The following is a picture of 225 Park Hill Avenue in Staten Island, New York. There is a tragic and strange story that goes along with that multicolored tree.
I thought of this place after watching Colin Kaepernick, Robert Quinn, Arian Foster and other NFL players engage in protests during the national anthem Sunday, continuing an increasingly bitter debate about the American flag and what it should and should not mean to people.
The Park Hill housing projects, a.k.a. “Killa Hill,” is and was one of the rougher places in New York. Fans of gangsta rap will recognize the name because many of the Wu-Tang Clan members grew up here. Method Man called Park Hill “the house on haunted hill,” the place where “every time you walk by, your back get a chill.”
About a year ago, while researching a book about police brutality cases, I ended up at that spot. At the base of that tree, an African-American man had been suffocated in a choke-hold applied by police in an incident that inspired mass protests.
The man’s name was Ernest Sayon, and he was killed on April 29th, 1994, in an episode that bore numerous similarities to the Eric Garner case.
Project residents decided to make a memorial to Sayon at the base of the tree. Since Sayon was the son of Liberian immigrants (there is a large Liberian population on Staten Island), the original idea was to paint the tree in the colors of the Liberian flag.
But there was a catch. Liberia, which was founded by freed ex-American and Caribbean slaves, designed its flag after the American flag. In fact, Liberia’s flag is the only flag in the world patterned after the American flag. It’s red, white and blue, with 11 stripes and a single white star against a blue background.
The Park Hill residents ended up painting the tree red, yellow and green, colors they associated with Africa.
When I asked some of the people at the spot why they couldn’t paint the tree red, white and blue, a man about my age, a Liberian-American like Sayon, shook his head.
“Those America colors,” he said.
There is a lot of bitterness in Middle America toward Kaepernick, whose decision to kneel in protest during the national anthem has been called contrived and self-promoting.
He’s been blasted as an “attention-seeking crybaby” and denounced by everyone from Kid Rock to David Brooks. How could a backup quarterback with a $114 million contract have the gall to complain about the American way?
Brooks last week even wrote an open letter to high school athletes considering “pulling a Kaepernick,” advising them that they should engage in “shared displays of reverence” (i.e., pledge allegiance) if they want others (read: white people) to view them as “part of their story.”
Who knows what the specific motives were for Kaepernick’s protest. But the people on Park Hill for sure didn’t show a lack of “reverence” for media attention. That’s just how they feel.
In that neighborhood, the flag is associated with the police, and with a criminal justice system most feel is stacked against them. (As with the Garner case, the police officers who killed Sayon were never indicted.) People there didn’t want to be associated with the red, white and blue, not even by mistake.
You can insist all you want that people pledge allegiance to the flag, but it seems like the more important thing would be making all Americans want to do so, and we’re a long way from that. You can’t regulate people’s feelings.