On Saturday, October 17, 2009, a rally was held in College Point, Queens. It was in response to the savage beating of Jack Price by two young men from that community in the early morning hours of Friday, October 9. Caught on a surveillance video tape, the entire beating can be watched from beginning to end (including a car driving by that does not stop to help Jack Price).
Watching that video was like watching someone be beaten to death without any sound to record the punches on the body or the sounds made as he was hit. The tape is in black and white, so there is no red blood, no red and green lights of the changing stop lights. It is a contextless beating, senseless, random and unprovoked. The two attackers seem both hesitant and intent without any defensive response from the victim as if he were meeting his death. Yet one wonders what Daniel Rodriguez and Daniel Aleman could have been thinking as they attacked Jack Price. What comes across was their obsessive battering at a man's body without any sense of what it was they were really doing. Once the two Daniels walked away, Jack stood up. More a carcass at that point, it felt to me as if his soul had left his body and he was about to die. He walked like a punch-drunk fighter. But he had never raised his fists. I watched as he stood up, fell down, his body seeming to just roll around on the ground. With no sound, I cannot hear if he cried for help or just in pain. But the standing up and the falling down recur until he just stood up, walked out of range of the camera and the video tape rolled on with the empty street and the changing stop lights.
When the hunt began for the two men who beat Jack Price, the sound track got turned on--the cries of anger, blame, horror, fear, shame came through loud and clear. All of a sudden what had been a silent black and white event became a full-throated cacophony of voices. It became a circus of pain that made the consequences of the beating more vibrant, more insistent and more audacious in a way than those who did the beating could have anticipated.The two young men have been arrested and are awaiting trial. They will not be out on bail any time soon.
In short order, a rally was planned in College Point to protest the beating on the very streets where it had occurred. We all knew that this was a hate crime. A number of LGBT organizations put the event together and I learned about it on Facebook. This was also occurring while Congress was voting to include gender orientation and sexuality to the hate crime bill. Spearheaded by Matthew Shepard's mother, this legislation did pass the following week.
I had never been to College Point before and it seemed awfully bleak that Saturday afternoon of the rally. The day itself was gloomy but College Point Boulevard was deserted. The police had completely blocked off the street from 20th Avenue down to 14th Avenue. The few hundred people chanting and shouting gave the street more life than it had before and after the march. As we marched along the boulevard, people peeked out at us and waved from behind their blinds in their apartments above hair salons and pizza parlors and Chinese restaurants. Like much of Queens, the place is diverse. Yet, as one man said to me as we stood watching the crowd, College Point is a town that time forgot.
I am not sure if it is time or opportunity that forgot about College Point. With no subway line into College Point, it negates what Bill Thompson said during the rally, "This is New York City," he posited as if there were any doubt where we were and what that meant. But looking around, College Point more resembles small-town American life than life in New York City. It is a place where young people have absolutely nothing to do but hang out on the streets and reinforce their own unformed ideas and prejudices and become frustrated with how little there is to do. Thus some form of frustrated violence is bound to occur. This is not a justification for what they did but rather a way to see into the lives of people who rarely, it would seem, have anyone from outside their enclave pay attention to them.
When the parade reached the park and the speakers stood up to denounce what was done to Jack Price, it stunned me that across the street from where members of Jack Price's family as well as a whole slew of elected officials stood (including the Queens Borough President, Helen Marshall; the Speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn; the Comptroller and Democratic candidate for Mayor, Bill Thompson, along with numbers of other elected officials), a counter demonstration by Daniel Rodriguez's friends had formed. Somehow they felt a need to be there for him and to proclaim that this was not a hate crime, as if a beating for some other reason was justified so long as it was not a hate crime.
As was reported in the Daily News, one of the young men there in support of Daniel Rodriguez was quoted as saying that Jack Price only suffered wounds to his body that will heal while Danny will be losing precious time from his young live if he goes to jail for this. The refrain, wounds heal, made me realize just how out of touch and cut off from the reality of this beating these kids were. The dozen or so of Danny's friends, convinced that the two Daniels did not commit a hate crime are so unattuned to the historical context of their words that it gave me pause. How is it possible, I asked myself, to say that Danny did not hate gays because some of his best friends are gay and not hear in that defense a long history of racist and ethnic animosity?
I dare say, cut off as they are from the real New York City, they are also ignorant of this history. Or to the inner forces that drove the two Daniels to beat a gay man in the middle of the night who had gone out to buy a pack of cigarettes. If they were able to articulate the ways in which prejudice, hatred and aggression can be used to stave off boredom and hopelessness, they would not be sitting in this stagnant place with no creative response to their situation other than swagger and intimidation. As an elderly resident of College Point told me, she is afraid of them, would not go out at night and when she had to walk along College Point Boulevard, and they were around, they forced her into the gutter rather than allow her to pass among them.
Finally, I left the park and the speeches and the camera crews and walked back up College Point Boulevard on my own. Between the noise and the silence on the streets, the stark contrast of life here returned. This is an odd place, I told myself and hard to read and harder still to trust that anyone would ever help me if something were to happen. (The image of that car driving down 118th Avenue while the beating was happening and not stopping did not help assuage my fear.) It was a lonely stretch walking back towards my car. Nothing of interest caught my eye or asked me to pause and explore. All that stirred in me was hunger but as I walked past one Chinese restaurant after another and one pizza parlor or diner, not one seemed at all friendly. I decided to stop at a deli instead and eat a sandwich in my car.
The interior of the deli was stripped down to its bare bones. No decorations, nothing gave it a personality or made the place inviting. While I tried to place my order, a trio of men entered. One was white, an alcoholic, whose sole purpose was to get a cinnamon bagel and to make sure we all knew that. Of the other two men, one was a short, Hispanic fellow who acted tough and aggressive toward the third man who was taller, rather stout and Indian. He seemed gay to me and when the Hispanic man started shouting at him, "Why don't you just come out of the closet? Everyone knows you are gay?" My attention turned from ordering a sandwich to worrying where this exchange was going to lead.
I did not know if this was a regular routine between these two men or if it was precipitated by the rally. The counterman and I stopped and watched this drama open up before us. Their voices were loud enough that I could not avoid hearing what they said, though the man in need of a bagel seemed not to care about them at all. The shorter man moved in on the taller man until he had cornered him. The Indian fellow had nowhere to go when he bumped into the refrigerator doors. All the while the Hispanic guy taunted him, that he needed to come clean, be queer if that was what he was. The taller guy tried to ignore him or to placate him, until with what must have struck him as his only possible response, he turned to the Hispanic man and said, "I will tell you what, I will marry you then, if I am gay, and then you will be legal in this country." He laughed, waiting to see if the shorter man would now leave him alone.
The counter man smiled. The man in need of a bagel did not hesitate to repeat his needs and I wondered if this interchange was a result of the rally. Was the presence of a few hundred LGBT people and their supporters a moment of peace that could allow this joke to spring forth?
The Indian fellow had stood his ground not far from where a gay man had almost been killed a week before. I do not know what had moved this static place forward but someone had made a joke about being gay that was not pejorative.
What will happen in College Point once the media turns away? I know another march is being planned for when Jack Price comes home. All the wounds here are many layers deep. They will take a very long time to heal if they ever do. And Daniel Rodriguez and Daniel Aleman may be in jail for 15 years and when they return, they will have changed. Who will be here to welcome them home?