By Sam Anderson
Of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, nearly 10 percent live in New York State. Many of these immigrants live, work, and go to school in New York City. At John Jay College, 220 students self-report that they are undocumented, and another 280 have missing or unclear citizenship status, according to CUNYfirst, the database of student management. Calculating the exact number of undocumented students at John Jay is intrinsically difficult, and, according to Professor Isabel Martinez, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that most undocumented immigrants underreport, and that many live in mixed-status families. Still, a realistic estimate of the number of undocumented students at John Jay puts it between 500 and 1,000, or roughly 3 to 6 percent of the student body.
Some of these aspiring lawyers, criminologists, forensic scientists, cybersecurity specialists, police officers, and fierce advocates for justice refer to themselves as “Dreamers.” Many came to the United States as children or infants. Some have never seen their country of origin. To the Dreamers, the U.S. is the place they call home.
Some of these students have their legal status protected under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy put in place under President Obama. Yet even for them, college life is fraught with difficulty. Most are ineligible for state or federal financial aid. They often work full-time jobs to pay for tuition, and it is not uncommon for students to drop out for a semester, save money, and return. Still, they persevere, motivated by the thought of achieving their degrees and moving ahead to jobs, graduate schools, or other opportunities. For them as well as for their families, this is the American dream.
In general, students and families without criminal records have not been among those targeted for deportation by the federal government. That changed when President Trump announced an executive order that significantly broadened the power of Customs and Border Protection to deport undocumented immigrants. For the most vulnerable student population at John Jay, things just got a lot more uncertain.
“We all know someone who’s undocumented, whether we know it or not,” said Sofia (not her real name), a junior Sociology major at John Jay. “DACA gives me a privilege, and I need to remember that even though I’m less likely to be deported, it does not mean that the fight for the undocumented community is over.” Sofia’s sister is also DACA-protected, which means that for now, they are not at risk of deportation. But the same can’t be said for their parents, who moved here in 2004 when their home country of Peru underwent a sharp economic downturn. Now, Sofia worries about her father leaving the house to get groceries.
Such fear is common among undocumented students. The challenge of paying college tuition, previously their greatest source of anxiety, pales in comparison to the thought of losing a family member to deportation.“
As a professor, my main goal is to teach my students,” said Martinez, an assistant professor of sociology. “That means helping them develop research skills, writing skills, reading skills, and a body of knowledge. I can’t do that if my students are terrified and can’t concentrate.”
Martinez also serves as Director of U-LAMP, the Unaccompanied Latin American Minor Project, which provides support to young immigrants in removal proceedings. She is one of the John Jay faculty members who sprang into action after Election Day, reaching out to students she knew were undocumented to offer support. Martinez has been coordinating with John Jay’s DREAMers Club to organize “Know Your Rights” workshops, where students learn practical skills that can help them and their families avoid deportation.
Some of the tips that have been shared with students include teaching them how to spot the difference between a judge’s warrant and a warrant from the Department of Homeland Security, which doesn’t hold up in court. “They have the right to not open the door if ICE agents come to their homes without a warrant from a judge,” Martinez said, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Martinez has also been distributing cards that contain the person’s name and the words “
I invoke my right to remain silent.” She explained: “Trouble happens when conversations with Customs officers give people the opportunity to say something that might have bad consequences. With this notecard, you can invoke your rights without saying anything.” Immigrants without documentation are also gearing up for an increase in expedited removals. To protect themselves, Martinez recommends that all immigrants carry proof that they’ve been in the country for more than two years. Sofia says she always knew she was undocumented, but adds: “It didn’t impact me until I graduated from high school. Filling out college applications, I realized that I was not eligible for financial aid, and that I needed to work in order to continue my education.”
She’s no stranger to work, having had off-the-books jobs since she was 15. One experience stuck with her: “My first job was cleaning a high school on Long Island. The supervisor saw how tired I was after working from eight in the morning to seven at night. He said to me, ‘Why are you tired? This is going to be your future.’ I still remember that today, because this is how society looks at undocumented people and Latinos in general.”
That supervisor might be surprised to learn that Sofia will soon complete her bachelor’s degree and plans to go to law school.
“There’s an assumption in America that everyone here has an equal opportunity,” said Robbi (not her real name), an undocumented John Jay student from Pakistan. “Everyone assumes you’re on the same page, that you qualify for the same things, but it’s not true. We have to go through so many different hoops to finance our education.”
The freshman Economics major said she feels an additional level of anxiety as a Muslim. She was 3 or 4 when her family emigrated from Pakistan, and now she feels unable to leave. “I would like to see where I was born and visit my family, but now I don’t plan to leave whatsoever,” she said.
Sofia, too, experienced being unable to leave the United States when she had to turn down a study-abroad trip to Mexico. She had been accepted into a program to study indigenous Mayan communities, but because the group was set to return on Jan. 22, two days after Trump took office, she was advised to decline the opportunity. Sofia said that she will likely avoid all plane travel in the foreseeable future to avoid being detained at the airport.
Far from being isolated cases, these incidents are representative of the experiences of other undocumented students in the CUNY system and at colleges and universities nationwide. Many undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. as children and have lived their entire lives as Americans are now realizing the limitations of their status in applying for jobs, financial aid, and other programs. And, since the presidential election, they have the added worry of being separated from their families, and the possibility of being sent back to a country they do not remember.
At John Jay, organizations like the DREAMers Club provide a safe space to talk about these issues and raise questions about what to do next. Olivia Ramirez, the president of the DREAMers Club, is a child of immigrants, a native-born citizen, and recently she has become acutely aware of just how much privilege her legal status confers.
“I’ve worked with students who aren’t DREAMers and who don’t have DACA, they are just undocumented students without support,” she said. “Having no financial aid and working 40-plus hours per week seriously affects their academics. There’s not enough time to do homework, and many of them are also supporting their families. They have to decide, do they eat and sleep, or work on homework. These are hard decisions to make.”
Ramirez says she was reluctant to run for president of the DREAMers Club because she hadn’t experienced firsthand what it is to be undocumented. But she decided to run in order to leverage her connections with other organizations on and off campus, like Legal Aid, Single Stop, CUNY Citizenship Now!, Make the Road, and U-LAMP. In addition to coordinating events, panels, and workshops, a big part of the DREAMers Club is simply providing a space to talk, connect, and share a common experience.
“The Dreamers are in a sense trying to become more empowered to tell people they’re here and unapologetically undocumented,” Ramirez said. “There are some who want to stay in the shadows, and others who want to raise their voices and say ‘we’re here and we’re going to fight to stay here.’”
The diversity of opinion on whether or not undocumented students should be outspoken about their status is reflective of the political climate—people simply do not know how severe the risk of deportation will become, or what the future holds for DACA. “We’re in a whole new ball game,” Martinez said.
What makes a person a hunter?
Sam Anderson lives in New York City, and for most of his life, it never occurred to him to go hunting. But last year, at his father's request, he decided to give it a try.
Sam had no idea whether he'd actually be able to bring himself to pull the trigger. And he wondered: if he did manage to take the life of an animal, what would that say about him? How would it change him?
On this episode, he shares his story. January 19, 2017.
November 19, 2016 · 10:15 AM EST
By Sam Anderson
The conversation surrounding the case to abolish the Electoral College often centers on the difficulty of passing a constitutional amendment, typically thought of as the only way to remove it from the Constitution.
That would require a supermajority in both the House and Senate — an unlikely scenario when the country is so divided.
But there’s a proposal for another way to to make the winner of the popular vote president — without passing a constitutional amendment. It’s called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and it’s an agreement between groups of states to award their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. The compact would guarantee that the winner of the popular vote becomes president, effectively changing the US voting system without abolishing the Electoral College and bypassing the need for a constitutional amendment.
New York, nine other states and the District of Columbia have all signed on — but the compact doesn't become active until states comprising a majority of the electoral votes agree to participate.
“Right now candidates spend almost all of their time in a relatively small number of battleground states. [With the pact] they would be forced to campaign across America,” said New York State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz.
The main argument that Dinowitz makes is, under the Electoral College, presidential candidates have no incentive to campaign in states where they stand little chance to win. If North Dakota historically votes red, for example, Hillary Clinton has no reason to waste her advertising dollars campaigning in that state. Proponents say this deprives voters in non-battleground states of participating in the election.
“Every voter across the country should have the opportunity to see a campaign go on in their state,” Dinowitz said.
Interstate compacts themselves are protected in the constitution, and states use them all the time. For example all states have agreed to recognize driver’s licenses from outside states, enabling people to drive around the country without getting 50 licenses.
But how likely is it that National Popular Vote Interstate Compact will go into effect? For that to happen, enough states would have to pass a bill — typically referred to as the National Popular Vote bill. Right now states totaling 165 electoral votes have enacted legislation, or 61 percent of the 270 needed for the compact to become active. States like New York, which acted in 2014, will continue to operate under the current system until that majority is reached.
Dinowitz said he thinks the recent election will be a big draw for new states to pass bills to join the compact, and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill last week that would remove the expiration date on New York’s support of the measure, which was set to expire in 2018.
"This action will help ensure every vote is treated equally and places New York at the forefront of the battle for fairer elections and strengthen our democracy," Cuomo said. "Making the national popular vote a binding one will enable all voices to be heard and encourage candidates to appeal to voters in all states."
States that currently support the measure include Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Maryland, Washington, Illinois and California, as well as Washington DC — all historically blue or purple states.
Whether swing states or historically red states will vote to join the compact remains to be seen. According to Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, “states whose voters have a disproportionate amount of influence may be in no mood to give it up.” The election of George Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016, both of whom lost the popular vote, leads some to believe that the Electoral College favors Republicans and that they have little incentive to try and bypass that system.
But it’s worth pointing out that many of the states that receive little to no campaign action are traditionally Republican, such as Texas, Wyoming or North Dakota, leading some to believe the compact would directly benefit all voters regardless of party affiliation.
It’s 6 in the morning on a chilly Sunday in April. As the sky begins to brighten, a cool mist rolls out of the Berkshire Mountains into the valley, coating the grass with dew. In the town of Amherst, children sleep soundly, dreaming of marshmallows and chocolate and the Easter eggs hidden throughout their homes, soon to be discovered. But down the road at Hampshire College, students are already awake. They’re lacing up their hiking boots and pulling beanies snugly around their ears. They’re grabbing mason jars or coffee mugs or whatever receptacle is at hand, and some of them may be drinking beer already. By 7 o’clock, the sun has risen. The Easter Keg Hunt has begun.
In groups, the students head down the road, past the tennis courts and into the woods. It is a beautiful Massachusetts morning, and as rays of sunlight filter through the pine trees onto the soft forest floor, birds sing loudly to greet the coming of spring. Hampshire students notice none of these things. They are in the woods for a singular purpose: to drink as much beer as possible before noon.
This goal is actually quite realistic. In the days leading up to the Keg Hunt, several organized groups of senior students purchase kegs of beer and haul them into the woods during the wee hours of the night. They have to be careful. Campus police are well aware of this raucous holiday and will stop any students headed into the woods and seize their kegs. Those who make it out stash the kegs behind trees, under rocks, in a brook, up a tree, buried in the dirt, in the middle of a cornfield, or wherever they deem fit. Then, like a herd of boozy Easter bunnies, they scurry back to their warrens until daybreak. In the morning they return, taps in hand, to await the throngs of thirsty students diligently combing the woods.
For a lot of Hampshire students, the first keg tapped is the most memorable. I can picture clear as day the first one that I ever found, standing alone beneath a pine tree, its metal girth shining like a silver treasure. With the unrestrained enthusiasm of first years, my friends and I had plunged into the woods around 5 a.m., and by the time we discovered this first keg, its owners had yet to arrive. So I tapped it with a stick and squirted foamy beer into my mouth. I probably shouldn’t have done that, but it started off the day right.
Around 9 the hunt really gets going as crowds of buzzing students swarm the few discovered kegs. Like a beacon, the presence of a group signals “BEER!” to oncoming students, who crash through the thicket hoping to fill their cups. By this time there are several hundred people in the woods, and the serenity of early morning is replaced by the sort of drunken chaos usually found at frat parties or football games, but everyone’s wearing flannel and has an alternative haircut.
As the morning carries on students get progressively drunker, muddier and more willing to swallow twigs and dirt along with their beer. It’s not uncommon to find people sprawled out in a stream, or to come across a spontaneous bout of mud wrestling. The keg stand, while quite popular at other colleges, is rarely found at Hampshire, except on Easter Sunday.
One time, a close friend of mine who was especially drunk baptized me in a stream after making what I’m sure he thought was a stirring and profound Easter sermon.
“What’s funny is that it’s this religious holiday that no one takes seriously and now we’ll always associate it with drinking beer at 6 in the morning — that’s such a Hampshire thing to do,” said former student Quinn Berkman.
It’s worth pointing out that Hampshire College is not a big beer-drinking school. We don’t have any sports teams, unless you count Frisbee, and while students imbibe at a rate comparable to other schools, the idea of organized binge drinking is a big turnoff to most of us. So Easter Keg Hunt becomes a special occasion in which students participate in the kind of unrestrained beer-guzzling that is familiar to our neighbors at UMass, but is new and exciting to us.
“We decided we wanted to throw a party and do something big, something totally different than anything that’s been done before,” said Sam Morris, one of the original founders of Easter Keg Hunt. It was 1998 and first year roommates Doug Magda and Adam Thurrell were having a late night semi-drunk discussion in the Merrill A1 dorm over how to execute that goal. “And I said something to the effect of, ‘They have Easter egg hunts, why not an Easter keg hunt?’” Magda recalled. The next day, the roommates shared the idea with their friends over breakfast. “And we were all like ‘holy fuck that’s amazing!’” said Morris. And thus the Easter Keg Hunt was born.
Pooling their money together, enterprising first years Doug Magda, Adam Thurrell, Sam Morris, Michael DiDonna, Andy McKinney, Matt Keenis, Will Sennig, Bill Heiser and Andrea Norman purchased four kegs of beer and used colored paper to decorate them like Easter eggs. “It was all pretty good beer,” said Morris. “No shit beer, that would’ve been against our standards. There was at least one local IPA.”
Around 4:30 in the morning they sneaked the kegs out into the woods and stashed them in places they had scouted out the previous day. At high noon (because the original keg hunters had some degree of self control), Morris donned his Easter bunny costume and assumed his post at the Hampshire tree, a campus meeting place located in a neighboring cornfield, where he had assembled a collection of riddles written on pieces of paper. The riddles contained clues to the whereabouts of the kegs, and as students trickled onto the field he handed them out along with some candy.
“It was all very hidden and well managed,” said Michael DiDonna. “Each of the keg-tenders was wearing nice clothing, like a bow tie, and you were only allowed to have two beers at each keg before you had to move on to the next one.” When participants found a keg, part of a bunny was drawn on their hands, and they couldn’t drink freely until they had completed the drawing. “We put a lot of thought into the clues, and they referenced the type of beer it was, like an ale or IPA,” DiDonna continued, “And the drunker you got, the harder they were to find.”
“Down by the river where we fish for trout, you’ll find a keg of icy cold _____,” read one of the riddles.
But the festivities came to a halt when the local farmer who owned the land drove up in his four-wheeler. “We saw him approaching and thought ‘oh fuck.’ What were we thinking? We totally overlooked the fact that the farmer who owns this land would find out,” Morris recalls. “So I’m standing there in my bunny suit thinking I’m totally busted. He goes, ‘So what are you guys doing out here?’ I decided to be totally honest with him. I said, ‘We hid some kegs out in the woods, and we’re calling it an Easter keg hunt.’ And he says, ‘That’s the greatest goddamn idea I ever heard. Mind if I join ya?’”
Farmer Gordie soon became a core member of the Easter Keg Hunt. The next year, when the founders upped it to eight kegs, they had to use Adam Thurrell’s pickup truck to haul them out but it got stuck in the mud. Gordie pulled up in his tractor and towed them out, thus saving the hunt that year. The story goes that Gordie kept coming back until his wife found out that he wasn’t tending cattle, but spending his Easter in the woods drinking beer with a bunch of college students.
Things have changed since then, and today’s version of the Keg Hunt is less organized than the original. No one gives out clues, for one thing. But people do show up in bunny costumes and hand out treats like plastic eggs filled with pot-laced granola or Jell-O shots, and the tradition has gotten stronger with an attendance rate of at least 500 students drinking 10 to 15 kegs each year. Other aspects remain the same, such as the post-hunt zombie crawl to the dining commons, in which mud-covered keg hunters sober up over coffee and tater tots.
“I feel like the theme of it is really being in the woods with the whole school,” said student Henry Anderson. “The sun rises and it’s a really wholesome time, then everyone gets really drunk and it gets to be a shit show when everyone goes to Saga [the dining commons]. Then there’s always the afternoon nap.”
“I think the administration eventually found out, but they turned a blind eye to it,” Morris said. “As long as no one was getting hurt, and it was technically not on campus, they didn’t bother busting it.” Today, this attitude remains the same. When I reached out to a campus spokesperson for comment, he referred me to the school’s alcohol and drug policy, avoiding any mention of Keg Hunt. And though campus police do attempt to stop students from bringing kegs into the woods, they declined to comment for this article.
Perhaps the strongest reason this tradition has survived is the fact that it exemplifies the true Hampshire spirit: creativity, collective effort and being weird in the woods. For many students, Easter Keg Hunt remains an unforgettable part of their college experience. This is certainly true for Sam Morris.
“In November of 1999, I was in a car accident, which left me paraplegic,” he said. “So I took off the next winter and spring to go through surgery and rehabilitation. And I made my official debut in a wheelchair for Easter Keg Hunt, dressed as the Easter bunny. I wasn’t going to let being paraplegic step in the way of my Keg Hunt.”
“That was super-traumatic for everybody,” Michael DiDonna remembers. “It takes a long time to get used to living in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, and here he is back at school within six months, in his chair in the woods.” In a pure expression of Hampshire spirit, he had rigged it with mountain-bike tires, and the group of friends took turns maneuvering him from keg to keg. Morris would go on to wear his bunny ears at graduation, and today he runs a personal development program called Zen Warrior Training.
Recent graduate Sam Hollier summed it up nicely. “It’s different than all the other times you get drunk with your friends because it’s a game and this big collective activity. It’s more exciting than having a party because you’re not in a dorm room, there are no limits, you can go wherever you want. And it was always sunny at Keg Hunt. It just felt good to be outside.”
Published: October 25, 2016
For victims of speeding, increased traffic cameras welcome
By Sam Anderson
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
On Aug. 7, 2014, Dulcie Canton, 39, was biking from her friend’s apartment in Bushwick to her home in Bedford-Stuvesant when she was struck from behind by a speeding driver. “I heard an engine revving up behind me, and next thing I know, I’m flying up in the air. I fell down on the street and blacked out,” she said.
Canton, a lifetime resident of New York City who says she had been biking nearly every day since 2011, was rushed to the hospital after sustaining a broken right shoulder, a broken left wrist and a possible brain hemorrhage.
Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer who represents seriously injured cyclists and pedestrians, met Canton at the hospital, where her condition had stabilized. He then headed over to the crime scene at the intersection of Bleecker Street and Wilson Avenue in Bushwick, where neighbors who witnessed the crash recovered a rear-view mirror that was sheared from the vehicle after colliding with Canton. Vaccaro also obtained video footage from a superintendent of an apartment near the intersection, whose surveillance cameras caught the hit and run on tape. View the surveillance footage of the crash here:https://vimeo.com/105250259.
Along with the serial number from the mirror, they were able to positively identify the Chevy Camaro that hit Canton.
But the driver was never prosecuted. Canton’s friend, who was with her at the time of the crash and lives in the neighborhood, says he sees the same Camaro speeding through the same narrow residential streets today.
This lack of prosecution is actually not unusual. “Hit and runs happen so frequently,” said Vaccaro, “that it would be a tremendous amount of work to prosecute them all. So unless it’s a case of fatality or near-fatality, neither the NYPD nor the district attorney is willing to prosecute.”
This points to a major problem in enforcing speed violations in the city — there is simply not enough manpower to issue the number of tickets that would substantially reduce speeding. But new legislation might change that.
Assemblymember Deborah Glick recently introduced the Every School Speed Safety Camera Act (Assembly Bill 9861), which would allow the installation of speed cameras in every city school district and keep them running for 24 hours. Currently, Albany limits speed cameras to 140 in NYC, and they are only allowed to function during school hours, rendering them useless after dark and over the weekend. If the new bill is passed, permission to install cameras will be transferred from Albany to City Hall, which can potentially install a speed camera at each of NYC’s 2,000 schools.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed budget already includes funding to install the cameras.
According to a data news report by WNYC, the existing 140 cameras have issued 471,625 speeding tickets in 2014, compared to 117,767 speeding tickets issued by officers. According to the same report, more than $23.5 million was issued in fines, and crashes with injuries near cameras declined by 13.5 percent.
Caroline Samponaro, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, which will advocate for the passage of the bill at a City Hall rally this Thursday, stresses that speed cameras are not about making money for the city. “You’ll see some initial revenue, but then it drops off, and you want it to go away because that means you’re changing drivers’ behavior,” she said.
Currently, drivers caught speeding on camera have to pay a $50 fine, but do not incur infraction points on their license. This will remain the same if the new bill is passed.
The installation of speed cameras near schools makes sense because speeding is the No. 1 cause of preventable death among children. But safety advocates argue that while schoolchildren are among the most vulnerable, they are not the only ones who need protection from speeding drivers.
There were 269 traffic-related fatalities in NYC in 2014, with a decrease to 242 fatalities in 2015. Roughly half of those who died in traffic-related accidents were pedestrians. Cyclists represent a smaller percentage of deaths, yet the danger posed by speeding vehicles remains.
Dulcie Canton was out of work for a month due to her injuries, and by the time she was able to return to her job at a bike shop, they had gone out of business. Because the driver didn’t stop to exchange insurance information, she ran into major complications with her insurance provider, and as the medical bills piled on, Canton struggled to pay rent. She narrowly avoided eviction by creating a Go Fund Me account, which was shared on social media by community cycling groups. Canton underwent physical therapy three times a week and met with a social worker to help cope with the PTSD she experienced each time she stepped onto the streets. “I never imagined anything like this could happen to me,” she said. “I could have died.”
Others have. On April 15, Lauren Davis, 34, was killed cycling down Classon Avenue in Clinton Hill, and less than a week later, cyclist James Gregg, 33, was fatally struck by an 18-wheeler in Park Slope. It is unclear whether speeding played a role in these incidents, but each of them took place on a residential street in Brooklyn where traffic enforcement can be problematic.
“Very few police officers joined the force because they wanted to write traffic tickets,” said Vaccaro, who pointed out that many residential streets are too narrow for cops to set up speed enforcement operations. Today, most speeding violations occur on or near highways, where it’s safer and easier set up speed traps. With the passage of Glick’s bill, many of the outer borough streets that are difficult to enforce would become subject to speed camera installation.
“If the police don’t want to do it, why not use cameras in residential neighborhoods? This is really a win-win for everyone, except people who want to speed,” Vaccaro said.
But some of those who want to speed have been able to challenge the legality of automated camera enforcement based on the grounds that it violates the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. While speed cameras have been increasingly implemented in cities across the U.S., there are a handful of cases in which they’ve been outlawed. In 2013, an Ohio judge ruled that traffic cameras were unconstitutional, commenting that, “It’s a scam the motorist cannot win.” Similar challenges to traffic cameras arose in Missouri, and Tennessee banned them outright in 2015.
Some who challenge the legality of speed cameras claim that they presume guilt, while others are reacting to a perceived invasion of privacy by the government, claiming that this is another way for Big Brother to keep tabs on civilians.
On this point, safety advocates side with the 1916 Supreme Court decision that “driving is a privilege, not a right,” and that safety outweighs privacy concerns.
“Hundreds of thousands of children are put in harm's way each morning and afternoon due to dangerous driver behavior near schools," said City Council Transportation Committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez. "With speed cameras placed near every school, we can do more than ever before to account for the safety of our most precious New Yorkers. This is necessary and overdue; it will save lives and change driver behavior for the better. I call on my colleagues in Albany to do the right thing and pass this needed law."
The Transportation Alternatives rally in support of Assembly Bill 9861 will take place on the steps of City Hall on Thursday, June 9, at 9 a.m. “The rally is our way of standing with our coalition of support to send a message to Albany legislators that we need to act,” said Caroline Samponaro, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives.
Dulcie Canton says she’ll be there. She plans to ride her bike.
Before Rushdie and Anderson took to the stage Thursday night as honorees at Pratt Institute, including Rushdie receiving the Norman Mailer Center Lifetime Achievement Prize, they gave the Eagle a few words on topics close to their bodies of work.
Rushdie, whose fiction often explores post-colonial issues and the threat of radical ideology, spoke about his defense of free speech and gave his opinion on the heightened fear of terrorist attacks. Throughout the evening, he remained completely at ease, despite the camera flashes bursting around him. He has a wry smile and a voice laced with subtle detachment, enhanced by his British-Indian accent.
Sam A. – On your Wikipedia page it says you have won 31 awards.
Rushdie – Really? Does it say that? I have no idea.
Sam A.– Tonight makes it 32. What is the importance of a literary award today?
Rushdie – Well, lifetime achievement is lifetime achievement. It’s nice to know that people recognize a long body of work. This year makes it 40 years since I published my first book, so if somebody wants to say “well done,” I’m for it. And I really admire the work of the Norman Mailer Foundation. It’s nice to be able to contribute to what they’re doing.
Sam A. – Your work has been called politically polarizing. Do you have a political agenda, or does that come by happenstance?
Rushdie – I really don’t. In fact, less and less these days. I think that some of my earlier books were more directly political, like “Shame.” But nowadays, I don’t think my books are political anymore. There was just one book that was.
Sam A.– After the Charlie Hebdo attacks last year, you were very outspoken in your defense of free speech and your support of those journalists. Given the attacks in Paris recently, have you continued your position?
Rushdie – Yes, and I think it’s even more important now. And it wasn’t just me. But there were a lot of writers who were disappointed with the protests. [Some members of the prestigious literary group protested PEN granting its Freedom of Expression award to Charlie Hedbo, which they viewed as a culturally intolerant publication]. People like Ian McEwan and Don DeLillo, who’s here tonight, Paul Auster and Adam Gopnik. A lot of writers were as disappointed as I was, and wrote and spoke about it. On the whole, that protest was a very small part of the PEN membership. It was disappointing, you know?
Sam A. – As a supporter of free speech, would you support Donald Trump’s right to propose a ban on Muslims?
Rushdie – No, don’t be silly. I defend his right to say it, but I also defend my own right to call him a jerk [chuckles].
Sam A. – And you’ve dealt a lot with Muslim extremism in your works. Currently, we are dealing with what people are calling “home-grown radicalization” here in this country. Do you have any comments on that, given your understanding of these issues?
Rushdie – Well I think it exists, though it’s small. To my mind, the real radicals in this country are white Christians. Just look at all the terrorist attacks that people are afraid of. Terrorist attack on a school — already happened; terrorist attack on a campus — already happened; terrorist attack on government buildings — already happened. None of them were perpetrated by Muslims. They were done by crazy white people with guns. It seems to me that if you were to look for a terrorist organization in this country, you should look at the NRA. Let’s look at the right problem.
Sam A. –Last year, you mentioned, in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, that a divide had occurred between ordinary Muslims and extremists. Do you think that is the case today?
Rushdie – I think ordinary Muslims are as terrified of ISIS as anyone else. And in many ways, more disappointed, because it tars them with that brush.
* * *
Laurie Anderson, pre-eminent musician and avant-garde performing artist, spoke on the importance of art and the role of experimentation in its creation. During the interview, Anderson was quick to show excitement, and her eyes shone with a bright, winking humor. She was the only woman among the guests of honor when they posed for press photos.
Sam A. – You’ve been at the forefront of experimental art for quite some time now. Can you tell me why experimental art is important?
Anderson – It’s not more important than any other art. Why is art important? Because it’s about freedom. Although experimental art does tend to cut more of the bonds than other forms. You use less of the rules, break more of them, be more free in form.
Sam A. – Can you tell me about this new installation/performance piece you’ve been working on, which involves a detainee from Guantanamo Bay, and confronts issues of identity and security among other things? [Anderson describes her new piece in The New Yorker].
Anderson – Making this piece, I learned to never underestimate the audience. Mohammed el Gharani was captured when he was 14. He was a prisoner until 21. He was tortured, but never charged, and finally, just kind of dumped. So, I’m interested in stories, and his story versus the U.S. government’s story is just fascinating to me.
Sam A. – Do you consider yourself to be a political artist?
Anderson – Not particularly. I think all art can be considered in that light, if you want to look at it that way. I don’t think there’s anything more engaged about being specifically political. I could look at a giant blue painting and it would give me more of a sense freedom than some long, polemical work of art that’s about, like, being free. You know what I’m saying? Art works on your eyes, and your ears, and it just makes you feel a certain way. I don’t have anything against polemical art either. I like all art. Except [smiles] musical comedy. You’d have to kill me to get me to go to one.
Sam A. – Do you ever worry that because of how experimental or avant-garde your work is, it might not have access to as wide of an audience as more mainstream artists?
Anderson – I’m a snob! [ Laughs] I don’t care about getting my message to the millions. I’m enough of a snob to say that the more people that like it, maybe the less daring it actually is. I’m from the art world, and accidentally, once in a while, I might drift into the pop world or some other world, but that’s not my goal at all.
Sam A. – Who are you looking at right now, who are your favorite artists of 2015?
Anderson – You know what, my favorite artist is usually the one I just saw. So I’d have to say, Christian McBride [virtuosic jazz bassist], because I saw his show last night at the Vanguard.
Sam A. – How was it?
Anderson – Beyond awesome! It was so great, I mean this guy is a killer player. And he had a band, it was the second night he worked with the band, and it was deeply musical and deeply inventive. I was just jumping up and down every other phrase going “yes!”
Sam A. –You’ve been in New York for a very long time, tell me what you still love about this city and what you hate about it.
Anderson – What do I love? Russ and Daughters whitefish chowder. It’s the best restaurant in New York. What do I hate? It’s a little too crowded. But you could say that about the world.
December 16, 2015 - 12:55pm