Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Public School Police State
Few public school parents had a reason to attend last Sunday's PSAL City Championship basketball games, but those like myself who did saw a virtual replay of the near state of martial law imposed by the NYPD for demonstrations during 2004's Republican National Convention. The event was effectively closed to the public, ticket prices jacked up to $15 (in an apparent attempt to keep out the "riffraff"), attendance limited to 5,000 or less. Not that anyone would have a clue about most of this from the happy-go-lucky reporting in our local newspapers.
My son and I emerge from the 34th Street subway station at 10:30 Sunday morning into a scene that makes me think, "This must be what the Baghdad Green Zone looks like." Barricades blocking 33rd Street west of Seventh Avenue, with 33rd Street itself lined with dozens of School Safety vans. Police everywhere along Seventh Avenue in front of the Garden, with more barricades set up to create a narrow sidewalk path into the Garden itself. Multiple requests to show our tickets from NYPD officers spaced every few feet along this artificial corridor. In the open spaces outside the barricades and inside the MSG plaza, dozens more uniformed NYPD and School Safety officers. At the entrance, more police and the inevitable metal detectors staffed by completely humorless guards. "Remove your metal objects. Hand over your cell phone. Take off your belt. Move over there, out of the way. Sir, don't go over there! But he just told me to put my stuff back on over here!"
Inside the Garden hallways, still more of the same, enough man and woman power to defeat the Belgian army. "Keep your ticket on you at all times or we might not let you back in," we're advised in no uncertain terms. Finally, we're at courtside and see, despite an otherwise empty arena, that we're being forced to sit behind the basket at one end, the other school similarly positioned at the opposite end. We've come to cheer on our Girls' team and we can hardly see them at the other end of the court, nor can they hear us. The good seats, on either side of the court, are nearly empty but hardly without security -- School Safety and NYPD personnel are stationed every 15 or 20 feet even where no students are present!
Just as the game begins, a fully decked out police officer positions himself squarely in the middle of the aisle, almost directly in front of me, feet spread apart in a classic power pose. I can't see a single thing happening on the court. "You're not going to stand there the whole game, are you?" I ask in disbelief. "I'm sorry, but your mother didn't make glass," I add, only half under my breath. He gives me the look, then decides to move up the aisle a bit. As a group, our school's supporters -- students, parents, teachers -- watch the entire game from behind the Visitor's basket. Half the time, we can see more by watching the TV version being broadcast live on MSG. At least they give the home audience a mid-court view.
Of course, I am entirely sympathetic to the concern over the violent events that took place at last year's PSAL Championships. Of course, I concede an NYPD and School Safety presence as the prudent response. But as this Mayor and Police Commissioner have done in every similar instance, the official response, doubtless with Chancellor Klein's consent, was an over-the-top demonstration of force meant not just to intimidate but to convey power and inspire fear. The message was clear, especially for the kids: "You're all thugs -- as you proved only too well last year -- and the only thing that will keep you from behaving like animals is brute force intimidation."
The good news was that our Girls' team shone by their determined play and great sportsmanship, and the students who attended in support acquitted themselves beautifully. Still, what are our high school-aged children to make of the "official attitude" projected toward them? How will the inescapable resentment from these condescending slights, blatant intimidations, and less-than-subliminal signals ultimately manifest themselves? When will we ever contemplate putting our children's well-being ahead of political image management through incident avoidance at any cost? What must a tourist passing by the Garden on Sunday morning have thought upon being told that the purpose of such a massive lock-down police presence was two high school basketball games, one for girls and one for boys? When did these games become the Prison System Athletic League (PSAL) Championships?
This was NOT a response to the post-9/11 era. Rather, this has sadly become the norm in the Bloomberg/Kelly/Klein era. Our silence is taken as tacit agreement that this is how it should be, that what would be beyond the pale in Westchester or Long Island is just "keepin' it real" in NYC.
Shame on us.