BY ANGELA MONTEFINISE
The Census is counted, the population numbers are over two million, and the time has come to officially play with the jigsaw puzzle of district lines to balance government representation and juggle the political power.
This week, both houses of the State legislature approved plans to draw new lines that will change the Senate and Assembly district lines on the Queens map. As a result, the proposal is now on Governor George Pataki’s desk to create two new Assembly seats, one new Senate seat and combine two Senate seats. If the Governor signs the proposal, law suits will be inevitable, insiders say, but the next step in the process of shifting political power will be underway. However at presstime, the Governor’s Office was unable to comment on it at presstime because he was still examining it, according to Spokesperson Molly Fullington.
The changes are caused by the legislative process of redistricting, or redrawing State Assembly and State Senate lines to accommodate population changes documented in the 2000 Census. Redistricting is done every 10 years to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which states that every United States citizen must have equal government representation.
The redistricting plan, which was approved by the Assembly on April 9 and the Senate on April 10, was introduced as legislation on April 6. It has already been criticized for being too political, and several lawsuits have already been planned against the majority leaders of the State Assembly and Senate, who lead the task force that drafts the lines.
Two New Seats
The Assembly redistricting plan calls for four new seats in New York City, including two in Queens. One is the new District 22, which will be located in downtown Flushing, where the population is 53 percent Asian, according to Census figures. The plan would change the boundaries of Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin’s District 25, which now includes downtown Flushing. McLaughlin’s new district would include the remaining section of his old one, and a small piece of old District 27.
Many community leaders have shown interest in the new Flushing seat, including former City Council candidates Ethel Chen, a retired librarian, and Terence Park, a community activist. Civic leader Pauline Chu has also expressed interest. Former City Councilwoman Julia Harrison has not officially expressed an interest in running, but did tell the Tribune, “As long as my mind still works, I’ll keep that door open.”
The other new Queens seat will be District 39, and will include a population that is 63 percent Hispanic, according to the Census. The new Jackson Heights district will include the Eastern section of current District 34, and a small part of current District 35.
Candidates interested in that district include Julissa Ferreras, director of constituent affairs for Councilman Hiram Monserrate, Democratic District Leader Francisco Moya and lawyer William Salgado.
The State Senate redistricting plan calls for the creation of a new Queens Senate in Corona, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, which has a 54.2 percent Latino population. A non-Latino — former City Councilman John Sabini – has already expressed interest, as have Latinos Jose Peralta, a labor leader, and lawyer Luis Rosero. The seat, which will be known as District 13, is one of only two created in New York City by the Senate despite a large population increase in the five boroughs.
Despite the new Queens seat, the borough keeps the same number of State Senators because the new lines combine the current districts of State Senators Toby Stavisky and Dan Hevesi, making a new District 16.
Hevesi told the Tribune that he is confident he can beat Stavisky in an election, and said that 60 percent of his old district will be in the new district. That was the case with the original redistricting plan proposal in February, but according to a State Senate representative, the plan passed this week places Electchester and Pomonok – two areas in Stavisky’s current district – in the new district and removes parts of Hevesi’s home base of Forest Hills. Stavisky said in a statement, “It is certainly unfortunate that one of my collegues and I have been placed in the same district. Senator Hevesi and I work closely together and respect one another’s contributions and ability.”
Also in the Senate plan are changes in the names of districts, as well as slight changes in boundaries. New District 12 will be Senator George Onorato’s old District 14, new District 10 will be Senator Ada Smith’s old District 12, and new District 14 will be Senator Malcolm Smith’s District 10.
‘A Complete Disgrace’
Hevesi is not happy with the new Senate lines, which he believes are agenda-driven. The plan, drafted by the Senate Republican majority, adds more upstate seats than New York City seats, even though the City districts have, on average, almost 16,000 more people than districts upstate.
Hevesi called the plan “a complete disgrace,” stating that the Senate’s creation of only two New York City seats despite a population increase is “unacceptable.” He said he is planning to bring the plan to court for being unconstitutional, and said, “It horribly disenfranchises New York City residents, and particularly blacks, Latinos and Asians. The plan is completely unconstitutional and will be adjudicated as such in the coming weeks.”
Tom Dunham, press secretary for State Senator Dean Skelos – Deputy Majority Leader of the Senate – said, “We know that our plan is fully constitutional. We have operated within the requirements of redistricting to the fullest extent, and we are certain that everyone is represented fairly . . . There are always going to be people who don’t like the new lines. There will be lawsuits. We are not expecting any problems. Never say never, of course, but we are sure that this is the plan that will go through.”
There have also been complaints about the State Assembly plan, drafted by the Democratic Assembly majority. The Assembly can have a maximum of 150 members, so four seats had to be taken away from upstate New York and Long Island to make room for four new seats in New York City. However, since upstate New York has a greater average population per district than the City, upstate New York politicians argue they should have gained seats, not lost them.
Assemblyman William Parment, who was on the task force that drafted the lines, responded, “We had to draw the lines based on Federal and State restrictions as well as population. These were all challenges . . . All of the districts are within legal limits for population set by the Supreme Court. Technically, the ideal number of people in an Assembly seat is 126,500, and if you do the math, the City should have gotten five seats.”
If Pataki approves the plan, the United States Justice Department then has to approve it, according to Dunham. If it holds up, lawsuits will be filed in both Federal and State court challenging the legality of the new lines. Dunham said, “Court cases will be filed. There’s no way around that . . . We’re not expecting any problems. This plan does not disenfranchise minorities in any way.”
For argument’s sake, if the courts do find a constitutional problem with the plan, Dunham said, “The court could assign a “special master” to redraw the lines, or they could order the Legislature to go back and redraw them . . . Neither is likely.”
If the plan holds up, it will go into affect for the upcoming elections. Dunham said, “We see no real obstacles in this plan being stopped. It creates new minority districts and creates equal representation. It should work just fine.”
Fleeing Persecution: Falun Gong Revolution Builds A Home In Queens
BY ANGELA MONTEFINISE
Other people walked quickly through the byways of Kissena Park in the cold of the not-yet Spring Queens air, but on the lawn beside them, twenty five people stood silent, hands in the air, all holding the same pose. The high pitches of tranquil string instruments came from a tape deck in a shopping cart, marking time before their slow movement to the next pose for the Falun Gong revolution.
In Tiananmen Square, 10,000 had stood against tanks in the belief that their method of “self-cultivation” had a right to exist. In Queens, they stand against the cold and reach for understanding in a neighborhood half a world from the Square where they say they are still often misunderstood.
The movement, introduced to the public in 1992 by Chinese native and current Queens resident Li Hongzhi, stresses the principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance through cleansing meditation, a spokesperson explained to the Tribune. And the diverse borough of Queens has become the hub of the New York Falun Gong movement, with organized meditation groups in East Elmhurst, Forest Hills, Jackson Heights, Flushing, and Astoria, as well as dozens of unorganized groups, particularly in Flushing and Western Queens.
But according to news broadcasts and the personal accounts of these immigrants, the Falun Gong are being brutally persecuted by the Communist government in the People’s Republic of China. Chinese President Jiang Zemin banned the practice of Falun Gong in China in 1999 and since then, the Chinese government has confirmed the deaths of 375 Falun Gong practitioners in the People’s Republic of China, as well as thousands of injuries and arrests.
The Designs Of The Movement
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a practice – not a religion – that those who practice it say combines the principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance through meditation to help relieve stress and anxiety, increase energy and vitality, improve physical health, and promote spiritual growth and enlightenment. Most of the basic ideals can be found in the book Revolving the Law Wheel by Hongzhi, who is in exile in Queens.
The meditation exercises are very slow and graceful, and usually done in the serenity of parks. People practice it for two hours each day in over 50 countries, and use it to heal themselves, local participants explain. Elmhurst resident and chinese native Jianfeng Zhen, a practioner, who was a physician in China, added, “There are cancer patients who get better much quicker using this method. It’s not traditional, but it works.”
Zhen also stressed to the Tribune that Falun Gong is not a political movement. She said, “It’s a personal movement to better oneself. It is not political at all.”
The Communist government does think it’s political, according to a Chinese source who asked not to be named, but said, “Seventy percent of the people in China practice Falun Gong. They are unified, and if they want to, could unify against the government. They have the Communists grossly outnumbered.”
The Falun Gong was banned in China on July 20, 1999, when 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest an article written in a government-controlled newspaper that presented, “incorrect facts and basically defamed the Falun Gong,” according to Andrew. He said, “The government thought if this many people could mobilize this fast to protest, they could do if they ever want to revolt. That’s just totally bogus because that’s not what this movement is all about.”
Still, the Chinese government continues to take measures directed at controlling the Falun Gong. On March 5, President Zemin issued a new order to police based on a pro-Falun Gong news story on Chinese television – “Kill them [Falun Gong practitioners] without pardon.” Zhen said, “Now, if a person is handing out fliers about Falun Gong, police have a right to shoot them and kill them . . . People here have to understand this and help stop it.”
There is a resolution in the State Assembly, co-sponsored by Flushing Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin, to publicly condemn the persecution of the Falun Gong in China. President George W. Bush has stated his disapproval of the persecution, and on May 13, thousands of Americans will celebrate Falun Dafa Day with meditation and celebration.
Proclamations supporting the Falun Gong have been signed by McLaughlin, former Queens Councilman Sheldon Leffler, and former Borough President Claire Shulman, who declared December 2000 “Falun Dafa Month.” Zhen said there is support for the Falun Gong in Queens and in the United States, and, “That’s very great for us to see. We need all the support we can find to help us.” She added, “We need the public to be aware of the problems. That way, China can’t affect the people who want to practice Falun Gong here.”
A Question Of Influence
Since 1999, Queens Falun Gong practitioners have marched in the Flushing Chinese New Year Parade, one of the largest New Year celebrations in the City. The parade, held in February, had welcomed the Falun Gong members to march until 2002, when the Chinese Consulate in Manhattan requested that parade organizers deny the group the opportunity to march, according to Zhen.
She said, “The consulate sent a letter to parade organizers saying that Falun Gong is a political movement and shouldn’t be allowed to march. At first, the parade organizers laughed at this letter. Then, they had more pressure, and they privately requested that we withdraw our request to march.”
Representatives of the Chinese Consulate did not return phone calls and were unavailable for comment on any issue regarding the Falun Gong movement.
According to Zhen, the Queens group of practitioners, known legally as the Falun Dafa Association, was not given permission to march in the Feb. 9 parade until they held a protest near the parade grounds in Flushing the morning of the event. She said, “Even then, they made us march at the end of the parade, and tried to make a garbage truck go ahead of us so people would think the parade was over. But we pushed in front of it.”
A police official at the 109th Precinct confirmed that Falun Gong marchers were not permitted to join the parade until the protest, but said, “They definitely did get to march.”
Zhen said the parade incident is “not isolated,” and that mainland China does threaten Falun Gong practitioners overseas. She said, “I don’t blame the parade organizers. It’s not their fault. They have pressure. The Chinese government pressures them. It’s very typical on US soil . . . They perform very serious interference.”
A Chinese official who asked not to be named said that while persecution is “vicious” overseas, he does not believe the influence is strong in Queens or America. He said, “The Chinese government is very threatened by this group, but it has no power here. This is the United States. All they can do is request something, like they did with the Flushing parade. They cannot, however, stop people here from doing anything.”
While some believe that the Chinese government is influencing Queens, Queens is definitely trying to influence the Chinese government, with several Queens Falun Gong practitioners flying to the People’s Republic for protests.
Thirty eight year old Chunyan Teng of Flushing has remained imprisoned by the Chinese government since May 2000 for practicing and supporting Falun Gong. According to published Associated Press reports, she has been beaten and drugged in prison and in January she said she no longer practiced and “saw the light.” Falun Gong followers in Queens believe she was brainwashed, with one who wished to stay anonymous saying, “If she’s ‘cured,’ why is she still in prison?”
Another Queens resident who went to China is 29-year-old computer programmer Bart Andrew of Middle Village, who was arrested but allowed to return home. He went to China in February for a peaceful protest against the government on Feb. 17 in Tiananmen Square. He told the Tribune, “The police basically grabbed anyone who was non-Asian or suspicious looking . . . I got grabbed by three cops and thrown into a van with some others. We kept asking to speak to the American embassy, and every time, they said ‘shut up’ back.”
Andrew said he was taken to a prison, where he was interrogated. While there, he told the Tribune that he saw police “beating the stuffing” out of a Canadian protestor who wouldn’t cooperate, and watched police “kick people in the back and slap people in the face.” A female cop was taking photos of the protestors, and when Andrew turned around while his picture was being taken, “more than two cops spun me around and threw me against a wall.” He said, “We did nothing illegal. Nothing we did was illegal . . . In almost any country you can say, ‘I’m an American, I have rights.’ It doesn’t matter there at all.”
Andrew said the Police took him to a hotel for deportation from the station, where he stayed for 26 hours. “After we were there a while, they brought in Chinese food and bottles of water and then started to take movies of it. I said there is no way I’m eating this food or drinking this water so they can film it and show people how nice they treat protestors. It was such propaganda, it made me sick.”
Want To Learn More?
For those interested in practicing Falun Gong with groups in Queens, Zhen said they should log on to www.falundafa.org and click on “Queens, New York.” She said, “There’s a whole listing of contact numbers and addresses for groups. Anyone can do it, and it’s overwhelmingly positive . . . The greater our numbers the stronger we will be.”