Issue of the Week
Printer-friendly page Click here to get a printable version of this article

Parades and Politics

By Gail Robinson

25 November 02

For Mr. Monopoly and his handlers, the decision about whether to march in Thursday's Thanksgiving Day parade will be easy. If the winds are gentle, the inflatable capitalist will float down Broadway; if they exceed 23 miles per hour, Mr. Monopoly, Kermit the Frog and 18 other over-sized balloon characters will be banned, so as not to injure any spectators.

But for politicians, police and organizers, many of the city's parades are far more complicated. The St. Patrick's Day parade has become a battleground for gay rights, while the Columbus Day parade this year turned into a debate over ethnic stereotypes. At the dozens of parades promoting causes or group identity, office seekers, elected officials and promoters of issues from Zionism to lesbian pride wonder how best to present their cases to the media and crowds lining the streets. With parades attracting ever-bigger crowds, police struggle to find the balance between allowing people to have a good time and protecting lives and property.

To some, parades are a vital part of our political and cultural life. The Mayor's Community Assistance unit calendar lists 37 major parades in 2002. Rudolph Giuliani, who has heard both boos and cheers along dozens of parade routes, once said, "I try to march in as many of them as possible." But given the pitfalls of parades, many politicians probably share the sentiments of outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan who has vowed that he will never march again. "I don't like parades," Ryan told reporters. "I've never figured out why people like to sit along the curb all day and watch fire trucks go by and politicians."

City On The March

Parades attract controversy in other places too. For example, people boycotted the 2002 St. Patrick's Day parade in Rockland County because a former member of the Irish Republican Army was grand marshal.

But in New York where so many parades boast of being the biggest or best of their ilk, the disputes attract national attention, as well as heated emotions.

New Yorkers have been parading at least since the 18th century when Irish soldiers played their fifes in the city streets. As new groups and causes have emerged, parades have come and gone. "The role of parades and other public assertions of ethnic identity in the USA is closely bound up with immigrants' struggles for power, status and acceptance," Ailbhe Smyth wrote in the International Feminist Journal of Politics. Parades, she said, promote community and present proof of that community strength: "we can take over the streets -- we own the streets."

So in recent years, the West Indian Day Parade, held on Labor Day in Crown Heights, has become one of the city's largest ethnic celebrations, and a parade for newcomers from Mexico is gaining popularity. The Gay Pride parade in June, once a protest march, is now a six-hour festival. And since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, parades have become increasingly patriotic, with lots of flags, renderings of patriotic songs and salutes to police and firefighters.

But the praise for America has not drowned out the political maneuvering, feuds and controversies that mark New York's seven-month parade season.

Turkey Trot

This week's Thanksgiving parade, with its commercial tie-ins and promotions for Macy's, rarely provides much controversy. It began in 1924 when store employees, many of them immigrants, sought to celebrate the holidays on the streets, much as they had marked festivals in their native Europe.

In the years since, the biggest issue has been whether the show should go on. The parade route remained empty from 1942 to 1945 because the country needed the rubber and helium from the big balloons for the war effort. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated less than a week before the 1963 parade. The celebration went on, but, writes Robert Sullivan author of "America's Parade: A Celebration of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade," "the pageant that year had the feel of an Irish wake -- forced revelry, some laughter, many tears. Every flag bore seven feet of black bunting."

In 1997, strong winds sent the Cat in the Hat balloon wildly out of control. During its gyrations, the Dr. Seuss character knocked down a lamppost, seriously injuring a parade goer. As a result, guidelines now require that the balloons, which weigh between 150 and 700 pounds and require a team of 60 people or more to manage them, be held on a short tether if sustained winds measure 19 miles per hours. At 23 miles per hour, Barney, Kermit and the rest must sit out the celebration.

Fighting Irish

As turkey is to Thanksgiving, controversy is to St. Patrick's Day. Although the Irish have celebrated the anniversary of St. Patrick's death in the fifth century as a religious holiday for more than 1,000 years, the first St. Patrick's Day parade took place in New York City in 1766. Homesick Irish soldiers, both Catholics and Protestants, marched around the streets of Manhattan playing Irish songs. By the middle of the 19th century, and the arrival of immigrants fleeing the potato famine, clashes broke out between the Protestant and Catholic participants. Eventually, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic group, assumed control of the parade.

And it has, more or less, kept it to this day, despite a rather byzantine solution to a recent spat over parade finances that removes some of the official ties between the group and the parade -- now the largest St. Patrick's Day celebration in the world.

Since 1991 the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization has sought to march under its own banner in the parade. The parade committee has consistently denied them that privilege, saying the parade cannot be used to promote anything. Others argue that, despite the baton twirlers and revelers with "Kiss Me I'm Irish" buttons, St. Patrick's Day is a Catholic religious observance and that homosexuality is against the teachings of the church. Supporters of the gay group, however, note that gays march in St. Patrick's Day parades in several American cities, as well as in Dublin, Cork and Galway, Ireland.

The New York parade has achieved such notoriety among some activists that Irish politicians have signed petitions urging that the lesbian and gay group be allowed to march, and Key West has held a St. Patty's Day promenade, featuring pink shamrocks and a pink leprechaun. "Why go to New York to feel unwelcome when you can come to Key West and be welcome," Jim Gilleran, an organizer of the event, told Associated Press.

All this creates a quandary for politicians, who irk one large group of voters if they march and another large group if they do not. Former Mayor Giuliani opted for marching, going so far as to go over some parts of the parade four times. His successor has followed suit, although before last year's parade Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited members of the gay and lesbian group to a breakfast for Irish leaders and others at Gracie Mansion.

Some politicians, including last year's Democratic gubernatorial contenders, Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo, sit out the parade. And in 2001, the Democratic candidates for mayor -- except for Peter Vallone -- did likewise. Senator Hillary Clinton has waffled, marching in 2000 but not in 2001, then returning to the parade in 2002.

With the dispute on Fifth Avenue showing no signs of waning, gays and others have looked to St. Patrick's Day parades in other boroughs. But in 1999, the parades in both the Bronx and Brooklyn barred the Lavender and Green Alliance. In Brooklyn, the gay contingent then marched with the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, carrying signs that read, "Gays and Lesbians Can March in Dublin, Why Not Park Slope?'

Queens allows the gays to march. As a result, in 2001, parishes and Catholic schools in the borough declined to participate, and Republicans in Woodside called the parade an "extremist gay and lesbian exhibition hopelessly and ignobly disguised as a celebration of Irish culture." But the parade got an added boost in 2002 when members of Congress, Hillary Clinton and Bloomberg attended. Of course, my have helped... that that parade was dedicated to Father Mychal Judge, the gay Fire Department chaplain killed in the World Trade Center attacks.

But not all the St. Patrick's Day disputes are about gays and lesbians. A number of Catholic leaders in Staten Island boycotted that borough's 2001 parade because the grand marshal, Jerome X. Donovan, supports abortion rights. In the 1990s, candidates for grand marshal would conduct aggressive campaigns for the honor, buying large numbers of ads in New York's Irish papers. And in 2001, parade organizers stopped notifying the Irish Echo and the Irish Voice of the line of march for the parade, reportedly in retaliation for what they perceived as negative coverage in the weeklies.

Columbus Day Conflicts

While these disputes may fade, the fighting over gays and lesbians in the parade -- and whether or not mayors should march in it -- is sure to return in 2003. Mayor Michael Bloomberg more or less guaranteed that when he dropped out of the less fractious Columbus Day parade in October.

That parade has been beset by disputes about Columbus's role in the settling of the America and whether Hispanics or Italians could claim the explorer as their own. But these pale next to this year's fracas.

It began when the mayor invited two members of the cast of "The Sopranos," Dominic Chianese and Lorraine Bracco, to march with him in the parade. The show is anathema to the Columbus Day parade committee, many of whose members think it promotes negative stereotypes of Italians. They have rejected floats with a Sopranos theme and turned down previous requests from other Sopranos cast members to march. The mayor said if his "friends," as he characterized them, could not march, neither would he, and he spent the afternoon with them, eating Italian food on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.

Almost immediately, two gay politicians, City Councilmember Christine Quinn and state Senator Tom Duane, said if the mayor could skip the Columbus Day parade, he could -- and should -- skip St. Patrick's Day. However obnoxious the Columbus Day parade's organizers were in barring actors who portray members of the Mafia or their therapists, the St. Patrick's Day organizers are far worse, Quinn said, because they exclude "an entire class of New Yorkers."

Bloomberg disagreed. "I think they are very different issues," he said adding, "my respect for the Irish community is such that I will march in that parade."

The mayor left himself an out: He will march in March if parade organizers "don't object to the people that I invited." So far, no word on the mayor's invitation list.

Gay Parade

While New Yorkers argue over Columbus Day and St. Patrick's Day, they display a surprising degree of unanimity about the Gay Pride parade.

The parade got its start in 1970 when about 200 men and women, without a permit, marched to mark the first anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Now the parade attracts mainstream corporate sponsors, as well as an array of politicians.

Even as it has moved away from its roots of protest, the Gay Pride parade continues to promote issues of interest to gays. Other parades tout their participants' causes. Spectators at the 2002 Puerto Rican Day parade displayed signs demanding "Paz Para Vieques" and an end to Navy shelling of the Puerto Rican island. Many of the marching politicians sported Vieques sashes across their chests.

The Salute to Israel parade celebrates Israeli statehood. But as the situation in Israel has become increasingly violent, the New York parade has become more political with people expressing support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and denouncing Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. In response, marches have been met by protesters condemning Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

Despite or because of that, most New York politicians march. The Girl Scouts, though, had qualms about the parade's focus. Last spring, the organization ruled that scouts could not march in uniform in the parade because it is a political event the parade is an ethnic celebration -- even though the day's theme was "Solidarity with Israel." The Girl Scouts reversed their position.

Politicians' Dilemma

While some politicians enjoy marching, most put up with the sore feet and occasional catcalls because parades can be where the voters are. In 1988, reporters likened the New York Columbus Day parade to a Democratic political rally as spectators enthusiastically cheered Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. But Jerome Consentino, then state treasurer of Illinois, said Dukakis should have skipped the Manhattan parade and marched in Chicago. Maybe he was right; Dukakis carried New York but not Illinois, in losing the election to George Bush.

Writing about the dilemma facing Dukakis and other candidates, Chicago Tribune political writer Thomas Hardy observed, "Parades can be dubious propositions for political candidates. Although they probably don't gain many votes by showing up, and probably don't lose many by not showing up, the no-shows frequently get more attention from other politicians."

Andrew Cuomo may wish he had skipped September's West Indian Day parade. Cuomo showed up to find Hillary Clinton marching with state Comptroller Carl McCall, then Cuomo's rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Clinton maintained she was neutral and was marching with McCall only because he was an elected official, while Cuomo was not. Cuomo claimed to accept the explanation, but no one else did. With commentators clucking over the alleged snub, he withdrew from the race a few days later.

Parades have provided the backdrop for some of the nastier episodes in recent local politics. In 1994, then Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari took advantage of his borough's Columbus Day parade to attack the Democratic candidate for state attorney general for being a lesbian. In 1997, Ruth Messinger, then a candidate for mayor, missed some Columbus Day parades. Her opponent, Giuliani, declared that Messinger never cared about or "extended herself to" the Italian American community.

A Safe March

Politicians are not the only ones who misbehave at parades. For years, parades in New York meant liquor -- and rowdiness. People would avoid midtown streets and subways after the St. Patrick's Day parade to spare themselves an encounter with a tipsy reveler. A few years ago, state Senator Tom Duane and some Greenwich Village residents complained that the explosion of the Halloween parade, once a small neighborhood event and now an extravaganza, had given rise to public drunkenness and gay bashing. And a former president of the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District once urged merchants to keep stores closed and remove expensive merchandise from windows on "this difficult day" -- the day of the Puerto Rican Day parade.

And there have been serious incidents. In 1997, a teenager died after he was attacked by a gang of youths during the St. Patrick's Day parade. Two children died when a van rammed into a float at the 1997 West Indian Day Parade, killing two children dancing alongside it.

But the most publicized fiasco came after the 2000 Puerto Rican Day parade when groups of young men in Central Park attacked as many as 50 women, dousing them with beer, groping them and tearing off their clothing.

Giuliani responded by banning alcohol at all parades, although to the chagrin of some he did not extend the ban to street festivals such as the popular San Gennaro festival in Little Italy. The first parade to go "dry" was the 2000 West Indian Day parade. Some organizers worried the ban would drive away liquor companies that sponsor the event and accused the mayor of singling out the largely black parade. But two years later, the dispute seems to have subsided as people have gotten used to the ban -- or managed to find ways around it.

Despite all the problems, parade-goers in New York seem to have a knack for keeping their mind off the friction and their eyes on the floats.

Tell us what you think about New York City's parades on our message board.

Visit the Issue of the Week archives.
Tell us what you think about this issue. Write a letter to the editor.

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation, the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation’s public education programs.  Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.