Searching for signs of peace on third anniversary of 9/11


By Lincoln Anderson

The anniversary of 9/11 was quieter this year — but at the same time more politically charged.

Three years ago after the attack on the World Trade Center, when south of 14th St. was a restricted zone, Union Sq. became a focal point for gathering, mourning and praying for peace. At night, illuminated by the white light of thousands of candles, the park became a dazzling cathedral of hope.

At 9/11’s two-year anniversary, searching to find solace and to remember, people again returned to Union Sq. They left candles, signs and a small model of the twin towers, but the size of the memorial was nothing like before.

And there was something new in the square, a sense of political protest for which it was once known. A group called the No Police State Coalition railed against the “Bush regime” and refused to get permits for their amplified megaphone or for marches in the street.

Last Saturday evening, the feeling that, for many, 9/11 is somehow starting to fade into history and its meaning to change was palpable in Union Sq. There were only two small memorials of votive candles or flowers. Reflecting the harsh realities of the war in Iraq, for which prospects of an exit anytime soon have become increasingly bleak, one included photos of Jacob S. Fletcher, a soldier killed in combat, and signs saying “1,000 Dead.”

Nearby, looking lonely, was a small, plastic cup of cut flowers in water.

Someone had left a box of sidewalk chalk with a note — “Write a peace sign” — and there were hundreds of them marked inside the hexagonal asphalt pavers in pink, blue, yellow and orange. And there were messages:

“This is for Pete’s Father”

“RIP Never Forget 9/11/01 — 9/11/04”

There were sketches of the towers.

But there were also a goodly smattering of Bushes in circles with slashes through them.

Mostly, though, the plaza was full of young people. They were on skateboards and trick bikes and kicking hackey sacks. They were playing guitars and dancing to old school Michael Jackson — “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” — on a boom box. One guy was even briefly twirling a flame-tipped baton.

Earlier, a member of the No Police State Coalition had been shouting into his electric megaphone about how he had needed his tooth pulled but Medicaid wouldn’t cover it. “Do you work at McDonald’s and make $6 an hour?” he asked the crowd. “Then you’re poor!”

During the Republican National Convention, one of the coalition’s main issues — marching without a permit — in fact did become a flashpoint and was used to justify the arrest of hundreds of protesters.

Surely, the convention having been just the week before had overshadowed 9/11’s observance.

Not far away, passing Ladder 3’s firehouse at 13th St. and Fourth Ave., Donna Perrone, 40, from the East Village, stopped to smell the flower bouquets left outside.

“I had a good cry today,” she said, recalling listening to a moving 9/11 montage on WBAI. “It took me back.”

One of two friends with her, Rachel Fried, 35, tends Sunset Park’s 9/11 flower garden. They were heading over to Union Sq. to see if there were any memorials there, or any protesters.

Standing in the stationhouse’s doorway, Firefighter Douglas DiGeorgio hadn’t appreciated overhearing them mention the word “protesters.”

“Not on a day like today,” he said.

He supports the war in Iraq.

“I don’t think that it was tied to 9/11,” he said of the Trade Center attack. “But there’s absolutely no doubt we had to go in there and clean that [situation] up.”

As opposed to the last two anniversaries, this year fewer people visited Ladder 3 to pay condolences and there was less media seeking interviews.

“Quieter this year” was how DiGeorgio described it. “Not too many people, but there was enough.”

As at other firehouses around the city they had had a special Mass earlier and family members came for lunch.

The ladder company lost all 12 men who responded to the Trade Center attack, including legendary Captain Patty Brown.

“This house,” DiGeorgio said, “everyone that went down, stayed down — no one came back.

“Going through the day, it’s just a like a normal day and then something happens that makes you remember and then it becomes hard,” he said, as he smoked sitting on a bench next to the flowers and candles. What are the triggers? “The news, somebody walking by — you,” he told a Villager reporter. “You spend a lot of time suppressing it — I don’t know if that’s the right word — but eventually it comes up.”

A man with a Jack Russell terrier stopped to leave a bouquet. A woman leaned out a cab window: “Watch yourselves,” she said, and “Thank you.”

Those protesters, though. What they needed was a good job to learn what life is really about, he said.

Back at Union Sq. a man bent and took a piece of yellow chalk from the box. “Bush Terrorist of Terrorists,” he wrote on the ground.

“A couple of years ago I was writing about peace, but now I am writing about terror,” the chalker said, giving only his first name, Lesly, saying he feared getting in more trouble with the authorities. He had been among the protesters arrested on Aug. 31 as they marched nearby on 16th St. He said he was held for a day and a half at Pier 57 and The Tombs.

“This is hell,” Lesly, 35, a painter, said of his detention at the now-infamous Pier 57. “Thirty six hours — for what? I still don’t know what I did wrong.”

Lesly claims he was the only person arrested among the convention protesters who is from Haiti.

“I left my country because of a dictator,” he said, “and there’s a dictator here.”

He fished his desk appearance ticket for disorderly conduct out of his bag. It had an October return court date. He plans to plead not guilty.

“I’m not guilty,” he said.

Another man, who didn’t want to give his name and said he was an architect, was drawing the major religions’ symbols in a cluster of seven pavers — an illustration his guru taught him.

“I lived below 14th St., in the restricted zone, worked in Tribeca, saw the towers fall, saw people jump — yeah, it was pretty intense,” he said.

He didn’t stop to draw because of 9/11, however, but because of the spirit he feels at Union Sq.

“This place is special. Do you know the history of this place?” he asked, referring to the square’s past as a center of labor organizing and political speech. “It’s regained a lot of that.”

He was from the Vietnam War generation, he said. He was 19 then, about the same age as his son now.

“We’ve got a self-proclaimed war president who’s frightened people enough to ram through the Patriot Act….”

His partner, Tom O’Hare, an airline attendant, stood watching him draw and listening.

“I don’t think I’ve ever protested so much,” O’Hare said with a laugh of realization.

Fixing the chain on his trick bike, a man who goes by Burgundy said the young people in the square aren’t dwelling on 9/11, but like most New Yorkers are caught up with their own lives in the city.

“You know how people are. It’s New York — it’s always the next big thing,” said the 21-year-old biker, who attends F.I.T. and designs for Sean Jean. “Maybe in a smaller place, they’d keep reliving it. Here, people have too much going on.”

A few blocks east, standing outside Engine 5 firehouse’s door on E. 14th St. at First Ave., two East Village roommates were reading a tribute to fallen Firefighter Manny DelValle. It was where Sept. 11 landed during the week that made it different this year, they said.

“I think it was strange because it’s a Saturday — because it happened on a workday,” said Kathy Thelian, 25 “in the morning.”

“People are sleeping late on Saturday,” added Felicia Crump, 24.

Added a man with a “Bang On Bush” T-shirt who paused for a moment in front of the firehouse: “People forget.”