From left, members of the all-girl punk band "Pussy Riot" Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass-walled cage during a court hearing in Moscow on Aug. 17. / By Natalia Kolesnikova, AFP/Getty Images
From left, members of the all-girl punk band “Pussy Riot” Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass-walled cage during a court hearing in Moscow on Aug. 17. / By Natalia Kolesnikova, AFP/Getty Images

From bat signals to street protests, from YouTube to Facebook, from tee shirts to Russian dolls, the all-girl punk rock band, Pussy Riot hoped to stir things up in Russia but started an international revolution instead. This very movement took a bite of the Big Apple recently when Amnesty International, partnered with The Voice Project, freepussyriot.org and Others Calls for the Immediate and Unconditional Release of Pussy Riot, held a pop up art exhibition and a fundraiser at the Lombard Fried Gallery in Chelsea in support of the group.

Russian authorities arrested Ekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadjeda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Rioot in March for performing a punk prayer in February, at a cathedral in Moscow, titled “Virgin Mary, Relieve us of Putin”.  The three members were convicted of ‘hooliganism on grounds of religious hatred’ and sentenced to two years in prison in August. Amnesty international immediately released a statement condemning the whole affair and calling the Moscow court ruling a ‘travesty’. The gallery exhibition was arranged not only to protest the arrest and conviction of the Pussy Riot members but also to serve as a benefit to raise funds for the families of the jailed punk rockers. The Gallery screened five original videos by Pussy Riots on a continuous loop, including footage of the protest song that lead to their imprisonment.

Original Pussy Riot videos on display for public
Original Pussy Riot videos on display for public

“There has been a huge outpour in the music community, in particular, in solidarity with Pussy Riots,” said Suzzane Nossel, Executive Director, Amnesty International noting the support of artists such as Madonna, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Sting and others, speaking out and standing with Pussy Riots, calling for their freedom. “We’re very pleased that the Lombard Fried Gallery has brought this case to the artistic community and to the world of New York City galleries and artists, to bring them together with this group of women who are expressing themselves and are being punished for it.” “Anyone is entitled to their opinion. A line is crossed where a government imprisons and arrests and sentences people for simple expression of their belief.”  Nossel added. The benefit was the brainchild of Victoria Dushkina, general manager of Moscow’s Gary Tatintsian Gallery. She originally wanted to execute this idea in Moscow but got no response there. “People are afraid. They are not afraid here so I came to New York.” Dushkina told the media at the exhibition. “ I want to support them and I want to help their families. It is very difficult in Russia to do this.” She added that broadcast media in Russia is completely state controlled and people should not go by the Russian TV at all since it is all part of government propaganda.

Lombard Fried Gallery, Chelsea
Lombard Fried Gallery, Chelsea

The event attracted many key personalities from the music industry and international personalities; especially Russians who showed support and believed that Amnesty International’s efforts were commendable. Tim Hayes, Co owner of New York City rock club CBGB, was also present at the event. He termed the court ruling outrageous. “I hope they get released immediately. They have committed no crime, hence, should not be punished.” In August, Hayes travelled to Moscow to hand deliver the petition letter to the prosecutor’s office. The letter voiced support by music greats Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Peter Gabriel and many other eminent media personalities.

 Tim Hayes at the event
Tim Hayes at the event

There with his business partner, Hayes met with the rocker’ families, went to a support rally and helped the band’s legal team to organize ways of maintaining pressure on the Putin administration for immediate release of the imprisoned members. Pussy Riot’s lawyers have filed an appeal against the verdict. The hearing is scheduled for Oct 1st in Moscow. Will the Riots continue or will the rights be met? Only time will tell.  


Blue for Obama, Blues for Romney

ObamaOn Tuesday, November 6th, as Americans waited in line to cast their vote, an estimated 0.7 million individuals could just stand back and watch. As much as some of them wanted to contribute to the ultimate decision, they couldn’t.  This was the quandary of some international students including many in New York, the state that the re-elected President Barack Obama won as well.

Obama’s historic and win in the last presidential elections was also due to the President’s popularity among the youth of the nation, 66 percent of which, aged under 29, had voted for him. The American youth, though, was not that awe-struck by Obama this time with a lot of Southern States local students favoring red. Even then, his victory owes a lot to women and student voters, the data crunches imply.

His popularity among that group is a given but that intrepid group who are global ambassadors of their respective countries, and could not vote, had an opinion as well. As far as New York City is concerned, it is safe to say that preference among International Students was unanimous.

“Obama! Undoubtedly.” Said Alex Wong, a graduate business student from China. “Why? Because he is just like us, a minority.”

Wong’s compatriot Stephanie Le agreed. ”We can somehow relate to him.”

Many international students had personal political reasons in supporting the Democrat.

“He is considerate of our needs and promised we will either be free or become the 51st state,” said Rasheed Diaz, Sociology majors from Puerto Rico. “He brings hope to my home. That is reason enough for me and my people to support Obama.”

This was also true for students in New York wishing to work.

“I am so excited that I can work here after my degree. Great move by Obama. He gets my vote.” said Vishal Gokhlai beaming, an econometrics student from India.

In May, A program that allows foreign students who hold or are pursuing degrees in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — to work in the U.S. for 29 months without work visas was quietly expanded by President Barack Obama’s administration.

The Optional Practical Training (OPT) had, in the Bush administration, allowed students from 90 fields to benefit from it. Obama raised that number to 400.

“From Pakistani perspective, Romney was aggressive supporter of this (war on terror) war. Obama, being relieved from the pressure of re-election, would be in a better position to pull the army from the war. So yes, Obama.” Said Muhammad Nasir, a Pakistani graduate student of Mathematics.

President Obama’s popularity among International Students in New York also stemmed from his moderate approach to social issues.

“He is liberal about stuff like gay marriages I would shut my eyes and vote for him over Romney.”  Said Brice Hamon, as International Relations student from France.

For many international students in the city, the President’s history and personality made more of an impact than his foreign policies.

“He’s a self made man,” said Dusko Micic, a Serbain art student. “He has struggled and is sensitive to that.”

Monika Bartowicz from Polland agrees to that as well. “He has come a long way and impoverished people around the world can look at him and feel proud.”

Bartowicz is studying Linguistics at the Queen’s College and says her mother back home is a bigger fan of Obama. “She wanted me to find a way to vote for him.” She shared with a laugh.

Many international students in New York also expressed their dislike for the Republican citing that this was also another strong reason they would vote for Obama.

“Obama is a strong contender among women because of his approach to women’s rights,” said Silvia Bergmann, a German student of Anthropology.  “He respects women un-like Romney.”

Fredrick Zirimis shared a similar view “Romney lacks compassion and shows his blatant dislike for immigrants. Why would any of us vote from him?”

Zirimis is an international art student from Romania who has a Greek mother.

Meron Williams, an Ethopian American studying international relations voted for President Obama. According to her, international students prefer Obama because of his conscious awareness about today’s students and their modern needs. “He’s not ignorant. He knows what issues students face because he has gone through them as well.”

Williams also agrees with Bergmann and goes on to say, “ The things Romney says are somewhat archaic and international students cannot relate to his views.”

She sums up why many international students favor the re- elected President.

“Romney is a dying breed.” she says. “His ideology has no appeal for students. What we need and any international student does, in this vibrant city, is a future. A brighter, promising one.”

And President Barack Obama, for many, is just that.

Breathe In Or Not?

Power Plants Emit Smoke
Power Plants Emit Smoke \

Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, America has had much trouble with environmental issues, air pollution in particular. Over the years, noteworthy efforts have been taken to control the persisting issue. In the 1960s, 1970s, and the 1990s, the United States Congress enacted a series of ‘Clean Air Acts’, which significantly strengthened regulation of air pollution.

In 1999, the United States Environment Protection Agency (EPA) replaced the Pollution Standard Index (PSI) with Air Quality Index (AQI) to incorporate new ozone standards, which reduced annual pollution emissions significantly from 1970 to 2006 including a fall in lead emissions by 98%. And the efforts have continued till date.

According to the State of the Air 2012 Report, the air quality in many places across US has improved in the decade but over 127 million people – 41% of the nation still suffer pollution levels that are too often dangerous to breathe. Though the state of California has by far the most polluted cities in the country and air pollution poses a greater threat there than any other state, the northeastern state of New York has its own share of air pollution problems.

The easternmost of the five boroughs of New York, the largest in area and the second largest in population, Queens was given a D Grade in Ozone and, a C in Particle Pollution 24 hr and barely a Pass in the Annual Particle Pollution in the State of Air annual report published by the American Lung Association (ALA). These grades are calculated through monitored AQI data and represent unhealthy breathing conditions. Inhalation can and does expose residents of Queens to various health risks.

Astoria is one of the worst hit neighborhoods of Queens in terms of air pollution. According to Homefacts.com, a site that tracks the most recent local air monitoring and pollution testing results to create an overall Air Pollution Grade, Astoria received a 1.2 on a scale of 10 for breathable air in the current study. This poor air quality has also resulted in residents complaining about breathing issues or allergic asthma.

Asthma is a growing issue for the country as well. The proportion of Americans with asthma increased from 7.3% in 2001 to 8.4% in 2010, marking the highest level ever, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in May this year. In 2010, an estimated 18.7 million adults and 7 million children had the disease — one in every 12 Americans.

“Most of my patients from this area experience breathing issue as a result of dust and smoke. ” says Dr Syed Najeeb Hussain of Astoria Clinics. “Astoria will greatly benefit from more greenery and less power plants and traffic.”

Plus Astoria is a part of the ‘Asthma Alley”, a stretch of New York City that starts in the South Bronx, goes through western Queens, and into Brooklyn. It contains six power plants including the Ravenswood Plant with its 400-foot high smoke stack that roars alive with hot greasy film every couple hours and Con Ed, which was rated one of the 21 dirtiest power plants state wide according to the report published by Environmental Advocates and the New York Public Interest Research Group recently.

The neighborhood also contains La Guardia airport with airplane engines that pour out exhaust and the Queensboro Bridge littered with diesel trucks spewing out black soot filled with nitrous oxide, and barges slogging through the East River.

Astoria, BQE, Con Ed power plant, 59 St. Bridge,Eeast Midtown
Astoria, BQE, Con Ed power plant, 59 St. Bridge,Eeast Midtown

Though they all combine to pollute Astoria’s air severely, power plants are believed to be the major contributor. Shutting one of them was a big success according to Queens’ officials.

“A report released by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency this past January listed Queens as the worst-performing borough in terms of controlling toxic emissions,” said Council Member Peter F. Vallone Jr. “Astoria provides more than 80 percent of the power for the entire City, so things are certainly not equal when it comes to power plant placement. We are constantly fighting against attempts to put new power plants into the neighborhood. We are not successful, because unfortunately, communities have no say in this. One of the recent wins we did have was the closing of the Poletti Power Plant. Before being elected, I helped initiate a lawsuit against Poletti, and they shut down as a result of the suit’s settlement.”

Keeping the air clean is not just a mission for Astoria but New York on the whole as well the entire country. Various proposals, preventive actions and regulations policies have been in practice for years in the country, which have in turn been applied state wide and concentrated in neighborhoods like Astoria.

The grassroots coalition of residential and civic associations, CHOKE, is one such effort. It aims to build a citywide coalition to support pollution reducing strategies for the city and the state such as their Energy Efficiency and Air Quality Project, for which CHOKE teamed up with 1st Rochdale Energy Cooperative NYC and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

The Queens Clean Air Project (QCAP) is also a collaborative initiative established in 2003 and has completed five projects till now. Queens Borough President Helen Marshall feels QCAP is vital for pollution reduction in the country.

“The Queens Clean Air Project is an important component in the combined effort to reduce pollution and improve health in this county.’ She said. “These projects help address the staggering statistics linking air pollution and diseases like cancer and asthma.” *

All these shared efforts will and have changed the condition and quality of air in Astoria for better. As for the residents, they can also work towards achieving the same goal by taking small steps.

“For our children to breathe in cleaner air, we should plant more trees, not pollute our environment and encourage those around us to be green as well.” Says Carlos Machado*, an Astoria resident and father of three.

The question remains should the residents of Astoria breathe in the air or not? Planting more trees, using environmental friendly products and supporting organizations like CHOKE and QCAP would make answering that question a lot easier.

So be green and inhale away.

On a Rainy Day at 100 Centre Street

100 Center Street
100 Center Street

“So you here to watch or are you looking for someone who got arrested?”

This was the hello I got after passing through the metal detectors. The security guards at the Criminal Court Building in Manhattan are used to visitors in this public court.

When I stepped in, I realized the colossal structure was as overwhelming in the second visit as it was in the first. This time it was far more intense. The pitter-patter of the sporadic New York rain could now be heard in the distance as I made my way towards Courtroom 129, where night court was in session.

As I entered the courtroom once again, the same feeling of excitement merged with depression gripped me. It took me time, like it did before; to separate reality from the courtroom dramas I had watched growing up. The joy of realizing how accurately the television series I had seen as a child had depicted that very courtroom, was soon replaced with despondency knowing that those handcuffed weren’t characters in some play. But they were characters nonetheless; eccentrics of a night court. And I was there to find out exactly how thin the line could be between real life and drama.

Judge James Burke was presiding and a blonde smartly dressed young woman was reading out each arrestee’s charges as I entered the courtroom.

“Jonathan Goodwin…. Pleads guilty…” The blonde continued as I tried to move closer to make out what she was saying, while deciding where to sit.

The five rows of wooden benches were taken up three black middle aged women, an attractive young girl wearing red velvet hoodie, a blond couple in the last row and the first row was, as usual, occupied by police offers and the handcuffed characters.  I slipped into the third row.

“Sanchez why? Take me now. It is very cold here. Do you mind? I want to go. Please take me.  Why don’t you? Sanchez please. I wont ask you to take me to the bathroom again.” I heard a croaky voice from the front row.

Christine Levchten kept twitching her arms, trying the wiggle out of her handcuffs. A 40 something Caucasian wearing a red thermal hoodie, sat in the first row next to a frowning cop. Soiled hair and a thin film of brown all over her, I could smell her two rows behind. She leaned closer to the officer next to her.

“He’s not here. They don’t know when he’ll come. Can we go now?” Levchten managed to pick up a yellow envelope with her hand cuffed hands and stood up. The officer had no choice but to take her to the loo.

“Serena Sheldon.” I heard the blonde woman say. “ Assaulted her husband. Says he pushed her first. Has six-month-old baby at home.”

As I sat there admiring the wooden wainscoting and lightening fixtures of the typical courtroom, Levchten entered the room again.

 100 Centre Street Criminal Court Building. Back view of a perpetrator being held in the courthouse waiting for trial.  Credit Leonard Freed
100 Centre Street Criminal Court Building. Back view of a perpetrator being held in the courthouse waiting for trial. Credit Leonard Freed

I moved up in the second row to take a place behind her. She sat down and turned back to look at me directly. Caught off guard I mustered a nervous smile. “I might go again. Its so d*** cold here.” She said and twitched her nose. “ You a student?” She had noticed the pen and mini notebook in my hand. “Don’t be a lawyer”

“He’s here.” Officer Sanchez told Levchten and stood up.

“Christen Levchten.” It was her turn. Defense Attorney Bob Gallo ushered her towards the judge, as the blonde read out her misdemeanors.

Levchten was charged with trespassing on her daughter’s residence on 101st street and possession of drugs. Arrested the evening before, Judge considered that as time served, suspended her drivers license for 6 months and let her go. She turned around, smiled at Sanchez, who took off her handcuffs and they stared walking towards the exit.

I got up to follow them but the blonde couple from the last row stopped me midway. First timers in NYC, the curious German couple had 100 Centre Street listed on their travel plan and wanted to know what happened in night court. I quickly summarized my understanding of the arraignments and rushed out.

She was on the bench outside struggling with her shoelaces. “Hey student, you have a pen or something.” Levchten spoke up when she saw me.

I handed her my pen, which she used to pierce her shoelaces into her grubby sneakers. When she was done she jumped up with a smile. “Don’t be a lawyer I tell you.” She winked and hurried off towards the exit and outside.

She has 45 arrests to her name in the past two years including trespassing, possession of drugs, public nuisance and petty theft. I stood there wondering how many more Christine Levhctens were there?  Do they all have messed up lives? How do they survive?

I couldn’t imagine and couldn’t possibly know. In that moment I offered a silent prayer of gratitude for the life I have and I realized I didn’t want to know the answers. ‘No more night court’ I made a mental note.

With that thought, I picked up my bag and followed Christine Levchten into the sporadic New York rain.