Monday, June 8, 2009

Twenty Years after Tiananmen; Growing up in and around Buffalo

I was up on a ladder painting the ceiling, making a bedroom for my infant daughter, when the phone rang on June 4, 1989. What’s going on in China? I hadn’t heard. My friend told me of the massacre. I was shocked.

I’d taught Chinese at Calasanctius School, and was just then its newly appointed headmaster. Soon everyone was calling me for guidance about what was going on. I was trying to keep the school going. I wasn’t thinking much about the news of the day, and anyhow the classical Chinese poetry I had studied in college wasn’t much use in the event.

By the next year, I’d grown up some. I was among a small group of concerned citizens brought together by Chinese students in Buffalo. They’d held a spontaneous demonstration in 1989 at the Rose Garden in Delaware Park, along with other crowds across the country. We in the June 4 Memorial Fund were holding some donations generated in horror and in sympathy; to help in any way as Americans are wont to do in the face of any disaster.

Mayor Jimmy Griffin (R.I.P) stood in the way of our using the Rose Garden in Delaware Park for planned events a year later. Hizzoner explained to me over the phone that he didn't want people bashing heads in his parks. I patiently explained that this would be a peaceful gathering, and that (unlike in China, I thought to myself) Americans had the right to gather and to speak out. There was an excuse about a wedding being planned for the same time. That didn't check out, so we initiated a lawsuit and went ahead with planning.

The Police were helpful (I think they had labor differences with the mayor). County Executive Dennis Gorski got us a band shell. We used electric from the Shakespeare in Delaware Park folks, in exchange for dressing room privileges at my nearby school. I got the city indemnified on the schools' insurance, and we took advantage of the great David Jay to sue on constitutional grounds. Tom Toles depicted that we had a good cause – 'no democracy protests in Delaware Park either??' he mused pictorially; Tiananmen square in one pane, the Rose Garden in the other. We won our suit and the show went on as planned.

I remember the year Calasanctius School finally closed. I was at the Scotty Norwood lovefest down at Niagara Square. The first Gulf War had been kicked off, and we in Buffalo turned our own grief at “Wide Right” into a huddling closeness. Candles lit, our hearts were full. I went back there again in my heart. 9/11 was my first day on a new job doing IT for the Catholic Diocese in Rochester. I watched in horror with people who knew how to pray that morning the World Trade Towers came down.

I remember the coincidental smoke over Buffalo on my way home; and wondering if it was all over. No one knew quite what to think, and we all huddled close, awaiting guidance and leadership and some sense of how to respond.

Buffalo can turn inward to turn grief into closeness. We can and have turned outward in solidarity with those hurting very far away. We've all come a long way in these United States these twenty years gone by, with most of us having grown up and away from abuses of power and fear. We're opening up again. But I remain worried about China.

They seem to have turned the tragedy of Tiananmen into a nationalistic cause - keeping chaos at bay is their excuse for what governments do with power. Even their elite students now will hear no evil about what their government does in Tibet, my student organizing daughter tells me, just graduated with the class of 2009.

Here was our American response to 9/11: The powers that be clearly believed that American Capitalism has got to take over in the face of all forms of ignorance afoot in the world. We apparently think this while simultaneously believing that life begins scientifically at conception while evolution is false.

The Chinese too seem to feel that their world has to be one way. They always have, and they've always been right, for a lot longer than we've been a twinkle in some Chinese guy's eye. They are high on beating us at our own game, as we have flaccidly fallen prey to deregulationist creationism. We lost our way among commodities and competition and gaming the derivatives, and where the government's role is. In China, they only know that whatever happened back then marked their lives getting a whole lot better. In Buffalo, we never did live very high on our credit scores. How should we respond?

I was once inside the Communist party headquarters and watched with some fascination as my host wrote a message on a white board which simultaneously displayed on every board in every location of the "world's largest University," where all 300,000 cadre get educated upon "election" to local and regional office. There's still only one party there.

I must honor President Obama's attempts to raise our rhetoric above our differences. To accept the challenge from Bishops and Priests that one really can honor humanity without hewing to some party line, or succumbing to fear of choices. In these very difficult economic times, there must be some opening out still. Some turning away from what divides us, toward what can also still bring us together.

Remember when the walls came down all over the world, following on the example of the young Chinese? Remember when we let deregulationist rhetoric tear down so many internal walls, because Ronald Reagan and our own Jack Kemp sounded so darned good? Remember when Hillary believed that universal health care was a no brainer beyond the pale of competitive economics? I wonder even now if we can learn what should be bought and sold for prices set in the marketplace, and what should remain part of our Commonwealth, for the good of us all.

Recently published, Prisoner of State; The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyan, represents that onetime paramount Chinese leader's belief that for its survival, China must move toward parliamentary democracy. Toward open procedural reconciliation of differences. His thoughts had to be smuggled out from his nightmarish house arrest. His sin was to dissent from a decision rendered from the very top - no cracks could show in the Communist party, perfect by decree. Zhao Ziyan was the man in charge before the massacre in Tiananmen, and he refused to sign off on the Party’s resolution. That ended his run in power. He lived out his days locked within his own house.

That brave young man who stopped the tanks, he might yet be our model. Taking cues from no-one. Moving in lockstep dance against the machine of power. No one knows yet how he’s grown up, or if.

We need to remain good friends with China’s people. We share in the richness of our heritage of art, poetry, scholarship, culture, discovery, science, commerce, entrepreneurship. And we are both uprooted from the cultural soil which gave us these fine things. America literally, China by Cultural Revolution.

There are moments in each of our lives we will never forget. These are some of mine. I share Pete Seeger’s optimism for our future. I share Buffalo’s sense of not having to be the winner to feel special.

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