Thousands of people traveled to ground zero on Sunday to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but some were hoping to do more than pay their respects. Different groups, with the goal of spreading their own messages, stood outside the memorial trying to be heard.
On an emotional anniversary, the groups promoting themselves were often met with hostility. John Olin, 26, of Smithtown, N.Y., was leading Youth With a Mission, a Christian group that trains young adults and sends them on outreach missions.
Olin and three others stood by a red booth called a “prayer station,” and handed out religious booklets. Olin said they were not looking to condemn or convert, just to help.
But it’s hard to help people who don’t want it, he said. While two people stopped to pray with a woman from Olin’s group, another viciously screamed, “No!” in her face and ran past. Olin admitted that the group was having difficulties in Lower Manhattan.
“It’s better uptown,” he said. “The response here is colder.”
At nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral, “Truthers,” who support various Sept. 11, 2001 conspiracy theories, held signs that read, “Danger! USA Did 9/11” and “10 Years…No Justice.” The peaceful crowd turned riotous when truthers chanted, “Honor the victims by demanding your truth,” while passers-by yelled obscenities from across the street. Police and other security struggled to keep the crowd moving.
Aiden Purcell, 20, of Lakewood, N.J., was not standing with the Truthers, but wore a shirt that read, “9/11 was an inside job.” A man who stood nearby noticed Purcell and started yelling at him. Just as the man made a fist, a friend pulled him in the opposite direction.
“It’s the other side that starts the confrontation,” Purcell said.
He and his three friends are members of We Are Change, a social group that has taken on 9/11 as one of its causes. The men said they came to pay their respects, but to also demand justice.
“We are just trying to get the truth to people,” said Purcell, whose uncle was part of the 9/11 clean-up and is now sick. “I want truth for him.”
As he and his friends explained their views, a small group of people gathered around to listen. Purcell said that people are interested, but do not know enough about it.
But Lauren Folloni, 28, of Boston, Mass., believes it is wrong for anyone to promote messages about controversial topics like religion and conspiracies on the anniversary of 9/11.
Of the conspiracies, Folloni said, “Whether they’re true or not, all that matters today is to remember.”
She added that she finds conspiracy shirts, like the one Purcell wore, offensive.
“Even in silence, it’s just not right,” she said.
However, Purcell and his friends feel stripped of their First Amendment rights each year on Sept. 11.
“Today, there isn’t freedom of speech,” he said. “Today, we aren’t really America, but tomorrow, we will be again.”
While Sgt. Denoh Grear, 30, of Pawtucket, R.I., does not necessarily agree with what everyone has to say, he thinks that it is important to observe First Amendment rights.
“Everyone has opinions and rights, and freedom of speech, it’s why we gather here today.”
Enforcing the new citywide smoking ban in New York City parks, public plazas and beaches might depend on resident watchdogs.
Mayor Bloomberg recently announced the New York Police Department will rely on citizens to keep tabs on wayward smokers. Although residents cannot go as far as handing out $50 fines to those lighting up in restricted areas, some smokers say a law that depends on citizen enforcement could backfire.
“You’re going to have the potential to create a lot of volatile situations amongst people in the city,” said Nile McMahon, originally from Dublin, Ireland, an after-lunch cigarette protruding from his mouth. “I’m going to have people coming up to me and saying ‘You’ve got to put that out’ and I’m going to say ‘No!’ I mean, I’m normally not an aggressive person.”
Audrey Silk, a former New York City police officer and founder of the smoker advocacy group NYC CLASH, or Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, said there’s no feasible way to enforce the law.
“I know from personal experience that NYPD officers are not about to spend precious time chasing down those ‘criminal’ smokers; I have no doubt that fellow law enforcement officers will share the same sentiment,” she said, referring to the Parks Enforcement Patrol, the entity granted official authority to hand out the $50 fines. New York City Council estimates there will be about 475 officers on park patrol this summer, which Silk said is not nearly enough to enforce the ban.
Listen to what smokers say about residents enforcing the ban:
Yet Upper West Side Councilwoman Gale Brewer, the bill’s primary sponsor, said she has faith in citizens to keep tabs on one another. Brewer believes the ban will reduce confrontation now that smoking opponents can point to the law.
“I am not interested in revenue. I am not interested in summonses or violations. I am interested in good health,” she said. “I believe that now if someone says ‘It’s the law’ most people will go elsewhere … As time goes on hopefully there will be more education and people will know they are not supposed to smoke.”
Brewer compared the smoking ban to the restricted use of cell phones in movie theaters, which she says some believed would be ineffective when first introduced.
“Now people know that it’s the law and they turn their cell phones off,” she said. “I’ve never seen a cop in a movie theater.”
Still, Tim Ng, 19, of Scarsdale, N.Y., says encouraging people to confront smokers invites hostility.
“It just becomes a huge social problem,” Ng said while smoking on a bench in Union Square Park in Lower Manhattan. “People will see themselves as more superior because they have the power (to cite the law). And it also tags people who smoke as inferior or criminals rather than just as an ordinary citizen.”
Despite the plan for citizen enforcement of the law, many smokers say they’re not intimidated by the ban.
“I’m a smoker,” Zack Freilich of Manhattan’s Lower East Village said almost with a sense of pride. “I am going to smoke wherever I want.”