Long Story Short: Labor Day edition
From Hertel Avenue, last Friday
Sewer mouth and foolish moon
"Buffalo Sewer does not condone this behavior from any of its employees, especially when they're representing Buffalo Sewer.”
That line from the general manager of the Buffalo Sewer Authority wins the prize for most unintentionally apt news quote of the week. It was in reference to Alessio Alagna, the brother of Philip Alagna, who owns M.T. Pockets, a bar on Hertel Avenue. Most would agree that Alessio’s behavior last Tuesday did a fine job of representing the sewers of Buffalo.
But perhaps we should start from the beginning.
A knife wielding agitator
On Friday, August 28, as Black Lives Matter protesters walked and biked down Hertel Avenue, they were met at the intersection of Parkside Avenue by two men who attempted to prevent the march from going forward. One of the two, identified as forty-seven-year-old Michael Cremen, was observed, photographed, and video-recorded brandishing a knife. Both men aggressively cursed, shouted racial epithets, assumed combative stances, and yelled, “Stay out of my (or our) neighborhood." That statement is curious, since the man with the knife is from Franklinville.
The crowd pushed the men back with their bikes, as police sat in their cars, disregarding the highly confrontational aggressors. Eventually officers corralled the men to the side while the protestors marched on. After being sidelined, Cremen can be heard on video telling anyone who would listen that the Russians are going to blow us up. The next day, numerous people filed complaints about the incident, and police arrested Cremen, charging him with menacing, harassment, and criminal possession of a weapon. The charges were listed as hate crimes, increasing the potential penalty if Cremen is convicted. What remains unclear is why the police on the scene were unable to spot these crimes as they occurred.
The Friday encounter drew wide condemnation. A demonstration titled "Don't Be Silent, North Buffalo" was scheduled for Tuesday at North Park Community School No. 50. "This peaceful gathering will be a brief but powerful message that there is no room for hate and racism in North Buffalo," read the Facebook announcement.
However, apparently there is room for hate and racism in Buffalo, along with bar stools and tables, at M.T. Pockets on the corner of Hertel and Wellington. As the Tuesday protest began, patrons from the tavern—most not wearing masks—spilled out onto the patio and loudly taunted the protestors with inflammatory racial slurs and phrases. Some protestors believe they were supporting Cremen, who witnesses say came from the bar prior to the earlier confrontation. “You're killing my business,” Philip Alagna shouted at the demonstrators, perhaps because his patrons had left the crowded bar to shout at protestors. The demonstrators shouted back. Members of Buffalo Peacemakers arrived to calm the situation.
At some point during all this, Alagna’s brother, Alessio, walked out to the street—wearing his Buffalo Sewer Authority (BSA) T-shirt—and yanked down his shorts, mooning protesters while spreading his buttocks for good measure. It was truly a Buffalo sewer moment. The next day, Alagna was suspended from his job at the BSA. "I am aware of the situation that took place on Hertel Avenue yesterday evening and that one of our employees was involved in this incident," said McFoy in a statement. This is where he added, "Buffalo Sewer does not condone this behavior from any of its employees, especially when they're representing Buffalo Sewer.” McFoy went on to say that an investigation has been opened, to which we respond, that’s not all that was opened.
To serve and protect who?
Roughly two dozen police entered the scene to separate the groups. Some covered their nametags, in violation of their uniform policy. "They cannot violate the uniform policy," Mayor Brown said later, but there have been previous instances where they have done the same, so apparently they can, without consequences. Standing, as the police did, facing the protestors in a tight line with their backs to the bar customers, they seemed to be protecting the belligerent patrons, rather than encouraging them to return to the bar. They did, however, order Nikita Williams, who is black, to leave the public sidewalk in front of the bar and move to the other side of the street. Williams once owned a store a few doors down from M.T. Pockets, which she says she closed due to the racist atmosphere on Hertel. The bar patrons continued the taunting well after the protest moved on, with a handful of people still watching and responding from across the street.
Readers might assume that M.T. Pockets is a bastion of right wing conservatism, but the opposite is true. Philip Alagna is married to New York State Supreme Court Justice Diane Devlin, and the bar has been the frequent site of Democratic events and fundraisers. Alagna and members of his family, including his brother, are substantial donors to Democratic candidates, including Mayor Byron Brown and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. In light of Tuesday’s events, these and other local Democrats, including the Erie County Democratic Committee, have stated that they will no longer patronize M.T. Pockets.
After prompting from the city and county, the bar owners agreed to temporarily close. Mayor Brown says the city was preparing to shut them down anyway, due to COVID-19 compliance complaints. The Erie County Department of Health is investigating conditions at the bar, and Poloncarz says it must develop a remediation plan before reopening.
“The management of MT Pockets does not condone racism,” claims the bar owner, in a statement emailed to news outlets. It continues: “The individual with a knife and who spoke vile racist words last week was never in our establishment. Yesterday, we tried to let people know this. We tried to say we support people of all races. This was not the right time or place to carry on that conversation with people. We are sorry that things got out of control and some of our customers acted inappropriately yesterday. We do not tolerate racism in our establishment. We are saddened that our establishment is being viewed in this manner. We do not condone racism or violence."
Except, they did. And it’s hard to see how hate-filled racial slurs let people of all races know they are supported, but that’s M.T. Pockets.
After the confrontation with the bar, a final protest was planned for Friday, and some people worried that it could become violent. On Wednesday morning, a group of Black clergymen representing the Concerned Clergy Coalition of Western New York, held a press conference on Hertel Avenue, where they prayed for peace, healing, and an end to racism. Kinzer Pointer, pastor of Cold Spring Bible Chapel called Hertel Avenue an “iconic destination” where people from all cultures have come to mingle over the years. "We will not tolerate outside influence coming into our city trying to disrupt the peace," he said in a warning to those who might use the upcoming protest to wreak havoc.
When Friday arrived, some stores had boarded their windows. But without the presence of knife-wielding bigots or a bar full of racists, there was no violence. The purveyors of hate had crawled back into the sewers. A congregation of young, old, black, and white people gathered to send a few messages to the community. First, they were there to denounce racism, not to riot. Second, to Hertel business owners they warned, do right by people of color, or they and their supporters will stop patronizing their businesses. Third, police reform is still needed. There was anger. Harsh words were spoken. Then it was over.
Some good news
These are dark times. The year 2020 will certainly be remembered as among the worst in most people’s lives. It’s been a while since Buffalo (or anywhere else) has had a reason to be encouraged. That’s why it was great to see a recent article in AFAR Magazine, listing Buffalo as one of nine “most surprising cities in the U.S.” Surprising in a good way! The editors searched for cities that “blazed artistic, epicurean, and entrepreneurial trails yet remain bafflingly underrated.” While acknowledging that COVID-19 has hurt tourism, they want to draw attention to cities deserving more attention, of which Buffalo tops the list.
What they say
Western New York is one of their favorite getaways, they say, and not just for Niagara Falls. First, they mention what we’ve come to expect in articles about Buffalo—the waterfront and all its associated attractions—then move on to architecture, again citing the usual suspects. For souvenirs, they mention the Elmwood Village store Ró, for its hand-dyed textiles and rose marble serving trays, and the gift shop at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. (I would throw in the gift shop at the Buffalo Historical Museum and all of Elmwood Village.)
They briefly paint an appealing picture of the local art scene, before taking a bite out of local cuisine. Included is Lin Restaurant for Burmese fare, the oven-fresh bread at Five Points Bakery & Toast Cafe, the gastronomical inventiveness of Las Puertas, and the yadda, yadda, yadda of The Anchor Bar.
“What’s the best way to close out a long weekend?” they ask rhetorically. “The Sunday night jam session at the historic Colored Musicians Club, going strong since 1935. If it’s good enough for Miles and Dizzy, it’s good enough for us.” Can’t argue with that.
A regional sandwich scores a noteworthy tweet
Gene Simmons is not just the blood spitting, fire breathing, long-tongued cofounder of Kiss; he’s also an arrogant, self-promoting business mogul. Besides the band, with its platinum albums and licensed products, he’s an author, restaurant chain founder, reality show star, and medical cannabis entrepreneur. Enter Tops supermarket on Amherst Street, and there’s a full sized cutout of the seventy-one-year-old rocker holding a four-pack of MoneyBag Soda, his branded line of soft drinks, bottled in Niagara Falls by Rock Steady Sodas.
With such a mega empire to oversee, it might seem odd that Simmons would promote a City of Tonawanda deli, but that’s what he recently did in a tweet. “I have to say, few things in life are as good tasting as this” he writes, referring to a pictured sandwich. “Thank you Twin City Deli, in Tonawanda, NY.” The sandwich in question is what the deli calls a Dagwood, an obscenely stacked pile of cold cuts on Italian bread, named after the ones made by its namesake character in Blondie comic strips.
Here’s where the marketing comes in: Chris Haick is the accountant for Twin City Deli and also a partner in MoneyBag Soda. When Twin City opened, Haick saw to it that a Dagwood was delivered overnight to Simmons. The professional photo accompanying Simmons’ tweet includes two bottles of MoneyBag Soda, with the name of the deli plainly visible.
The guy doesn’t miss a trick.
This is one of those stories that I had to triple check to make sure it isn’t a joke. It’s not. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is asking Wegmans to stop selling a coconut milk brand that uses “forced monkey labor.”
Representatives from PETA sent three coconuts and a letter to Colleen Wegman, president and CEO of Wegmans. “Greetings from PETA, it begins. “I hope this message finds you well. We’ve sent you these coconuts in the hope of cracking open some dialog about reconsidering your business relationship with Chaokoh, a brand sold by your company and implicated in a recent PETA Asia exposé of Thailand’s coconut industry.”
Apparently, monkeys are illegally captured as babies, and then trained in “monkey schools” to do tricks for tourists. They’re also coerced into forced simian labor, picking coconuts for Chaokoh. “The monkeys are isolated from their peers as they spend their lives chained, transported in cages, and forced to climb trees in order to collect coconuts,” the letter states. The intelligent primates are confined for life, sometimes with their teeth removed, with their only task being to pick coconuts, which is not a natural act for monkeys (and I’m going to guess that’s true for humans too). PETA says the monkeys go insane.
Similar letters from PETA were sent to Save Mart, Publix, and Woodman’s, presumably with comparable messages. “Wegmans is one of the few holdouts still selling the brand,” the letter states. “More than 25,000 stores around the world—including chains Walgreens, Giant, and Food Lion—have pledged not to sell coconut products obtained through monkey labor.”
Deana Percassi, Director of Media and Public Relations Strategy at Wegmans Food Markets, says, “This is regarding one specific SKU of canned coconut milk that we sell in the international section of the store, and we are actively investigating the matter.”
When I learned about this story, a niggling thought was running in the back of my head. PETA’s focus is on animal cruelty, of course, and the fact that there are other problems in the world does not diminish the plight of animals. However, there is another often exploited animal, a monkey with a more developed brain known as homo sapiens. Thailand is a major offender there too. Men, women, and children are widely trafficked in that country for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. Some are trafficked within Thailand, while others are farmed out to different countries and sometimes sold at auction. Children, migrants, and the impoverished are common targets. Victims are coerced into prostitution and subjected to physical and psychological abuse, often locked up in poor conditions with their passports taken away. Others are sold into involuntary servitude, essentially a form of slavery.
So, when monkeys no longer pick coconuts, who will? That’s what I’m wondering.
Thoughts about the coronavirus uptick
A couple weeks ago I wrote an article titled In praise of uncertainty, in which I argued that we could all benefit from learning to say, “I don’t know.” As if to prove that point, there has been a recent increase in COVID-19 cases in Erie County, and people—including and especially Governor Cuomo—jumped to a conclusion regarding the cause with apparent certainty. "The hospitalizations are ticking up, so we need a real alert in WNY, and we'll continue testing,” said Cuomo in one of several warnings issued to the region. “We also need increased compliance and enforcement in WNY."
The theme from government leaders and social media commentators alike is that Western New York is falling out of compliance with social distancing measures. College students are partying, people are slacking off, bars and restaurants are being reckless, and therefore our infection rate is increasing. The fact that folks have been saying the same thing (except for the college part) for months, while our numbers steadily declined, seems to have escaped people’s attention.
Less certainty please
It stretches credulity to believe that, across the entire state, Western New York alone has relaxed compliance with mask-wearing, distancing, and hand-washing. And colleges? Don’t other New York State cities have colleges that are back in session? Yes, they do. In fact, last week, The State University at Oneonta in central New York said it is sending students home amid rising Covid-19 rates.
Two months ago Cuomo was chastising New York City for failing to comply with and enforce state-ordered rules on social distancing and mask wearing, but the opposite was likely true says Politico. Now, New York City’s infection rate is under one percent. Does Cuomo think the city suddenly fell into compliance, or was something more complex at work?
Here’s the thing: we really don’t know why Western New York has experienced a recent uptick in infection rates, so why is the go-to reaction to blame the citizens? Of course, it’s always good to remind people of the importance of proven infection reduction measures. That’s true everywhere, not just here.
The blame game may actually mask other possible causes for the latest rise. Here’s a few:
Fluctuation: Is Western New York’s recent uptick within three standard deviations of the mean? If so, then it may be a natural variation within a controlled system, and other communities will likely experience the same over time.
Second wave: For many months, experts have predicted a second wave of the virus with high infection rates in the fall. It’s viewed by many as inevitable. If we accept this, maybe New York State’s wave starts here. It has to start somewhere. Will we go into denial and blame the victims when it begins? Waves have to start somewhere.
The bell curve: On September 2 Governor Cuomo announced the 26th straight day that New York State's COVID-19 infection rate remained below 1 percent. That’s an average of ten regions. These numbers fall into a bell curve, with the Finger Lakes at a very low 0.2% and Western New York at 1.7%, with the largest number of regions around the center at 0.9%. This is exactly what you would expect with any group of measurements. Someone is always at the top, and someone is at the bottom. In fact, about half of New York’s regions are above average. Blow the trumpets! (And, of course, half are below—but never mind that.)
The fact is, we don’t really know what’s causing the recent uptick in our infection rates, and we may never know. As I write this, our numbers have begun to come down. Is that because Western New Yorkers have heeded the call to be more vigilant? Or were they going to drop anyway, as part of a natural fluctuation? Will they continue to go down, or will it reverse again over the next week?
I don’t know. And neither does Governor Cuomo.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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