A Chat With Norm Augustinus, the Guy Holding the "Die de Blasio Die" Banner at Columbus Circle [Updated]
The carriage-horse debate has gotten rather heated lately, with animal rights activists and the de Blasio administration saying it's time for the practice to end, and carriage drivers, the Teamsters and Liam Neeson saying a ban on carriage horses will send the drivers into unemployment and the horses somewhere unpleasant. (NYCLASS, the main group pushing for a ban, says the horses can be saved from slaughter and sent to ASPCA-approved adoptive homes, if their owners will agree.)
A couple weeks ago, eccentric comedian and satirist Norm Augustinus decided to wade into the debate, with that eye-catching banner you see above. To answer all of your immediate questions: It's hyperbole, not an actual death threat, but Augustinus does really want the horses to stay. And yes, the NYPD has already been out talk to him.
Augustinus is originally from Detroit, but now lives on Central Park South. Besides his writing and comedy, he's best known for making a cartoon that depicted a drone vaporizing President Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. (Augustinus claimed that the Secret Service had threatened him, telling him to pull the cartoon or face "dire consequences," although both Slate and Roll Call , who looked into the story, were skeptical that was true.)
In either case, Augustinus has been standing at Columbus Circle for two or three hours a day for the past month. The woman holding up the other end of the banner is his niece, Rosie. Lately they've discontinued use of the "die de Blasio" banner and gone with this one instead:
"The people have been wonderful," Augustinus tells us via email. "Every day food and drinks are either brought to me by locals with good intentions, or a delivery man will drop goodies off anonymously. I speak to at least 100-200 folks daily (even celebrities). The ones that I don't talk to, give me the thumbs up." Besides that, he says, "Taxis honk their horns and police turn on their lights and sound their sirens. This kind of reaction makes it very worthwhile."
He also says he's had other, weirder interactions: "One man I met asked if I would be interested in running for office. He said he had, 'Important friends that were watching me.' On Saturday a man came up to me and handed me an envelope filled with cash. He said, 'You've got friends here, Norman.' He hugged Rosie and me and got into a car and drove away. What kind of friends? I didn't take the cash, but I sure did thank him."
On Twitter, Augustinus recounts other experiences with his adoring (and not-so-adoring) public:
On 3/23 a man stopped & said he sold Coleman Camping equipment. He said he'd be happy to donate a portable toilet. Boy, that's convenience.— Norm Augustinus (@normaugustinus) March 24, 2014
Almost every day someone will bring me something to eat while I'm standing in Columbus Circle. Today's menu:sauerkraut in a jar from 46th st— Norm Augustinus (@normaugustinus) March 23, 2014
Yesterday a homeless man hung around me. My new banner says 'I Love Horse Shit!' For an hour he yelled "I LOVE HORSESHIT!" Kinda embarrasing— Norm Augustinus (@normaugustinus) March 22, 2014
Augustinus says he's also had some interactions with the carriage-horse ban proponents: "Of course, there are people who want the horses banned in NYC, and they can be very vocal or demonstrative with regards to my work," he says. "I get physical threats, and scary phone calls daily, but that's what makes it fun." Rosie has occasionally been threatened as well, he says: "But I give anyone that approaches her the evil eye, and my new scraggly beard makes me look like a off-putting grown up."
During the week he held the "die de Blasio" banner, he says, "I was interviewed on the street by a couple of NYC detectives. They were pleasant and non-threatening, polite even. They said they were with a task force that worked with the Mayor's office. One of the detectives said I was "infamous." Probably because of my Obama drone cartoon, and the visit from the Secret Service. When the detectives were done, they thanked me and I never saw them again."
In any case, he says, the banner isn't a real threat, but more of a way to get the mayor's attention. "My Uncle Dick used to say, 'Die! Ump Die!' This is what was said to a baseball umpire when he made a bad call with regards to the game by the crowd in the stadium. Perhaps more people than I realize are not familiar with Die! Ump Die! I wanted to get the mayors attention. If you're in your house and someone is knocking on your door, you might hope they quit knocking and not answer it. But if they keeping knocking or knock louder you'll probably answer it (or calls the cops). I was just knocking louder. I'm a journalism grad. I knew the risks. It was on the edge. People loved that banner, too. Maybe they were living through me. I need 8 million New Yorker's to get on board and sack this stupidity."
Augustinus also praised de Blasio and the NYPD for allowing him and his banner to stay unjailed: "You know your mayor ain't half bad if the powers to be will let you stand in the best city in the world with a banner like that (and not arrest you). Rosie was with me when they questioned me. Free speech still exists in America. I can attest to that."
In the meantime, Augustinus is so enthused, he's even supporting the carriage horses in the bath:
The comedian says he'll remain at Columbus Circle "until the Mayor says: "We've decided to shelve this for another year so that we can study the implications of the ban further.'"
Update, 3:45 p.m.: NYCLASS spokeswoman Allie Feldman says her organization doesn't find Augustinus' antics particularly funny.
"We're appalled by his behavior," she writes in an email. "Can you imagine the kind of backlash animal advocates would get if we ever stood out there with a sign that said "Die carriage drivers"? Why is his behavior glorified in the paper?"
Feldman also points out that the carriage drivers haven't always been the model of decency, sending this 2012 video of one of them "harassing a group of volunteers with racist, homophobic vitriol as they peacefully handed out flyers on Central Park South:"
(Caution: exceedingly NSFW)
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