It was raining today in New York City, on and off, and grey and chilly all day. Since Veterans Day, November 11, falls on a Sunday in 2018, retailers begin their special Veterans Day Sales on Monday, November 5, the day the holiday is celebrated by banks and other institutions in such years. I could have that wrong, I’m now told the reason there has been no talk about Veterans Day, or the awful plight of many veterans, is that it is celebrated on November 12th this year.
Whatever, this Monday fell on the last day of all out tribal warfare before the midterm elections which will decide whether the almost 40% who love Trump will continue to control both houses of Congress as well as the Executive and Judiciary branches of our great democracy. The House of Representatives is in play, and if Democrats recapture a majority, by swinging about thirty seats, they will gain subpoena and investigatory powers. These powers will help keep the president and his people honest, restore our federal republic’s checks and balances closer to what the framers of the constitution intended.
In July 2014 a man was killed on a street corner in Staten Island. He was a big, easy-going man, well-known in the area. He put in long hours on his feet every day selling illegal cigarettes, evading the New York State taxes and effectively putting those tax dollars in his pocket by selling contraband cigarettes he had driven up from the South where the legal price of cigarettes is apparently much lower due to a much lower “sin” tax there. He did this black market business for years, at the same place, and the cops had arrested him numerous times. He served at least one hitch in prison, but he was not a hard man. He was known as a peace maker in that section of Staten Island. Sometimes he was arrested, sat in jail overnight, was issued a summons, and went home.
One particularly hot summer day he told the cops to please not fuck with him, that it was too hot to go to jail, to come back another time. The police left. A few days later, when cops came to arrest him, one got him in a chokehold and continued to choke while the man, Eric Garner, gasped “I can’t breathe” over and over until the officer choked him to death.
The Staten Island grand jury that heard the charges brought by District Attorney Dan Donovan on behalf of the family of the dead man and the community of Staten Island was unlikely to indict the cop for murder or even manslaughter. The dead man had a long criminal history, was an imposing man, with a prison record, much bigger than the officer, Officer Pantaleo, and so it was hard to argue that the case was murder or even manslaughter. No white blue collar community in America is going to indict a cop for killing a lowlife of any race, especially not a black ex-con. It doesn’t seem fair to them to try an officer for murder in a situation like that. The coroner ruled the death a homicide, but that doesn’t mean a grand jury had to indict the killer.
There was a strong case to made that Officer Pantaleo had been reckless, or careless, or negligent, in using excessive and ultimately deadly force on an unarmed man he was arresting. The DA of Staten Island never brought the criminal charge of reckless endangerment before the grand jury and so Officer Pantaleo was never indicted or prosecuted for anything in connection with Garner’s killing.
The DA was a Republican party stalwart who once ran unsuccessfully for New York State Attorney General. He was elected to Congress from New York’s Eleventh District in a special election in May 2015, after Republican congressman Michael Grimm resigned following his indictment for felony tax evasion. He got 56.8% of the vote when he was re-elected in 2016, in a district Trump won by over 20%, the only district in New York City Trump won. He is running for reelection after overcoming a challenge from Michael Grimm, now out of prison, in which he “out-Trumped” the former representative. He is being opposed by a thirty-one year old Afghanistan war veteran named Max Rose. Over a million dollars has come into the Rose campaign chest from outside the district, though none of it from corporations, who are major donors to Donovan. If I was rich, I’d probably give Rose a generous donation.
Instead, I headed to Staten Island to canvass for him on this final day. I wanted to speak face to face with as many registered Democrats and the over 100,000 Independents on Staten Island as I could, convince as many as possible to vote for Rose the following day. The margin of victory is likely to be in the low thousands, or even closer, if the predictions of a tight race are right. It will be an uphill battle for Rose and truly every last vote counts in these district elections.
If you are dealing with brutal forces in a contest where brutality is winked at, signaled to each other, it is best to come right out and express your political views in the most direct possible way. I wanted to talk to voters face to face, let them see this old man who’d made a long trip to talk to them about why this race, the only race where a Republican and a Democrat are vying for a Congressional seat in New York City (all the rest are solidly Democratic), is so important.
Max Rose is for gun control, Dan Donovan supports the Second Amendment, though he would also support background checks. Max Rose will vote for legislation to curb climate change, Dan Donovan is not sure, since he’s not a scientist, how much human pollution really affects the escalating climate catastrophe we are all seeing. “You have to ask the scientists,” he says, in a very confident, politic way. He tends to vote with the rest of his party, and to go along with the wishes of our strongman-type president. He fended off a primary challenge from Michael Grimm by veering further toward the extreme right, swearing his allegiance to the president. He is a politician I would like to see out of office.
A friend was kind enough to give me a ride to South Ferry in his car, which saved me a lot of time and hassle getting down to the ferry. After being casually sniffed by a beautiful golden retriever, a working dog with a security handler, I waited for the next ferry to Staten Island. I was lucky enough to board one of the old ferries with the outside deck for my cruise to Staten Island. These old ferries had been taken out of service for years after a maniac hacked a bunch of people with a machete. It is much easier to safeguard a ferry where everyone is in one large compartment. This is the first ferry I’ve been on since that maniac’s attack, decades ago, that had the outdoor deck. We passed Ellis Island in the distance, the place where poor people from Europe and beyond came seeking to be admitted as immigrants or refugees.
All four of my grandparents had checked in there in the years before the immigration restrictions for poor people, strict national quotas, were put into place the year my father was born, 1924. People crowded along the railing to get photos of the Statue of Liberty. We all did. There was a group of Indians or perhaps Pakistanis (the women wore head scarves, and sandals, though it was chilly and rainy) and they were delightedly taking and posing for pictures, along with everyone else who was traveling with someone. People lined up along the railing, took turns smiling for the cellphone camera, with the dramatic statue behind them. The woman next to me on the bench and I smiled at each other as we approached the Statue of Liberty. You have a camera and you pass that beautiful statue, a symbol so full of promise for a better life to millions over the years, millions who have contributed richly to American life and history, you do this:
On ramps right outside the Saint George ferry terminal in Staten Island there are dozen of bus stops. I was informed by google maps that I could take the S-46 or the S-48 buses to Max Rose headquarters at 629 Forest Avenue. It was chilly on that bench by the water. I put on my extra layer and turned to the other old fart on the bench at the S-46 bus stop with me. He was wearing a baseball hat with a huge American flag on it. I asked him if the 46 would take me to Forest Avenue. He told me the 48 was better, because it went along Forest itself, and I could watch the numbers, it would be hard for me to get lost. The 46 went on a street parallel to Forest, but you really had to know your way around or things would get bad fast. I thanked him and went over to sit on the bench at the 48 stop.
(I witnessed, and was a second too slow to help out on, a surprising and poignant scene between high schools kids on that 48 bus– but that will have to wait for another post).
When I got to the office, about fifteen minutes before my required training for canvassing was to begin, the young woman at the door informed me that if I was here for canvassing, they were turfed out. She explained that meant that all of the names and addresses they had to canvass had been covered already by volunteers. She told me that I could join the phone bank, and motioned to a room full of young people, shoulder to shoulder, consulting lists and talking on their phones. They were reading some kind of script, I suppose, it was noisy in there. I used the bathroom and headed back to the front door.
“You want to join the phone bank?” she asked me as I approached the door. It wasn’t what I’d come for, I wanted to show some Staten Island Democrats my old face, talk to them in person for a few moments, impress on them the importance of going to vote the next day. The Democrats need to flip about 30 seats in the Congress and this race, expected to be an easy win for the Republican, appears to be running neck and neck. Making calls from the makeshift call center did not have the same appeal to me that speaking to people face to face did. I told her I was going to walk around the block and think about it.
I stepped out into pissing rain. It was raining hard enough now that ten minutes out in it were enough to soak your pants. I decided to look for something to eat, to sit inside and stay warm and dry while I decided what to do. I saw two young women with a pile of Max Rose brochures in front of them, sitting in a coffee shop. I thought about going in to speak with them, then felt self-conscious about approaching them. They would probably have been happy to talk to me about Max Rose, I’m sure, maybe even convince me how important it was for us all to be making phone calls. They never got the chance. I bought a hot pretzel a few doors away and caught the next bus back to the St. George Ferry Station.
Right before I went to sit down at the sheltered bus stop I snapped a photo of Max Rose’s Staten Island campaign office (the eleventh district extends into Brooklyn where Max Rose already has an 80 to 20 lead). It was then that I noticed that his campaign headquarters was in the same small building as Mandolin Brothers. Mandolin Brothers was a famous purveyor of excellent new and vintage stringed instruments. You could play and buy beautiful guitars, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles there. I was only there once, years ago, and pretty close to closing time, but it was a great place I always intended to return to. I smiled to think they’d loaned their space to Max Rose for his campaign. Not only great musical instruments, I thought but good political impulses. (I later learned from my smartphone that the store is long gone).
The ferry back was one of the now typical ferries that have no external decks along the sides for good, open air views. The ferry was entirely closed, which was fine with me, it was shitty out, and cold, I was disappointed, and tired, and I sat on a bench hardly noticing that we were traveling over a vast stretch of ocean water. In a little over twenty minutes we were docking at the foot of Manhattan Island. I passed a black lab with a working dog collar on and also the golden lab, who was now barking continuously. It must have been close to quitting time for the golden lab, and her patience was just about done.
A short walk north and west from the ferry station in lower Manhattan, you come to this museum:
On the front door is this sign:
We are stronger than hate, until hate actually murders us. It happens. It has not stopped happening for many years now, though the names of those being murdered by hate keep changing. Genocide continues with horrific consistency, on massive scales and on more limited scales. Four years ago, for example, a few thousand Yazidi men were slaughtered in the Sinjar Massacre, too few for a proper genocide, perhaps, but still very, very horrible. The Rohingya were recently the subjects of persecution and genocide in Myanmar, the nation formerly known as Burma. Everyone in Yemen is catching hell, children are being killed every day, casualties of the brutal Saudi war there, which rages with American support. Protesters and rock throwers are being shot to death in more than one country, threatened with being shot to death here, by the American president. So-called strongmen appear here and there to enforce their will by organized mob violence and with their armies. They use the military to intimidate citizens and perceived enemies, as our president is doing now, having soldiers install concertina wire along the border fence at a cost CBS news reported tonight is perhaps $200,000,000.
Many people feel the world is overdue for its next, and final, world war. Look at the world, it’s in chaos, violent storms and other natural disasters are regularly destroying homes and killing people all over the planet, species are disappearing, violent ideologies are waging ruthless wars against unarmed civilians in many places. Some historians claim that we are living in the most peaceful moment of human history. I think that’s a wonderful thought, probably backed by some kind of very convincing statistical evidence. I also don’t think it’s true. The world is waiting to explode into the next mass murder, many people everywhere are desperate, snarling angrily, we are one big bomb away, and violence is in the air.
So I say, to myself and to people of all faiths and original nationalities who vote in American elections: vote today for the party that is less racist, less xenophobic, less nationalist, less extreme in its divisive rhetoric. Changing one-party control of our democracy is not the answer to all of America’s problems, but it is the start. The other way lies madness.
In 2018, Donovan faced a primary challenge from former Rep. Michael Grimm. During the primary campaign, Grimm accused Donovan of having tried to entice Grimm to drop out of the race by offering to lobby Trump to pardon Grimm. Grimm pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges in 2014 and spent several months in prison. During the primary, both candidates emphasized their loyalty to Trump, seeking to “out-Trump each other,” according to the Washington Post. In the 2018 general election Donovan is facing Max Rose.