Brooklyn resident Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award winner for her young adult masterpiece “Brown Girl Dreaming,” was one of a cadre of recognized and lesser known poets and book authors who rallied Sunday at the main New York Public Library (NYPL) on Martin Luther King’s birthday.
Almost 2000 crammed the library’s steps and plaza, braving a sunny but cold afternoon, at the event subtitled: Reclaim Democracy. These writers were sending a message to the incoming administration in defense of freedom of expression.
Poet Erin Belieu who teaches at Florida State University got the ball rolling for Writers Resist. She told the attentive crowd that her son has physical challenges and when she saw Trump making fun of a physically challenged Pulitzer Prize winning journalist — Serge Kovaleski, she knew she had to step forward. (Actress Meryl Streep also addressed this particular campaign episode.) Fellow writers responded to her concern and her challenge on Facebook attracted 1800 followers.
PEN, a worldwide organization of writers, organized the Writers Resist event, mirrored simultaneously in 40 states across the U.S. and abroad with more than 90 Writers Resist events taking place.
Lining the NYPL steps, protestors held up original portraits of writer-activists James Baldwin, Audrey Lorde, Junot Diaz, and Suheir Hammad.
PEN America compiled texts paying tribute to poignant works from their archive as well as foundational U.S. documents, and poems and prose from celebrated writers.
Congressman Jerry Nadler started off the program in tribute to the MLK weekend by reading “The Meaning of the Holiday” by Coretta Scott King.
At the afternoon literary feast, Barack Obama’s inauguration and Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment were noted.
Angela Flournoy read Maya Angelou’s inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning.” U.S. Poet Laureate’s Rita Dove and Robert Pinsky read inaugural poems. Adding historical context, a compilation of short quotes and the preamble to the constitution were read. Three local politicians read MLK’s American Dream Speech.
Three women read “The Man” by Anna Deavere Smith.
Darker readings included George Orwell’s “You and The Atomic Bomb” and Allen Ginsberg “War Profit and Litany.” Also read were Harry Belafonte’s “What do we have to lose? Everything” and Junot Diaz’s “Under President Trump, Radical Hope is Our Best Weapon.”
Frank Zappa’s song lyrics to “It can’t happen here” were read by graphic novelist Art Spiegelman. And, the crowd was emotionally moved by the Sweet Honey and the Rock “Ella’s Song,” that starts: We who believe in freedom cannot rest. This refrain comes from Ella Baker’s 1964 pledge.
Signs among the crowd expressed PEN’s sentiments: Louder Together; Silence is not an option #resist; Free Expression=Free People, No tweeting bully can shut it up.
Supporting the power of the pen other signs read: Pens not Pence and The Pen is Mighty!
After the rally, protestors marched 15 blocks to Trump Tower, delivering a pledge to President-elect Trump’s team. Signed by 150,000 individuals, the pledge defended free expression.
Despite a heavy police presence around the Tower forcing marchers to disperse, PEN directors entered and delivered the petition to a staff member.