Brian Waddell, who represents approximately one-thirtieth of the Manhattan Libertarian Party’s dues-paying membership, is standing in Times Square on a frigid Saturday, checking his phone.
He’s expecting five of his compatriots for a demonstration that he’s planned in protest of the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD. He has a neatly trimmed red beard, a checkered scarf, and a San Francisco Giants beanie pulled low over his forehead.
Waddell says he picked the location because he knew there would be foot traffic, and there is; tourists bundled up against the cold stream by. A performer dressed as the Penguin from the Batman movies is wandering around; another dressed as the Statue of Liberty wraps an American flag around two young children while their parents snap a picture. Immediately behind him, a statue of George M. Cohan anchors the square. Overhead, an electronic, Hyundai-branded billboard reads: “from Tim to Ashley: Will you marry me?” It’s about 10 degrees outside.
The idea — Waddell’s brainchild — was to re-create, in a mild act of civil disobedience, the crime for which Garner was being arrested at the time of his death: the sale of untaxed loose cigarettes, or “loosies.” Without high cigarette taxes, Waddell argues, Garner’s arrest — which ended with an officer applying the chokehold that eventually killed Garner — never would have occurred. He’s not the first to make that point. Conservatives like Sean Hannity drew a line between taxation and law enforcement after Garner’s death, much to the ire of some liberals who believe that that argument misses the point entirely. “If the NYPD weren’t acting as tax collectors in that situation, it never would have happened,” Waddell says. “Bad laws lead to bad enforcement.”
Waddell, 30 years old, is from Fresno originally. He works as a server and writes in his spare time. He’s working on a real-world fantasy novel, along the lines of the Song of Ice and Fire books, the basis for Game of Thrones. He laughs a lot.
He’s emphasizing the taxation issue, but unlike Hannity and some others, who dismissed any racial dynamics in the case, Waddell sees a clear bias in the justice system. For years, he says, the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies have amounted to little more than racial profiling. And he thinks Garner’s race played a role in how he was approached by NYPD officers on that day in July 2014. “If it had been…me in front of the bodega, nothing would have happened,” he says.
Five of Waddell’s fellow protesters have already canceled. There are five “maybes” who could still show up, but he checks his phone with increased skepticism as the appointed hour nears. “I think we have some no-show action going on,” he says. Then he shrugs, and unpacks his supplies.
From a black drawstring bag — it says “Manhattan Libertarian Party” in white letters, against an image of the city’s skyline — he produces a small Tupperware container with “donations” written on the side. By 1 p.m. he’s standing by himself, holding an opened pack of Pall Malls with a few cigarettes jutting out of the top. He has one dollar in the container, which is his own. “Just priming the pump,” he says. Any proceeds from the day’s protest will be donated to Project Hospitality, a food bank in Staten Island.
As people flow by, Waddell makes his pitch. “Loose cigarettes for a donation?” he says, sometimes quietly, sometimes with a little more emphasis. Almost everyone ignores him. A woman in high leather boots dismisses him with a wave of a hand, quickening her pace. A middle-aged couple, arm in arm, shake their heads and continue on their way. “Why would he be selling cigarettes?” she says as they pass. A police car about 50 feet away is apparently empty. Off to the side, there’s another marriage proposal, this one happening in person; Karen Cybulsky, 43, has just said yes to Christa Favro, 33. They live in Cherry Hill. They share a kiss. Two friends are there capturing the moment on their cellphones. They haven’t noticed Waddell.
Thirty minutes go by like this. Waddell keeps checking his phone. He spies a man holding a lit cigarette. “Loose cigarettes for a donation?” he says. The guy doesn’t even glance in his direction. “I can’t even give a cigarette away to a person smoking!” Waddell says.
Later, at a coffee shop just off Times Square, Waddell orders a s’mores hot chocolate topped with a heap of miniature marshmallows. He’s two cigarettes lighter — a pair of men handing out tour brochures were happy to take a smoke, though they declined a donation.
The protest was a bust, he admits, but he’s taking it in stride. Maybe they’ll give it another shot. Maybe if they’d had more people. The group is hoping to do more of these kinds of thing, getting out into the world, “so people know we exist,” he says. Manhattan is not an easy place for libertarian activism. Either way, he says, the party will make a donation to the food bank. “We want to do this to get some attention,” he admits, “but we also wanted to do something good, give something back.”
He says he has nine unopened packs left over from the day’s activities. “You think I can return them?” he asks with a laugh. “I wonder if that’s ever been tried.”