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Elected Officials Address Columbus Park Controversy

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Still image from YouTube video.

An incident that occurred in Columbus Park on Mother’s Day is continuing to stir strong emotions in Chinatown. This week, City Councilmember Margaret Chin will be talking with top cops in the 5th Precinct about the ordeal, which was videotaped and (as of this morning) has been viewed nearly 60,000 times on YouTube.

The conflict arose after officers, responding to a 311 complaint, told members of the Street Musical Club they could not use a microphone, since they had no Parks Department permit.  An argument between a Chinese speaking officer and 64-year old Wu Yizuo (a club organizer) led to the spectacle depicted in the video; several officers pinned the man to the ground and arrested him, as onlookers reacted angrily .

Last week, the video made the rounds on several blogs and triggered a passionate debate on Facebook. More than 2600 people have joined a Facebook page started by Chinatown resident Jennifer Li.  Originally, she had been urging people to attend the upcoming 5th Precinct Community Council meeting to protest the arrest. But now the focus is on a letter-writing campaign to local elected officials. Li included a sample letter on the Facebook page. It reads, in part:

This is outrageous. As a member of the Chinatown community, I demand that something be done about this. It sickens me that an elderly man can be beaten up by the cops in this manner. You can clearly see how hard they are holding him down, and that there is blood on his face. The police need to be held responsible for this; please make sure that they are held accountable for this horrible incident. It is of utmost importance that the police treat the community that they are serving with “courtesy, professionalism, and respect.” They were obviously not displaying any of those qualities in the video. Thank you and I await your response on this urgent matter.

In a phone conversation last week, Li said she started the page impulsively, and was shocked that it “went viral” so quickly. Li said her dad was worried about what might happen at the precinct meeting and urged her not to attend.  Meanwhile, at least one well known advocacy organization is speaking out about the incident. In a statement posted on its web site Wednesday, CAAAV/Organizing Asian Communities, said:

The reality is that the NYPD operates and has gotten by on fear and intimidation. And the reality is that as Chinatown increasingly becomes a neighborhood for non-immigrants and wealthier New Yorkers, Chinese immigrants are less and less welcome. The police have, in fact, become a force that helps to push immigrants out of the neighborhood, either by making us feel unwelcome or by, as in this case, using force. Police violence is not justifiable in any situation.

On Thursday, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver met with Wu Yizuo, other members of the musical group, 5th precinct officers, Parks Department officials and representatives of Community Board 3. Their focus was not on the concerns about police conduct. Instead, the participants discussed how to make sure community groups understand how to obtain event permits.  Silver’s office released the photo posted above, as well as the following statement:

Silver… got all sides to agree to attend the next Community Board 3 Parks Committee meeting in June to further discuss the issuing of permits for musical performances and other uses of the park. Silver said he hopes that such a public discussion involving various members of the community will help ensure that all voices are heard. “It is important that members of the Street Musical Club, Inc., or any other musicians, be given the opportunity to apply for a permit to play outdoors,” Silver said. “Musicians are trying to entertain their neighbors and enjoy their music. I want to make sure that the permit application process is accessible to everyone and ensure that the community has a meaningful voice in that process.”

Thomas Yu, chair of CB3’s Parks Committee, said the group wants an amplified music permit in Columbus Park every day of the summer. While they’re open to approving occasional performances, Parks Department officials made it clear they could not honor the club’s request for a 7-day-a-week permit.  Beyond the current controversy, Yu suggested there’s a larger issue that needs to be addressed. As more senior services are shut down, low-income residents have had little choice but to congregate in the few open spaces that exist in Chinatown, he said.

The situation has created new tensions among residents living and recreating in very tight quarters. The police conduct issue is obviously a separate matter.  No one disputes that the video “looks bad.” But some people point out that it may not necessarily tell the whole story. The clip, for example, only begins when the take-down occurs, and does not capture the long back-and-forth that preceded the arrest.  On Tuesday, Councilmember Chin will discuss the situation with 5th Precinct officers.  Until then, she is refraining from speaking out about what happened.

The 5th Precinct Community Council meeting will be held a week from Wednesday, May 25, at 7 p.m. The precinct is located at 19 Elizabeth Street.

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