"Fighting The Power" When You Wield State Power: The Story Of Juneteenth
Juneteenth is officially a federal holiday, and inaugural celebrations are being held across the country this weekend. As always, elected officials never let a good parade or festival-type scenario go to waste. Yesterday, I went to a first-annual Juneteenth event in Jamaica, Queens which attracted the likes of Chuck Schumer, Bill de Blasio, Grace Meng, Gregory Meeks, and other NYC-area politicians who wanted to let everyone know how committed they were to “doing the work” — much of which, naturally, is yet to be done.
Even though this event was organized by a New York State Assemblywoman and, in theory, could’ve been an exciting post-COVID outdoor celebration marking a new federal holiday, the attendance was pretty paltry. I’m not sure if that was due to lack of interest, or poor promotion, or what. Nothing against the vendors and food booths and such — those were all fine. But when Schumer et al. were up on stage yesterday afternoon, they were speaking to a crowd of maybe 50 people. (Although the crowd did grow somewhat after the politicians left, with the arrival of various child dance troupes.)
Colleen D. Babb, an Assistant District Attorney in the office of Queens DA Melinda Katz, declared to the small crowd: “We’re doing things in the District Attorney’s office to create equity and justice.” Which perhaps gives some insight into the infinitely-malleable nature of this newfangled “equity” concept. Taking Babb’s statement at face value, “equity” can conveniently be achieved through the punitive power of the criminal justice apparatus. Certain government officials in heavily Democratic areas may want to claim that the criminal justice apparatus can be used for socially beneficial ends, but the reason the apparatus exists is because it’s backed by the power of the state to punish, constrain, seize, and deprive. That this kind of rhetoric is so fluently espoused even by law enforcement officials may raise some questions about the utility of the rhetoric.
It’s a bit strange when office-holders who belong to the party which overwhelmingly dominates New York City and State governments, and controls the Presidency and Congress, present themselves as quasi-revolutionary dissenters. But that’s exactly what happened at this soiree, hosted by Democratic Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman. “I just love Southeast Queens, we have the best elected officials ever,” the emcee said, further stating that these elected officials were in the process of “fighting the power.” Her words were uttered while Schumer, the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, was posing cheerfully on stage.
After the speeches, Schumer strutted around in his brand new Juneteenth t-shirt in search of the piddling few attendees who recognized him and wanted to talk. He happened upon a father who instructed his young boy to take a photo with the Senator, because having a photo with a Senator is considered impressive. Schumer boastfully corrected the father, reminding him that his proper title is in fact “Majority Leader.” A smiling Schumer repeated this correction more than once. The boy didn’t appear to understand what “Majority Leader” meant, but Schumer’s boast conveyed the message that he was an extremely important person.
“Everybody likes a little Public Enemy, right?” another speaker, councilman I. Daneek Miller, declared: “Fight the power.” In other words, everybody likes a certain genre of music, so of course everyone uses the popular catchphrases associated with that music as a rhetorical gloss for their electioneering activity. “Fighting the power” when you wield actual state power — novel!
Donovan Richards, the Queens Borough President, added: “We appreciate this holiday, but it doesn’t mean we don’t want reparations.” Some speakers expressed suspicion that the ratification of Juneteenth was a bit of a ploy to mollify blacks. Which may not have been appreciated by Schumer, who presided over the Senate’s ratification of Juneteenth by unanimous consent last week.
I asked Schumer if he found it odd that elected officials were up on stage fulminating about the need to “fight the power,” when he, Chuck Schumer — the Majority Leader of the United States Senate — was standing right beside them. “Well, we need everyone to help us, including Him, up there,” Schumer told me, apparently making some kind of reference to the divine. “Fighting the fight. Thank you,” he concluded.
Curiously, none of the NYC mayoral candidates — the election is on Tuesday — appeared at this portion of the event, perhaps because none wanted to be caught dead with incumbent mayor Bill de Blasio. At a recent mayoral debate only one candidate, Andrew Yang, indicated that he would like to receive De Blasio’s endorsement. For kicks, I asked De Blasio if he’d decided who he’s voting for in the election. “Nope,” he replied. Asked when he planned on making up his mind, he said, “by Tuesday morning.” ...OK.
Another funny thing happened at the Juneteenth event. At one point, the emcee announced that they were giving away Islanders tickets. The Islanders, for those who may be unaware, are a professional hockey team and they are currently in the Semi-Finals of the NHL Playoffs. The reaction to the news that Islanders tickets were being given away was very muted. In fact, it seemed no one reacted at all. Later, as I was walking around, the lady giving away the tickets approached me and asked if I wanted them. What do I have to do, I asked? Nothing, she said. Just give her my name and phone number. So I did that and sure enough, received the Islanders tickets via text. Parking pass included!
Upon arrival at the Nassau Coliseum for the game, I discovered that two entire rows in prime lower-level seating were vacant — except for me and two other guys. It looked like the seats had been reserved for Juneteenth-related community outreach, but nobody showed up except me and the other two guys. And those guys said they weren’t even at the Juneteenth event — they just knew somebody who knew the lady. I’m not sure what that says about the success of the Islanders’ community outreach.
Juneteenth was briefly acknowledged at the game. The stadium announcer notified fans that a new holiday had been established to mark “the end of slavery in the United States.” Which may not be quite historically accurate, but hey, no big deal. Polite applause ensued. Then a severely injured NYPD officer was honored, with raucous chants of “USA.” If you ever want to experience the “id” of Long Island, consider going to an Islanders game. Hockey fandom is not necessary, although the game I happened to attend last night was wildly exciting. The Islanders won 3-2 after an insane finish. Despite barely being cognizant of hockey, I was giving and receiving high-fives with everyone in my vicinity. The cultural juxtaposition between a Juneteenth festival in Jamaica, Queens and a playoff Islanders game in Nassau County was enough to give you severe whiplash.
Note from MT: Starting this week, I will be live-streaming and putting some other assorted things on the blockchain-powered service Rokfin. You can follow me here. In order to access premium content — which includes everything from MMA to political reporting — the cost is $9.99/month. My first stream will be Tuesday at 9PM EST. Needless to say, the constraints of YouTube do not apply to this platform! ;-)