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Photo by Ryan Kelley/QNS
Photo by Ryan Kelley/QNS
Local elected officials pose with girls from The Edge School of Arts after their performance at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Queens residents of all ages gathered at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, what would have been the civil rights leader’s 89th birthday, to honor his legacy by discussing modern-day civil rights issues.

Organized by Councilman I. Daneek Miller and his staff, the event featured performances from poets, singers, dancers and other musicians, as well as a keynote address from Roger Toussaint, former president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100.

Toussaint, who actively fought for MTA workers’ grievances and organized a strike in 2005 that resulted in him being sentenced to 10 days in jail, spoke to the audience about the similarity between things happening in America today and the things King fought against.

“You don’t get to the chokeholds and to the modern-day lynch mobs without going by way of terrorizing people around the world and letting that become the norm,” Toussaint said. “This is real and we have to actually confront it, and it’s appropriate to use Dr. King’s day to focus on this.”

Toussaint drew comparisons between the Vietnam War during King’s era and the Iraq war and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East today. He pointed out that 60 percent more Americans are living below the official poverty line than during the Vietnam War, and the “criminalization of poverty” has led to 1.5 million people in our nation’s prisons.

In driving his point home, Toussaint also spoke to something that King himself preached about: the more you ignore the problems with the world, the worse they will become. He said that too many good people decide to be indifferent about certain issues because it doesn’t directly affect them. Such as with the Black Lives Matter movement, he said, where people became offended and started using the phrase “all lives matter” instead.

“Since when has it been acceptable to stand in front of a burning home and scream ‘all houses matter’?” Toussaint said.

Toussaint and the elected officials who spoke after him also addressed the red elephant in the room, President Donald Trump, whose rhetoric has often offended African Americans and other ethnic groups. State Senator Leroy Comrie said that despite the whirlwind of news from Washington, D.C., he is encouraged about the future.

“We have a community that has an ability to make things happen when we come together,” Comrie said. “I feel good about what’s going on in D.C. because it has ignited us to be together better than ever before.”

Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman added that she thought the most encouraging part about the event was the fact that members of the audience brought their young children who had the day off from school.

“It’s not a day off, it’s a day to educate them about a legacy that we need to make sure that we’re fulfilling,” Hyndman said. “Do not be fooled by this president, because if you think he’s talking crazy now, it will continue to increase because he has to increase his base to get reelected.”

Hyndman also urged southeast Queens residents to pay attention to what is not said in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal and continue to push back to address things like the transportation dessert in the area.

In his closing remarks, Miller addressed the ongoing labor strike with employees of Spectrum, 10 percent of whom reside in southeast Queens, he said. After the company was bought out, the new ownership tried to cut many workers’ benefits and pensions, Miller said. He also reiterated Hyndman’s point that the importance of young people attending these types of events cannot be overstated.

“I am so glad that we have so many young people here so that we can continue to cultivate and develop our next generation of leadership,” Miller said. “That’s what Dr. King would have done, and that’s what we’re doing.”

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Pedro Valdez Rivera Jr. January 20, 2018 / 10:23AM
These unionized workers and not the unionized bosses, managers and supervisors of the TWU Local 100 are the unsung heroes in this.
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