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Peace at the mall: Don Zirkel’s statement about t-shirt arrest

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSZjJDDfyUM]

Statement by Don Zirkel, a member of Pax Christi
After charges were dismissed in District Court, Central Islip, NY May 22, 2008
[distributed by Don after his court appearance]

I declared that it is insane that no one has been punished because over 4,000 U.S. troops and many more Iraqis have been killed, but I was being arrested for wearing a T-Shirt which reported those facts. The Bible says, “The truth will set you free.” But not at Smith Haven Mall.

About 60 years ago I put on an Army uniform. About six weeks ago I donned a Peace T-shirt. I wore them both proudly in the service of my country. After two years in the Army, I was honorably discharged. After two hours in the Peace shirt, I was arrested and handed a document which says “The People of the State of New York vs. Zirkel, Donald.” With 19,297,729 people here, I felt outnumbered. Despite a lot of misinformation, the charges have now been dismissed and I can publically set the record straight.

On Saturday, March 29, 2008, members of Pax Christi (the Catholic Peace Movement) and several similar groups sponsored a legal anti-war rally outside the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, L.I. Many of the hundreds of protestors wore T-shirts that included the words “4,000 Troops, One Million Iraqus Dead. Enough.” and a few small red splotches representing the blood of those killed in Iraq.

It was a cold and windy day and soon four of us went into the mall and purchased hot coffee. The mall’s web-site says “Stop by the Food Court for a quick bite.” We didn’t realize how quick they meant. Before finishing coffee, our table was surrounded by eight security officers and Suffolk County police officers who demanded that we remove our T-shirts or leave the premises. We were told that some customers found them offensive.

My wife asked if the same request would be made of people wearing vulgar T-shirts she found offensive. The answer: the owner of the mall (Simon Property Group) has the right to decide who is welcome or unwelcome on his property.

When I told the police that I would neither remove the shirt nor leave voluntarily, they warned that I would be subject to arrest. I understand that you must follow your conscience, I responded, and I hope you understand that I must follow mine. I declared that it is insane that no one has been punished because over 4,000 U.S. troops and many more Iraqis have been killed, but I was being arrested for wearing a T-Shirt which reported those facts. The Bible says, “The truth will set you free.” But not at Smith Haven Mall.

The dramatic scene – four seniors encircled by eight officers – drew a crowd of onlookers, many of whom supported my action.

On Sunday, March 30, the mall’s public relations problem continued. A Newsday story, headlined “Clergyman, 80, busted for anti-war shirt at mall,” was picked up by the Associated Press and many newspapers, TV and radio stations. Newsday’s question of the day was: should he have been arrested? 78% voted No. The story attracted hundreds of comments on its web-site, many defending my freedom of speech.

On Monday, March 31, the mall expanded its charges. It said in a media statement that I was among “a group of approximately 20-25 individuals (who) brought the protest into the mall’s common area and turned a pleasant shopping environment into a forum for their social message.” In a letter published in Newsday April 3, mall manager James Lundgren said Zirkel “insisted on continuing to rally inside Smith Haven Mall by handing out pamphlets and interacting with patron’s in the mall’s food court, despite being asked repeatedly to stop.”

Four untruths! 1) I was in a group of four, not 20-25. 2) I did not rally inside the mall. 3) I did not see, touch or hand out pamphlets and 4) I was not asked repeatedly – or even once – to stop what I was (not) doing.

Because the false charged were widely published and broadcast, it would be appropriate for the media and customers to ask the mall: 1) Does its video security system have any proof of the allegations against me? 2) Are there any witnesses to my causing a disturbance, distributing literature or interacting with patrons? 3) Can the mall explain why, despite its claims, I had no pamphlets when surrounded and arrested? 4) When the responses to those questions are No, will the mall stop spreading its misinformation? 5) Will it apologize to the taxpayers and its stockholders for the time and money wasted on its wild goose chase, and for the anguish caused to my family, friends, neighbors and the parish (Our Lady of Miraculous Medal, Wyandanch) where I serve as deacon?

The good news is that the mall, which sells T-shirts, is responsible for an impressive increase across the country in the sale of the Peace shirt, including two dozen for the beaches of California.

Before I got my day in court, the mall asked the charges be dropped. The mall may claim that it was being generous. That’s an easy out. The truth is that this arrest should never have happened in the first place. The greater truth is the mall’s owner and management should have had the courage to allow freedom of expression, as others have done. In this great country, it is something they could have been proud of.

2 Responses

  1. Where can I get the t-shirt!! =]
    “I love you man!”

  2. I wish you had sued the mall and the police for their manhandling of you, and for denial of your freedom of speech. I am sure that you live by the principle of forgiveness and turning the other cheek, but in this case, the mall owner and the police deserved to be sued for violation of your civil rights. It would also have sent a message to other people like this that they cannot decide who can and cannot make statements they don’t like.

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