Last Saturday, I found myself sharing a New York City subway train with protesters from the Millions March and drunken revelers from SantaCon. Both events drew comparable-sized crowds, hovering around 25,000 participants each. Both ended up on the tiny island of Manhattan on the same day. And this coincidence is a perfect metaphor for Christmas this year.
In a town which gladly welcomes some 54 million visitors annually, special contempt is held for the excretions from the tens of thousand of pub crawlers known as SantaCon. The swarm of stocking-hatted boozers descend onto New York much like the biblical plague of locusts (if locusts were noted for copious amounts of Garden State-bought Fireball vomit). This year they even hired a civil rights attorney, Norman Siegel—whose former clients include the Occupy movement—to tell New Yorkers that Santas have a constitutional right to treat the entire city like their frat house’s bathroom. The group has roots in the culture-jamming anti-consumerism subculture, yet has devolved into a parade of public urination and indiscriminate puking. There’s, of course, a tongue-in-cheek claim that it’s for charity, but really it’s an excuse to travel to an iconic city and make a drunken, sloppy, red-clad mess of yourself, all in the name of this holiest of holy-days.
This to me is the American celebration of Christmas. It’s summed up in those annual Lexus commercials that promise if you’re nice enough to Santa or your spouse truly loves you enough, you deserve a $50,000 luxury car. Average Americans whose wages have flattened while the expense of everything from college to their calling plan has gone up, decidedly put themselves in debt to consume as much as possible at the end of the year. Go to any store in December—tempers are short, patience is non-existent and Bing Crosby (an accused child abuser) is crooning about how great it all is.
The Millions March, on the other hand, tells the story of the other America. The media treats our 47 million citizens in poverty like they’re some kind of novelty. There are more Americans living below the poverty line than Canadians on this planet (35 million). Poverty has effectively been criminalized by the follies of the War on Drugs. During that time police have gotten more armor and more legal leeway. There’s well-documented evidence people of color are disproportionately targeted and apprehended for drug crimes.
So now we have a legally immune, self-policing, occupying army with a widely acknowledged racial bias loose in our cities. And your personal experience with them is largely based on your income level, age and race.
Eric Garner was choked to death for selling untaxed cigarettes. He was a married father of six. He should have been fined at the worst. It cost more taxpayer dollars to arrest him than we would have ever made off of the singles he was hawking. The only reason we know about this incident is because a man named Ramsey Orta filmed it and let the world see this stupid, cruel and now fatal policy at work. And even with the whole world watching, the police were not punished, policies were not changed and we were all told it was justifiable homicide—so it was OK.
Then those clenched fists, the timeless and ancient symbol of the disenfranchised standing up to subjugation, showed up en masse at City Hall last Saturday. The overlooked reality for millions of Americans perfectly wrapped up in the chant, “We can’t breathe.”
So there was simultaneously, the sick from consumerism-dressed-as-a-fairy-tale-fat-man who gives presents to “good” children (which means children of well-off parents) and the signs of anger at inequality and unequal treatment in the hands of the law.
Those consuming themselves into oblivion and those protesting the all-too-obvious: a tale of two Christmases.
Photo by Anthony Quintano