By Jared Chausow
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Policy pushers caught heat last week for a controversial anti-gang loitering initiative, but under the public radar they got away with roping an unwitting and grief-stricken immigrant family into pleading their case.
"They're opportunists. They exploited the family," says the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence's Hyun Lee about councilmen John Sabini and Michael Abel and the conservative nonprofit Center for the Community Interest, who together organized the November 19 press conference promoting the City Council bill. The proposal, which would grant police broad powers to arrest loiterers suspected of gang activity, sparked immediate concerns over possible civil rights violations and racial discrimination.
"They're opportunists. They exploited the family."
Joining the proponents by invitation was the family of Jong Rim Lee, the Flushing man who died after being bashed in the head with a cobblestone in the lobby of his apartment building on September 23. An early, unsubstantiated rumor suggested that the murder might have been part of a gang initiation rite.
Such collaborationbetween a legislator and an ordinary citizen whose problem lends itself to the proposal at handis standard publicity strategy. The official enjoys the legitimacy and drama that a real-life story of hardship provides, while the private individual anticipates a quicker resolution to grievances due to media exposure or the legislator's special intervention.
There was no reason for press conference observers to question whether the Lee family, despite the controversial nature of the bill, actually endorsed it. But in this case, the partnership was hardly fair.
Three days after the press conference, widow Moung Sun Lee told the Voicethat not only is she "not 100 percent sure" about the details of the proposal, but that she first heard about it only one day before her public appearance. She has since gathered that the measure is the topic of heated debate, but her lack of English skills and a sorrow that sometimes "robs me of reason" have prevented her from considering the particulars.
"I don't have the luxury to think about how this law would impact other people," she says, explaining that remembering the night of the assault has rendered her physically ill.
No one, apparently, warned the family that the bill would likely outrage many New Yorkers, or made sure that the Lees understood the full meaning of the proposal they appeared to endorse.
Both Sabini's office and the Center for the Community Interest attribute their limited communications with the family to a language barrier. Yet they seemed to have no trouble convincing the Lees that their participation would help spare other families the pain they have suffered. Organizers also suggested that, by appearing publicly, the family might prod the police into stepping up their investigation of the murder.
But the main aim of featuring the Lee family "wasn't to aid the specific case," one press conference planner admits. Rather, it was to give the policy makers' cause media appeal.
Given the family's emotional state and incomplete understanding of the bill, Sin Yen Ling of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund says, organizers should be condemned for "roping this family in and using it as a poster family."
The flimsiness of any gang connection to the Lee murder, and the therefore questionable logic of the family's appearance, apparently did not discourage organizers of the November 19 event. Yet one source familiar with the case says the police have no knowledge of a gang rite involving the kind of assault committed against Lee. A police spokesperson comments only that "We don't discuss gang initiations."
But the Lee family's presence certainly boosted coverage of the news conference. After organizers contacted a media-industry bulletin service to plug the Lees' participation, an initial notice mistakenly billed the event as an update on the murder investigation. Reports about the proposal in all of the city's major newspapers and on television made much of the Lees' involvement. For a press conference concerning local legislation, organizers could not have hoped for more exposure.
The Lees met their end of the bargain. Yet Moung Sun Lee says she is still "very frustrated and angry" with what she feels is lagging and unresponsive police work. An NYPD spokesperson would not comment on the ongoing investigation.
As for assistance or action from the bill's backers, the Lees should expect little. Before and after the press conference, Sabini's office had no interaction with them; no one from the Center for the Community Interest attempted to contact them until the day before the news event.
But perhaps the Lees, a churchgoing family, know how to appreciate even the smallest of blessings. On the day before Thanksgiving, the Center for the Community Interest's Joseph Diamond was trying to reach them on behalf of a concerned citizen who had a turkey to give away.