Reporter's Notebook: A historic day in New York City
Issued on: Modified:
As the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approaches, FRANCE 24's Leela Jacinto takes the temperature of New York City on a day New Yorkers will never forget.
Finally get to the “Ground Zero Mosque" protest. But it's not at Ground Zero, neither is it at 51 Park Place, the address of the planned Islamic cultural center that has been at the center of so much controversy. The area around Park51 - the official name for the Islamic center - has been totally blocked by the police.
The anti-"Ground Zero Mosque" protest is on West Broadway and it stretches for just a block – between Park Place and Murray Street. At its peak, I'd say the protest gathered around 200 people – including security officials and press, of which there are many. A similar protest this time last year had far more people, stretching down a couple of blocks. Is the momentum sagging?
But what they lack in numbers, they make up in volume.
Pamela Geller, right wing high-priestess and blogger, takes the mike and thanks all the “patriots” for gathering to pay tribute.
The patriots are waving “No Ground Zero Mosque” placards and are a noisy bunch.
Then come the speakers. First speaker: Bhupinder Singh Bhurji, a Sikh priest and chairman of the Namdhari Sikh Foundation USA.
Second speaker: A Hindu priest flanked by two thuggish-looking sidekicks. Hindu priest talks of “karma” (fate) and “shanti” (peace) – and ends with an indecipherable Sanskrit chant.
The Indian right-wing is here in full force. “India, like Israel, is on the frontlines of the global jihad,” says Pamela. “Hundreds of thousands of Hindus have been slaughtered by jihadists.”
Well, back in India, thousands of Muslims have also been slaughtered by Hindu extremists and Sikh extremists killed a former Indian prime minister back in 1984. Mais bon, as the French say, never mind. This is selective history center and India is rising in US anti-Islamic circles.
My friend, a fellow American journalist of Indian origin, leans over and wryly mutters, “So many Indians here, I'm getting lost in the brownness.”
But there are plenty of non-brown folk as well. I turn around and spot a familiar face with a bushy, white handlebar mustache surrounded by a posse of plainclothes guards. Rev. Terry Jones of threatened Koran-burning fame is here.
I dash for him. I reach him. But so does a crush of other journalists. We elbow and fight as we get into each others' camera frames – quietly, we don't want the camera mikes to pick our scuffling.
Jones tells us he's planning a “Judge Mohammed Day” - as in judge the Prophet Mohammed. Any more Koran -burning events lined up for the future? Apparently not. “I'm done with the Koran,” says Rev. Jones.
And I'm done with this crowd. It's been a long day. A historic day. A day I will never forget.
Spent last hour trying to negotiate past three blocks. The NYPD and Mayor's office has set up a labyrinthian system of roadblocks and it takes ingenuity to get around.
I'm trying to make it to 51 Park, site of the Islamic center that has been dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque". It's not at Ground Zero of course, but that's the term that continues to be used by opponents of the center. Apparently there are protests scheduled there. But try making it there! I've befriended every cop on every block around 51 Park.
Resplendent in their Marine Corp League dress uniforms, a group of retired Marines stand at attention on Church St. " We're here to honour the 23 former Marines we lost in the building," says Jim Seaman, 51, from Queens, NY.
At corner of Fulton and Church streets right by Ground Zero, Diane DeCarlo and her husband are watching the ceremony on a giant screen at the corner. They're from Sea Girth, New Jersey, and they came to New York last night to be here. "Our friends thought we were crazy," says Diane. "But we just wanted to be here. It's so different here. There are so many people watching. But it's so quiet here."
Walking down Broadway, past the historic Trinity Church, and I spot Lady Liberty – in the flesh. She looks wonderful in an all-white robe with a heart-shaped sign hanging from her neck that says: “Dare always to love and to hope and to believe good eventually will triumph!”
It's a good photograph, so I elbow my way to interview her. She's Sheilah Hill, from Riverdale in the Bronx, and she tells me she's “three score ten plus two-years-old”. That's 72-years-old. Her math, not mine.
"Seventy-two?" I squawk. "You don't look it!"
“Love is the secret,” she tells me.
Good enough. But then she launches into a gobbledegook spiel of angels and love and keeping quiet and the good forces, and I start looking for an exit point.
Her message – or what I could make of it – goes like this: Love will keep us secure. “Can police and scanners and the military keep us safe? I don't think so. Where can we fit them all here?” she asks, gesturing to the crowded sidewalk. “Only love can keep us safe.”
Then she launches into a very tuneful, beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace”.
Minutes later, there's a serendipitous New York moment. The sound system relaying the ceremony at Ground Zero a few blocks away breaks into a lone trumpeter playing...“Amazing Grace”.
The music is haunting, goosebump-inducing. I see people wiping their tears. There's nothing like “Amazing Grace,” - it is, always has been, always will be an amazing song.
At the corner of Broadway and Cedar Street, just a few blocks from Ground Zero, the distant sounds of bagpipes being playing at the main ceremony filter through.
But there's a different music dominating this street. An anti-gay group is demonstrating at this corner, singing hymns and holding placards saying, “Soldiers die 4 fag marriage,” “Mourn for Your Sins” and “You will eat your babies”.
Across Broadway, a group of New Yorkers are heckling the anti-gay demonstrators with gusto. “Your voice sucks,” screams Matt Enright, 23, from Queens, New York. “Hey, pink T-shirt,” he screams at an anti-gay demonstrator, “you're voice sucks, shut up!”
When I ask Matt if he's familiar with the group, he says he has no idea who they are. “But they're coming to this space which is sacred for people who lost their loved ones and for all Americans, and they're degrading this day with their hate agenda. Hate is what brought this whole thing about ten years ago and they're perpetuating the same thing.”
The police are protecting the anti-gay demonstrators and I can't cross the barricades to talk to the group, so I talk to a calm, portly, bearded man handing out little booklets.
He's David Dale, 40, a missionary from Indiana, and he says he's here to hand out booklets with special commemorative scriptures. I ask him if he's part of the demonstrating group across the street. “No ma'am,” he says vehemently. “I don't agree with them because what they're telling people is not what the Bible says.”
So, the Bible is pro-gay rights? “No ma'am. The Bible says we should love the person and not the sin.”
So, homosexuality is a sin? “Yes ma'am. I do believe homosexuality is wrong. But I don't agree with their hatred because as Christians, we do not hate homosexuals.”
Welcome to America.
Sunlight just starting to chase away the night and already this city feels very different. There are state troopers, complete with characteristic beige hats, at seemingly every street corner in Lower Manhattan. The glass and chrome of the towering buildings reflect an incessant red and blue strobe of the flashing police cars parked along the narrow streets of the financial district. Sniffer dogs make a beeline for trash cans...this is New York's security shock-and-awe moment, a historic day. The eyes of the world -- and of al Qaeda central command -- are on the Big Apple, and they're taking no chances.
Even the shop assistants display a sense of history. The local Duane Reade pharmacy staff at the Wall Street branch are wearing navy blue “Never Forget” t-shirts and handing out little flags to customers. The morning shift crew woke up very early to get to work on time with all the security stops and checks and street closures.
The city papers – The New York Times, the Daily News and The New York Post – weigh a ton with their special 9/11 supplements. The Daily News headline captures the spirit and mirrors the White House message for the day: “Agony of the Past, Hope of the Future".