Falun Gong practitioners meditate in protest outside the United Nations building in New York City early Wednesday afternoon. They peacefully protest the Chinese government’s persecution and alleged harvesting of organs from its followers. Photo by Justin Hicks
East 47th street between 2nd and 1st avenue was besieged by green, white and red flags with deafening screams of “Free Iran” permeating the air while smaller, similarly passionate groups denounced the leaders of Zimbabwe and Turkey with guitars and brightly emblazoned signs.
In stark contrast amid the colorful flags and posters of political candidates, about 50 mostly Chinese men and women in yellow t-shirts silently meditated with eyes closed and hands folded in prayer-like poses as almost inaudible Chinese music lilted from a few small speakers.
Wednesday morning, in sight of the United Nations building, practitioners of a controversial Chinese religion named Falun Gong (or sometimes, Falun Dafa) quietly protested the Chinese government’s persecution and the alleged organ harvesting of its practitioners since its criminalization in 1999.
“It’s a peaceful protest,” Victoria Bondar, a 50-year-old protester from New Jersey, said. “We worry deeply about our fellow practitioners who have been killed and (had their) organ harvested. I feel terrible, horrible.”
One of their primary obstacles has to do with labeling. The Chinese government, their most vehement opponent, labels them prominently as an “anti-society cult,” but their supporters can’t seem to decide how to categorize their organization. Unlike religion, there is no deity, and unlike most cults, their Nobel Peace prize-nominated founder, Li Hongzhi, is largely absent. They call themselves a “self-cultivation practice.”
Even the benefits of Falun Gong vary by individual, ranging from the miraculous healing of chronic diseases like cancer to simply having a clear mind. But no matter what they believe, all practitioners meditate and adhere to the group’s core tenets of truth, compassion and forbearance.
“You have to follow these three principles to be good people,” Jane Dai, a Falun Gong practitioner and former resident of Guangzhou, China said. “Even though we face this brutal persecution, we are still peacefully resisting.”
Chinese police arrested Dai’s husband, Cheng Yong Chen, after he delivered a letter to government officials in Shanghai defending what he believed to be the medical and social benefits of the movement. When his plane landed back in the city of Gaungzhou, police were waiting for him. Thy jailed him and took his older sister, also a Falun Gong follower, to a labor camp where she spent the next two years. Dai and her family never saw Chen again.
“In China (there are) thousands and thousands of families like us,” she said. “[They] don’t have a chance to speak out, and their voices, nobody hears.”
Ms. Hsu, a 65-year-old protestor for Falun Gong, personally experienced persecution when she was 14 years old. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, she was barred from school and her mother from work. She did not want her full name used because of fear of retribution.
“My father was [a] captain in China,” Hsu said. “He was coming from Hong Kong back to China and lost his position, lost his money, [and the government] stopped payment to him [for] over 13 years.
The Chinese government outlawed the practice of Falun Gong to “protect human rights and the interests of the public,” according to the Chinese Embassy’s website. The site claims that mentally ill practitioners killed over 30 people and that the organization “exercises extreme mental manipulation on followers.”
“My personal understanding is that Jiang Zemin [was] jealous,” Hsu said. “The principles [are] so different from the Communist party. They like power; they like killing.”
Despite China’s stance, other countries and human rights groups have publicly denounced the government’s actions.
The United States House of Representatives passed a resolution in June 2016 which “demands an immediate end to the 16-year persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual practice,” while simultaneously condemning the practice of transplanting the organs of “non-consenting prisoners.” The Humans Rights Watch 2017 World Report also acknowledges that Falun Gong “continues to suffer state persecution,” in its review of Chinese abuses.
With issues like North Korea and the Iran nuclear agreement looming large in the minds of most United Nations delegates this year, it seems unlikely that the Falun Gong will be discussed. But the protesters will wait patiently and peacefully.
“We just hope that people will know the truth,” Dai said. “That’s why we are here. And you can see we are very peaceful, just doing the exercises.”
Rakibu Zaman, a 49-year-old Uber driver from Queens, begins work yesterday afternoon after visiting Uber’s New York office at the Falchi building in Long Island City. “Some places there’s no subway,” he said. “Sometimes we get riders even at Grand [Central] Station.” Photo Credit: Justin Hicks
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in Midtown Manhattan, 56-year-old Paul Frelich struck a pose familiar to New Yorkers. He stood on a curb, stared at his phone, and glanced up now and then, expectantly searching for an Uber driver to whisk him away. Ironically, his car was delayed due to the sea of other drivers responding to their own requests from phone applications.
Still, he would rather take Uber than public transportation.
“It’s way more convenient,” Frelich said. “I know when it’s coming so it’s easier to use.”
People like Frelich are exactly who Bruce Schaller, the former Deputy Commissioner for Traffic and Planning, discussed yesterday afternoon at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. He worries that New Yorkers who ditch traditional public transportation in favor of ride hailing apps are increasing traffic congestion and, ultimately, hurting the city’s economy.
“The problem is that the interest of the individual and the interest of society have gotten out of alignment,” Schaller said. “It’s a tragedy of the commons.”
Schaller’s research showed that people expect more readily available, reliable, transparent and comfortable modes of transportation than in the past. More than anything, most simply want to get to their destination as quickly as possible. With frequent breakdowns on subways and unreliable bus schedules, would-be mass transit users are instead ordering cars with mobile applications or even riding their bikes.
“It’s not like they have the best dressed drivers, or the ones that speak the best English, or the fanciest, shiniest cars,“ he said. “What they’ve done is they’ve taken all the stress points and they tried to squeeze out all the stress.”
Countdown clocks, bus lanes and off-board fare collection all help ease the stress of mass transit riders, but app-based ride services erase it almost completely by ensuring their users have access to the vehicle’s current location, the shortest route, and a simple payment system.
Especially now that more people than ever are utilizing features like UberPool and apps like Via and Chariot that are explicitly intended for ride sharing, he sees the negative implications for the economy to be immediate.
“Transportation network company fares do not reflect the costs to the public in increased traffic delay, emissions and potentially safety,” Schaller wrote in a February 2017 report. “These costs are very real, driving up costs of bus operations, freight movement, goods delivery and provision of on-site services.”
Still, the MTC acknowledge that these ride-share services fill a crucial gap in the transportation needs of citizens that they cannot fill. In the far reaches of the outer boroughs where subway and bus services are spotty or nonexistent, applications like Uber and Lyft can fill the void.
“Uber is (a) right-away car,” said Rakibu Zaman a 49-year-old Uber driver from Queens. “If somebody’s drunk, they cannot drive. If somebody’s too tired, they cannot walk or take a train. If they call an Uber, they can catch it right away.”
Rather than add more regulations to app-based ride services, Schaller’s conclusion for the Metropolitan Transit Council is perhaps most clearly stated in his report. He simply wants the MTA to make mass transit more enjoyable and reliable for riders instead of funding projects like building more elaborate stations to attract users.
“Doing so will be a far more beneficial use of scarce public funds than focusing on one expensive element … however imaginative and highly visible those projects may seem,” he wrote.
Joel Magallan, the Director of Asociacion Tepeyac
In late September 2001, Nora Elsa Molina walked into Asociacion Tepeyac’s cramped, dimly lit midtown offices desperately seeking help in locating her son, 21-year-old Fernando Jimenez Molina. After illegally immigrating to New York several years before, he faithfully called his mother every Tuesday. When the calls stopped coming soon after September 11, she feared for the worst.
Joel Magallan, the Director of Asociacion Tepeyac in Midtown, immediately sprang into action. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Mexican immigration nonprofit had turned into a quasi-detective agency, investigating the disappearance of hundreds of immigrants from countries including Mexico, Ecuador and Columbia.
“When people from other countries were calling to tell us that their son, their daughter, their wife, their husband, they were working around the World Trade Center or (in) the World Trade Center, since the beginning, we started doing a database with all the information from people who were calling us from different places,” Magallan said.
At its peak, the database contained the names of about 600 missing individuals. As those from ground zero returned home and more information trickled into Tepeyac’s staff, names were removed from the database until only 67 remained.
If a missing immigrant didn’t reappear, Asociacion Tepeyac would provide their struggling families with financial assistance for essentials like food, rent, and transportation expenses. They also supported over 900 workers displaced in the following weeks while their workplaces near or in the World Trade Centers were closed.
“Our focus was [on] how we can help families without their loved ones now,” Magallan said.
But before it could help, Asociacion Tepeyac had to diligently investigate each case to ensure the claim was authentic. On three separate occasions, the organization received fraudulent requests that sometimes required extensive work to uncover.
Fernando Molina’s disappearance struck him as genuine, however. His mother was clear that she sought no compensation from the government or Tepeyac. She only wanted closure. But without supporting documents like a visa or employment records, the organization could do little to prove his death, or even existence, at the World Trade Center that day.
Magallan did have a lead, though. He recalled three teenagers entering his office on Sept. 12 to report that their roommate from Oaxaca had failed to return from his pizza delivery job the night before. They gave him a photograph and his nickname, but when he pressed them for more information they were tight-lipped, fearing it might reach the government agencies Asociacion Tepeyac was assisting.
“No, we don’t want to give you more information because there will be more investigations and we are undocumented,” Magallan recalled the young men saying. “So we will come back and check to see if you’ve found him. They never came back.”
Such was the struggle with many of the cases involving undocumented victims. Their careful attempts at staying hidden in life meant that their deaths were likely to go unnoticed as well.
For the next 10 years, on the anniversary of the attacks, Magallan advertised on local television stations and wore T-shirts with Molina’s face on them hoping that someone would recognize him and come forward with information. More information never came and he was forced to close his investigation.
For Molina and other undocumented workers, there is no official recognition of their deaths by the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The closest to an official recognition came from the Mexican Consulate in 2011 during a commemoration ceremony where the names of Mexican victims not included in the official count were read.
“Only a handful of people could be identified as Mexicans,” Carlos Gerardo Izzo, the Counsel for Public Affairs at the Mexican Consulate in New York wrote in an email. “But it’s very likely that more of them lost their lives in the attack.”