By Arthur Z. Schwartz
I turn 65 this month. I finally move to middle age. (Hey, I have 12 and 14-year-old daughters!) This is my birthday message.
The world around us continues to be very disturbing. We have a president who not only has authoritarian tendencies, but also engages in common bullying, using his Twitter account to show that he can one-up anyone through insults. We have a governor who is surrounded by corruption, who the political class fears, who can’t get the subways to run on time, keeps building fossil fuel power plants, allows affordable housing to disappear, and touts a few “liberal” accomplishments while protecting the status quo. (New York has the 46th lowest voter turnout in the U.S. and ranks 26th in school achievement). All around us, the scourge of sexual harassment is displayed in the exposure of the famous and powerful, but little changes for most women. We read in the papers about how hundreds of teenagers and even younger girls were sexually assaulted by the USA Gymnastics’ team doctor; complaints from the girls fell on deaf ears for nearly two decades.
In mid-January, I chanced upon the obituary of Julius Lester, a black folksinger, who became a black nationalist radical (and then an Orthodox Jew). Fifty years ago, he shook people up every week on WBAI radio, and in the pages of Westside News and The Village Voice. In an essay he wrote in late 1967, Lester described the difference between ‘protest’ and ‘resistance.’ “To protest,” he wrote, “is to let it be known that you do not like the certain action of another. To protest is an act of intellectual commitment. It is to say, ‘Sir, I protest,’ when you are slapped in the face.” In contrast, “to resist is to say ‘No!’ without qualification or explanation…To resist is to become alive…to say not only will I not accept what you are doing, I will stop you from doing it.”
There are things going on in our neighborhood, which we cannot merely protest. The closure of Beth Israel has been held up to the light, but it needs to be stopped, not just protested. The ridiculous rents, which have driven our favorite delis, shoemakers, hardware shops, and drug stores out of business must be ended. The erosion of rent stabilization, and the efforts to drive older residents from their homes, must be stopped, or we will move faster and faster into becoming a rich, white enclave rivaled only by Beverly Hills. The hesitation to address climate change—be it fossil fuel power or massive traffic jams in our midst—must stop. This is not a debate; it is a crisis. The tendency of government, even local government, to just tell people what is best for them, must end. The universal disdain held by residents within blocks of 14th Street for the ridiculous plan to ban cars from 14th Street, and make side streets impassable, must turn into angry resistance.
There are good things too, happening around us, like the concerts at St. Veronica. But our neighborhood became the best place to live in New York City because people fought for it. I am still up for the fight, just like George Capsis is at 90. I hope my neighbors are too.
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Male Democratic District Leader in Greenwich Village. He hosts a weekly radio show, called “Advocating for Justice,” every Monday, from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on WBAI, 99.5FM. His show, including back recordings, are available at wbai.org.