Meditation group gets worked up over parade

By David H. Ellis

As neighborhoods across the city are lining the streets with Old Glory and making final arrangements for July 4, Chinatown’s Independence Day festivities have become mired in controversy, with members of a spiritualgroup asserting that discrimination has stalled their efforts to enter the annual neighborhood parade.

Claiming that the Chinatown parade organizers are concerned with business alliances in mainland China and are biased against the group because of propaganda from China, members of Falun Gong addressed their concerns to members of Community Board 3 during the public session at the board’s June 22 meeting.

“It’s an outrage they can’t march in the parade especially on the Fourth of July and it’s not something I would expect to happen in New York City,” said Carsten Bornemann, a practitioner of Falun Gong who leads a group of 25 to 30 people in Falun Gong meditation and exercises every Saturday and Sunday in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park. “They are pretty much trying to find excuses,” he said. “The main reason they give is a security issue because Falun Gong is controversial. In past years we’ve never had problems with the police. They are just looking for excuses to justify their decision.”

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a form of qigong, a Chinese form of exercise and meditation dating back 3,000 years. The exact number of Falun Gong practitioners in New York City is difficult to estimate, since the group does not have an official organizing body. Some practitioners estimate their numbers in New York City at several thousand, with the majority of their members of Chinese descent. Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, and the group now claims tens of millions of followers around the world.

Steven Wong, one of the parade organizers, whom Falun Gong has claimed is succumbing to pressure from the Chinese consulate and pro-Communist Chinese business association leaders, said that the decision is ultimately up to the other participants in the July 3 parade, which will include approximately 160 other community groups.

“I have to make sure how people feel about it,” Wong said in a telephone interview. “We try to execute everything where the majority makes the decision.”

Wong could not say when the decision over Falun Gong’s participation would be made, but he indicated it would be early this week to give the group time to prepare if admitted. Last year’s Independence Day parade was cancelled due to Chinatown’s American Legion Post acceptance of Falun Gong without approval of the United Chinese Association and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, both of whom sponsored the event.

As one of the organizers of the parade during its inaugural year in 2001, Wong said many individuals are hesitant to let the group participate because their limited connection with the community and confusion over Falun Gong’s beliefs and intentions.

“Personally I believe it’s a new organization and nobody knows this group,” Wong said. “They don’t understand them and they feel uncomfortable with this group. I believe they should let people know about themselves.”

Other individuals closely associated with Chinatown echoed Wong’s belief that parade organizers are hesitant to admit the group because of some of the mystery surrounding the group.

“People don’t have much understanding of them because there is so much controversy about them,” said Edward Ma, a member of Community Board 2 and the Chinese–American Planning Council who was skeptical of Falun Gong’s source of funding and belief system. “They have to help people to understand. It is a sensitive area and it’s something that people try to avoid since you might become labeled.”

Wong feels that the criticism the group has directed at him is undue.

“I try not to take any position and then Falun Gong accuses me that I am taking orders,” he said. “I don’t think that is right and I think they are violating their slogan of truth, compassion and tolerance.”

Falun Gong has been subject to criticism itself, being called a cult and for allegedly presenting homophobic messages. Members attribute their tarnished image to the Chinese government.

“That’s just people who don’t understand Falun Gong and the propaganda from the Chinese government,” said Falun Gong Manhattan coordinator Scott Chinn, who has been a practitioner since 1999. “I know that through these principles I have more understanding of gay people. There’s never been an incident of antigay sentiments from any practicing members.”

For his part, Bornemann said that a Buddhist text dating back 100 years that is associated with Falun Gong may have some conservative, antigay sections, but that in its current practices, the group isn’t homophobic. He said he has gay friends who do Falun Gong with him in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park and their sexuality hasn’t been an issue at all.

However, the issue has been raised by community board members at both Community Boards 2 and 3 when Falun Gong members recently spoke during the public sessions, encouraging people to come out and try the exercise. After accusations of homophobia were raised, Board 3 voted to deny Falun Gong’s request to put a banner in S.D.R. Park where they meditate. The issue was raised at the end of the meeting as people were leaving. In the end, Board 3 may not have been convinced of the alleged homophobia, but voted to deny the banner anyway.

Local members of Falun Gong have appealed to officials at the city and state level to assist them with the parade. The July 3 parade is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. at 1 Division St. with a ceremony following at Columbus Park. At press time, no decision had been made regarding Falun Gong’s request to participate in the event, but the group’s members said they have attempted to make arrangements to take over the parade in the event of its cancellation.