As I write this, I am listening to the Boston Globe’s live coverage of the “Free Speech” rally being held on the Boston Common on Saturday afternoon. While many of the speakers defended one’s right to speak and assemble, they raged against leftists, liberals, Muslims, members of Black Lives Matter, the media for ‘misrepresenting’ the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA last August, and those opposed to Trump’s one-man rule. The divide in America between those who see America through a ‘white-only’ lens and the rest of us seems to be growing. However, I am trying to remain hopeful that hate is not growing, but that the public rhetoric of “patriotic” Americans has become louder because these groups know that they are on the wrong side of history. It’s sort of like when Tucker Carlson on Fox News kept interrupting and speaking over Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan during an interview about sanctuary cities. He had to interrupt because he had no counter-argument to Sheehan’s defense of sanctuary based on the Constitution and court rulings.
Despite all the hate-filled speech that we are hearing today, from the Oval Office to our municipal ‘Commons,” I am thankful that people all over the United States, whether it be rural, suburban, or urban communities, have come out and stood publicly against racism, bigotry, sexual harassment, Islamophobia, and social and environmental injustices. In our own Capital District area, local heroes and heroines were recently recognized for their unwavering service to make America the best it can be.
Citizen Action of New York (CANY), Capital District Chapter, held its 25th Jim Perry Progressive Leadership Awards celebration in early October. Labor union representatives, environmental justice advocates and an anti-Islamophobia activist were honored for their dedication to making all lives better, healthier, and economically stable through advocating for living wages.
Environmental injustice was the theme for CANY’s honorees the Rev. McKinley Johnson and the NY Water Project. Rev. Johnson has been in the forefront in fighting for the residents of Albany’s South End as they battle corporate giants on both the ‘bomb’ train front and stopping diesel-engine, pollution-spewing trucks from driving through the heart of Ezra Prentice Homes. The NY Water Project was formed by residents in rural Rensselaer County, as they confronted PFOA contaminated drinking water in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, because both the state and local government responses were inadequate at best. These two examples of environmental injustices show that no community is safe when corporate greed is placed ahead of public health, whether it be an urban neighborhood of mostly people of color or a rural community of mostly white residents.
Two weeks ago I wrote about unions being under attack by corporate America and the current administration in Washington. Two union representatives, Antonella Pechtel and James Larson, were honored by CANY for their many years of dedicated service protecting workers from losing their hard-earned living wages and benefits. Antonella has lobbied for quality health care and safe staffing guidelines for nurses. Jim, with fellow union members, founded the Eastern NY Pride at Work Chapter to fight to ensure that LGBTQ members are welcome in their unions and that their issues are addressed. Like environmental justice, workers’ rights and benefits need to be protected from corporations placing profits over people.
Fazana Saleem-Ismail was recognized by CANY for her efforts to build bridges between people of different backgrounds, rather than impose barriers and walls between peoples. As a member of the Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia (disclosure: I am a member of CDCAI), Fazana helped to organize the “No KKK Presidency Rally” and participates in the “Ask a Muslim” table at public events. Fazana’s community activities go far beyond breaking down barriers that keep Muslims from being accepted in our communities. She is a role model for all of us who want to see America welcoming to all people.
Citizen Action was not the only organization to honor those fighting the good fight. The New York Civil Liberties Union – Capital Region Chapter held its Annual Awards Dinner last week. This year the NYCLU-CRC honored three community organizers for their work protecting immigrants; advocating for voting rights and campaign reform; and political ethics (if one can say those two words in the same sentence) and funding for education.
Joe Paparone volunteers for ICE-Free Capital District. He is out on the front line, almost daily, supporting undocumented citizens as they are rounded-up by the federal government in its attempt to ‘purge’ our immigrant and refugee populations. I cannot give Joe’s speech at the Awards ceremony justice, and I wished I had taped it. His words need to be heard by everyone as he was able to strongly counter the misinformation campaign about undocumented people, especially by those attempting to paint every immigrant as a violent member of the gang MS-13.
For the second time in the past 21 years, Barbara Bartoletti was honored by NYCLU-CDC for her advocacy on good government issues. Barbara recently retired as the legislative director for the League of Women Voters. During her speech to the assembled masses, Barbara pointed out that while New York State is a “liberal” state and does not legally try to suppress voter participation, the state’s archaic Election Law has that affect. The restrictions on registration timelines and lack of voting by mail or electronically has helped to keep New York State near the bottom of states on voter participation in elections.
The NYCLU-CRC established a new award this year, the Peter Henner Award. The award is named in honor of the late Peter Henner who served for many years on its Board. Blair Horner, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), was honored by being the first-ever recipient of this award. His work on combating political corruption and advocating for quality healthcare and higher education funding were the basis for Blair being honored with the Peter Henner Award.
I am thankful for knowing and working with all of these community advocates on the many different issues facing us today. This quote from the NYCLU-CRC awards program attesting to Peter Henner’s work to make a difference can also be used to describe all of the people mentioned above: “He [they] never forgot that the highest purpose of law is to protect human rights, civil rights and the environment from the greedy and the powerful.” HAPPY THANKSGIVING!