The right to play chess in a public space became the focus of community organizing in northern Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park over the past month when arbitrary actions by police angered many.
On Nov. 20 a multinational group of parents, children and other residents rallied in the park’s Emerson Playground to support seven African-American men who were ticketed by police in October for teaching children how to play the board game.
During the protest, Parks Department workers installed picnic tables in another area of the park for playing chess. However, they aren’t specially designed for playing chess. The park’s only stone chess and backgammon tables are situated in Emerson Playground where they are separated from the children’s play area by a fence.
This is where the chess players were on Oct. 20 when “the police rolled up on us like we were drug dealers,” said 49-year-old Y. A. Harrison, one of those who received a summons. (newyorkdailynews.com, Nov. 18) He said he and the other players regularly showed kids how to play the game on Saturdays.
“If we were teaching them to pitch pennies and gamble, that’s one thing,” Harrison said. “But this is chess. We weren’t trying to add to the problem.”
A police spokesperson claimed that officers were responding to residents’ complaints and that they were following New York City Parks Department rules, which bar adults from the playground if they are not accompanying minors. The summonses, reported at DNAinfo.com, cited the men for failing to obey park regulation signs. They must appear in Manhattan Criminal Court on Dec. 28.
News of the tickets and upcoming court date were met by outrage at police actions by many community members who sympathized with the ticketed chess players.
Zaida Grunes, a mother of twins whose 17-year-old son learned to play chess in the same place where the men were ticketed, wrote in the “Manhattanspeak” blog on Nov. 18, “When my toddler twins are old enough, I will be sending them to Inwood Hill Park, alone, and hope that there is a caring, attentive individual sitting at a chess table, willing to give my kids their time and patience to teach them not only a game, but a skill.”
Inwood parent Jackie Rodriguez-Jones said she was incensed over the situation and planned to do what she could to support the players. “This is about people. People who did nothing wrong. People that the community sees and passes by them ... people who need to know their community is aware and concerned for them,” she wrote on her Facebook page. (dnainfo.com, Nov. 19)
The Inwood neighborhood is home to a multinational working-class community, but gentrification is affecting the area, with wealthier residents along with police aiming to push poor people out of parks and other public areas.
Everyone has the right to use a public park, and that right must be defended.
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