen who danced and sang in rhyme. Our reality was portrayed through utopian vision. In recent decades, virtual chic displaced all suggestion of Utopia-on-the-Hudson, evicting or jailing the hardscrabble Jets and Sharks alike. New York--indeed, all America--no longer reflected a dream but rather a sterile "economic opportunity." Now Boeing jets crash into towers and White House sharks seize upon the pain and fear of millions to install a New World Order that attempts to bury the Authentic New York in its censorious wave--the City of Speech; of workers, of poor folks, of artists and immigrants and utopian dreamers (there's a place for us, somewhere a place for us!), the people who built this city, whose uniting quality is precisely the refusal to shut our mouths.

Being a New Yorker has become, in this era, something akin to being a Vietnam veteran: Nobody who wasn't there wants to see what you've really seen or hear what you've really heard. Authentic New York--transgressive, messy, noisy, never particularly loved by so many of those who today advocate war in its name--had to be filtered by its artists, creamed and sweetened for world consumption; in songs from the Brill Building, from Broadway, and from the Bowery and Bleecker--hold the sugar--where the late Joey Ramone sang about turning tricks for smack at 53rd and Third.

Audible New York was brought to the screen by Lithuanian immigrant Asa Yoelson, a k a Al Jolson, who as The Jazz Singer headed to Broadway and ad-libbed for the camera: "You ain't heard nothin' yet," thus laying waste to the silence of film.

From a cabin on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx, Edgar Allan Poe heard "the loud alarm bells, Brazen Bells! What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!... Too much horrified to speak, they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune.... How the danger sinks and swells-by the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells..."

From Harlem, Langston Hughes asked, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?... Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"

New York is where Allen Ginsberg saw the best minds of his generation "destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."

New York is not a skyline; but it is Emma Goldman standing up to declare, "If I can't dance I don't wanna be in your revolution." New York is Ring Lardner Jr., the Daily Mirror reporter, blacklisted, imprisoned for refusing to snitch during the red scare, the Hollywood Ten screenwriter who wrote A Star Is Born and M*A*S*H, thirty-three years apart. And authentic New York is Leonard Alfred Schneider, a k a Lenny Bruce, shouting, as they dragged him in and out of New York courts, "in the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls," who died in 1966, convicted of obscenity, of not watching what he said.

New York is also John Peter Zenger, who 266 years ago dared to call the Colonial Governor an "idiot" and a "Nero"--imagine, at a time like that!--who was charged with libel for his seditionary patriotism. And New York is, above all, The People, the jury that disregarded the judge's instructions and acquitted that 34-year-old printer.

Now I hear Poe's bells every time I turn on the TV or pick up the newspaper, "too much horrified to speak, they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune," and I think of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

From there I can see Our Lady of Mercy Hospital--it was called Misericordia when I was coaxed into the world at that spot--and I can touch the grave of my great grandfather, a construction worker from the hills outside Naples. There, I will sit silently to listen over the rustle of autumn leaves for the eternal speech from 350,000 tombs of my fellow New Yorkers, native and imported, who, even in death, demand that we never fall silent. They include: Irving Berlin; Duke Ellington; Bat Masterson; Sir Miles Davis; Maximillian Berlitz; George M. Cohan; W.C. Handy blowing his trumpet; Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes (who spoke out against the first red scare hysteria, of 1919); Oscar Hammerstein still humming the New York folk song "Edelweiss, Edelweiss, bless my homeland forever"--it was not in fact Austrian--which he wrote knowing that he was dying; the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; the Cubist Alexander Archipenko; the Bulova brothers making time tick; "Madame C.J.," the first black millionaire, and her daughter A'Lelia Walker Robinson, whom Langston Hughes called the "Joy Goddess of Harlem"; Herman Melville; Elizabeth Cochrane Seamans, a k a the authentic journalist Nelly Bly; Joe Pulitzer; Otto Preminger (Batman's Mr. Freeze); the Harlem blackbird Florence Mills; the publisher Generoso Pope Sr.; Antoinette Freauff Perry, immortalized by an award named Tony; Henry Gaylord Wilshire, for whom the LA boulevard is named but who got no rest in Hollywood, so he came to lie in New York; the rapper Christopher "The Big Pun" Rios, who died last year at 28; Anton Kliegl still shining his lights; second baseman Frankie Frisch--the Fordham Flash--resting now at home plate. Fiorello La Guardia--the florid-tongued New York mayor who stood up against anti-immigrant hysteria, reminding, "my dog came from a distinguished family tree, but he was still a son of a bitch"--is buried here too; so is Joseph "King" Oliver, the jazz pioneer, and Rudolph Schaeffer pouring a beer.... This is a crowd, like that on any other block in these five boroughs, that couldn't agree on lunch. But one sacred mission united them over the expanse of generations: to never shut up in New York.

More than 4,000 New Yorkers joined the Woodlawn 350,000 on September 11. We're each going to join them sooner or later. But authentic New York, the City of Speech that survived a revolution, a Great Depression, and two red scares, history's grand engine of free-speaking culture, will survive this hit too-if, and only if, we refuse to remain silent about anything and everything at this hour of moral crisis. Start spreadin' the news...loudly and without biting your tongue: New York shall rise again, not through war, but by speech.

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