L. Neil Smith's
Number 211, February 17, 2003


Ernie, Bernie and Me
by Jim Lesczynski

Exclusive to TLE

Imagine my surprise when I was looking for a title for the chronicle of my recent adventures, and I noticed that "Guns For Tots" was already taken in an old issue of The Libertarian Enterprise. I thought the name was my original creation, but maybe it was buried deep in my subconscious all along.

You never how things will work out sometimes. I certainly never knew when I sent out a whimsical press release protesting an ill-advised proposed amendment to an obscure section of New York City administrative code, that it would lead to hundreds of pages of press coverage, three national television appearances, hours of talks radio, and an Internet legend that continues to morph as I write this. I couldn't know it would lead a school to send an urgent letter to parents warning them to hide their children from the genocidal libertarians. And had I known that it would lead to my being branded in the #1 media market in the country as the sicko who thinks its funny to give realistic-looking fake handguns to black kids so the NYPD would shoot them, I have to tell myself I probably wouldn't have gone through with it.

New York City wants to ban guns. That's not news, of course. The Second Amendment has been effectively repealed in Gotham for over 75 years. Now, however, the gun-grabbers want more. They want to ban toy guns. Yes, toy guns - Super Soaker, noisemakers, the kind that shoot the little rubber plunger-tipped projectiles, you name it. New York City had already done half the job in its War on Toys a few years ago, when the City Council banned toy guns that "looked" real - i.e., toy guns are now legal only if they are brightly colored, translucent, etc. This policy proved woefully inadequate for the toy-grabbers, because bad guys discovered that they could wrap the brightly colored novelties in black tape or spray-paint them, and then use the altered toys in the commission of a crime. In other words, our local government wants to ban any toy that can be altered to look like a gun.

Every freedom lover has his breaking point, when he decides he has had enough of the encroaching nanny/police state and will fight back. I stood by and did nothing when Republican Governor George Pataki - endorsed by the NRA - enacted his five-point gun control plan. I said little when New York City voters passed a referendum last year raising the legal age of ownership for rifles and shotguns from 18 to 21, thereby striking a blow against the 36 young adults out of a city of 8 million people who had registered such long-arms with the NYPD.

But when they came for the squirt guns, I decided I had enough. They would take my Super Soaker away from me when they pried it from my cold, wet hands.

I decided to fight absurdity with absurdity. I issued a press release announcing the Manhattan Libertarian Party would hold a "Guns for Tots" toy drive. We would collect toy guns - and cash to buy more toy guns - from our members and other interested New Yorkers, culminating in a big toy drive party at our favorite local tavern. Once we collected the kiddie arsenal, we would take them to a school in a deserving, underprivileged New York City neighborhood (not to hard to find) and hand out the free toys to grateful local children, who would at least get to know the joy of squirt gun ownership while it was still legal. The underprivileged neighborhood we chose was Harlem.

Now I'll be the first to admit I'm not the most politically sophisticated man in New York City. If I were, I probably wouldn't be in the Libertarian Party. Nevertheless, I did my best to explore all the possible angles to this important issue of the day, and I thought I was prepared to respond effectively. I knew the gun-control nuts would come after us, because these water toys - well, they sort of look like brightly colored guns. And probably the parental advocacy groups would get hot and bothered, even though it was parents' right to choose their kids' toys - as opposed to City Hall making the choice - that this was supposed to be about in the first place.

But I swear, I did not know until last week that squirt guns were racist. That angle completely escaped me during the planning process.

How did the ultra-liberal New York City politicians and media turn squirt guns into a racial issue, you ask? First you have to understand that a New York City politician will call a ham sandwich racist, if there's a chance it will result in an extra vote. In this particular instance, the politicians and media collaborated to create a pernicious, cynical myth that was the rationalization for the toy gun ban. The myth says that there has been "a recent string" of tragic accidental shootings of young inner-city children by the NYPD who mistook the kids' toy guns for the real thing. And since everyone knows the NYPD racially profiles, it's really a matter of the police driving around the Big Apple and shooting little black kids with toy guns.

That would be a terrible thing if it were true. Of course, it's a bald- faced lie. The politicians decree it so, and the media corroborate it. Let me share a few of these recent tragedies. On January 3, a 17-year- old man in Washington Heights called in what was the latest of a series of bogus food delivery orders, calculated to draw a food delivery guy with a satchel of money. The young criminal would then put a black pellet gun to the delivery guy's temple and demand all his cash. He had already gotten away with several of these armed robberies. This time, however, the NYPD sent in an undercover agent dressed as a deliveryman. When the punk drew his weapon and placed it to the cop's head, the backup team opened fire.

The New York City tabloids reported this incident on their covers as: "THIRD NYPD SHOOTING IN 3 DAYS: COPS KILL BOY BRANDISHING TOY GUN." Anyone who bothered to read the accompanying article could see through the sensationalism of the headline.

The second in the string of these tragic shootings was a homeless man in Brooklyn in October, who had painted a toy gun black so that he could menace passersby on the street. Understandably nervous pedestrians called the NYPD to the scene, and when the police saw the homeless man's seemingly real gun pointed at them, they reacted as their training dictated. The homeless problem in New York City was reduced by one. True, this was a fully grown man, not even technically a minor, but the journalists of this fair city count that incident in the tragic string of police shootings of children playing innocently with toy guns.

Before that, there were the twin 14-year-old girls in New Jersey last year who painted toy guns black to rob a bank.

The last real tragedy fitting the description "cop kills kid playing with toy gun" that we have been able to document was in 1994. A deaf child was playing with a toy gun in a dark stairwell in the projects. Somebody called in a crime report, and the NYPD responded. When the police entered the dark stairwell and saw the child with what looked like a gun, they ordered him to drop the weapon. Being deaf, the child did not comply. The police shot and killed him. My heart goes out to the child's family. I cannot even comprehend how painful that must have been for his parents. Obviously, it was never the intention of the Manhattan Libertarian Party to ridicule such a tragedy.

No, our ridicule is reserved for city councilmembers who say they are going to make New York safer by banning squirt guns.

The initial coverage of our Guns for Tots prank was quite favorable. About an hour after I issued the press release, a capsule summary showed up on CNSnews.com. About a week later, an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard saw the CNSnews.com blurb and interviewed me for a lengthy, humorous article on that magazine's website. That coverage spawned two features on CNN - a taped piece for "Wolf Blitzer Reports" and a live, in-studio interview on "News Night with Aaron Brown." All of the coverage to that point was neutral to positive. Not bad for a quick- and-dirty press release criticizing an amendment to an existing section of municipal code.

The weird part was that we were getting all this national coverage, but I had sent the press release almost exclusively to local media. "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central called, and they were also interested in doing a feature. I was frustrated that none of the local reporters were interested in the story, but with all the national attention, I knew it was only a matter of time. It just goes to show that you should be careful what you wish for.

The coverage first turned ugly in last Tuesday's edition of The New York Sun, the city's new "conservative" daily. Why, the reporter asked, are you giving your guns away in Harlem? Well, young man, I replied, they're not guns, as you can clearly see, but water-squirting, molded-plastic toys that happen to be shaped like guns. Don't you think it's racist to bring them up to Harlem, instead of giving them away in your own neighborhood? No, (you idiot, I wanted to add, but bit my tongue), this is a toy drive parody. When the Marines do Toys for Tots every year, they collect toys in rich or middle-class neighborhoods and bring them to poor neighborhoods, such as Harlem. I happen to live on the Upper East Side, the most affluent neighborhood in Manhattan. It wouldn't make much sense to collect all these toys from everyone and give them to the kids at the academy closest to my apartment, Dalton, an ultra-exclusive prep school, now would it?

I thought my sound reasoning had won my young reporter friend over, especially as he was representing a "conservative" paper and shouldn't have uptight ultra-liberal leanings like every other journalist in this city. That was foolish thinking on my part (not for the last time in this adventure), because last Tuesday's Sun ran an article about the "controversial" toy gun giveaway in Harlem and named the school where we were heading. None of the national coverage mentioned the school in question, of course, and we weren't planning to phone ahead to let the principal know we were coming. We had just planned to stand across the street, off school grounds, and hand out free toys to any kids who happened to pass by after the final bell.

Now, the cat was out the bag, however. On Wednesday, a reporter from WABC-TV 7 called and wanted to see the arsenal of toys. We were getting our local coverage all right. Only this reporter was just as clueless and humorless as the kid from the Sun. We watched Channel 7 news that evening and were dumbstruck as the reporter announced, "Parents today at P.S. 72 received this letter from the school principal, warning them that the Manhattan Libertarian Party is coming here with these, dangerously realistic-looking toy guns (as he held two of our brightly colored squirt guns in front of the camera), to give to their children. The police have also been warned, and parents are encouraged to send their children to school tomorrow anyway."

Oh, shit.

The officers of the Manhattan Libertarian Party held an emergency pow- wow to discuss whether to proceed. I was thisclose to backing out or moving to a neutral location, like Times Square, but Gary Snyder, our county chairman, pulled his trump card.

He told me to call Ernie Hancock in Arizona for advice.

[Cue Darth Vader theme.]

For those of you who don't know the legend of Ernest Hancock, he's a seriously disturbed freedom activist hailing from Phoenix. He's pulled all kinds of insane tricks on government lackeys over the years that we don't have room to get into here. Ernie is now getting the therapy he needs on his own daily talk radio show.

Mr. Hancock was just tickled by my whole predicament. I expressed my now legitimate fears, and how I was thinking we should give our squirt guns away in Times Square and avoid a potential lynch mob

"No, no, no, no, no!" Ernie shouted into the phone. "Your first instinct was absolutely correct! Harlem is the absolute exact perfect place for this! You're going to Harlem tomorrow, and you're saying you picked Harlem deliberately. You're going to explain why this bunch of white guys came uptown to stand with the black parents against the government."

"And another thing, Jim. You're not going to be reasonable. You're going to take the hardest hardcore libertarian position you possibly can."

Sounds great. Only problem is, there's only one Ernie Hancock, and I ain't him.

But I also knew Ernie was right. He told me over and over, you're right, they're wrong, and that's all you need to remember. He also gave some very good voice-of-experience tips for managing the media. "Have three prepared sound bites and stick to them no matter what they ask; they can't put it on the air if it doesn't come out of your mouth." Great advice, which I tried to remember in the one-on-one interviews I did the next day at City Hall, where we went to testify against the toy gun ban before heading up to Harlem with our squirt guns.

City Hall was amusing. We Libertarians got to listen to every race- baiter in New York politics denounce us for breaking the unwritten Apartheid that apparently rules this town. Councilmember Charles Barron was one of the loudest and most strident of our accusers. This is the same Charles Barron who hosted a tribute to a genocidal dictator, Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe, at City Hall, and declared at the Million Reparations March last summer, "I want to go up to the closest white person and say 'You can't understand this, it's a black thing,' and then slap him, just for my mental health." As Charles Barron spoke these words of racial healing, the New York Black Panther Party, which provided security for the event, hawked T-Shirts that read "Kill Whitey" and "How did we get to America? Heartless Christian Buyer, Ruthless Jewish seller."

Charles Barron thinks we're racists for giving away toys in the wrong neighborhood.

After listening to the condemnations of our elected officials, we waited patiently for two hours for our turn to testify. We knew they were stalling so that we couldn't get up to Harlem in time for school dismissal, so finally we said the hell with it and left two of our comrades behind to testify while the rest of us headed uptown. Most of the cameras in City Hall followed us.

Now here come the Libertarians with their Supersoakers. For the record, this band of seven "interlopers" included a Latino alumnus of the same East Harlem school we picked for our philanthropy. Another one of our hardcore black-Latino activists stayed behind at City Hall to testify against the bill in front of the committee, or he also would have been there interloping in Spanish Harlem. Another two of the angry white males were women. Before the City Hall contingent made it to 104th Street, the only two Libertarians holding down the fort and entertaining the press for the first 35 minutes in front of the school were the Latino alumnus and a woman. The rest of us white boys spent about 20 minutes at the scene tops, before we all escaped via police escort. Yet all the newspaper accounts the next day would report just one Libertarian (me), two Libertarians (Gary Snyder and me, both white males), or seven Libertarian officials in suits.

When we arrived, there was a large mob of very angry parents to greet us. I can't say I blame them. I'm a parent, and if I received a letter from my child's school saying this sick group called the Libertarians were coming tomorrow to give my child something that would surely get her shot by the NYPD, I imagine I would be upset too. Some professionals from Al Sharpton's National Action Network were also on hand to fuel the fire. I didn't recognize many of the faces, but some of my colleagues who regularly attend left-oriented events, such as anti-war rallies and human rights demonstrations, tell me all the regular troublemakers were on hand.

We heard all sort of carefully considered arguments against Guns For Tots from counter-protesters. "Go home, trash!" "You don't belong here!" "I'll kill you!" My favorite was, "Don't come uptown with that bullshit! Get out of my 'hood! Get out of my 'hood! Get out of my 'hood!" Okay, that last one was from NYC Councilmember Robert Jackson at the City Hall hearing.

Needless to say, few toy guns were given away. Everything Ernie told me to say was pretty much useless at that moment, since we didn't cover how to win a shouting match against a mob of violently angry people who think you're there to get the NYPD to use their kids for target practice.

Say what you want about cops, but the NYPD saved our lives last Thursday. It is literally a miracle that nobody was hurt. They somehow kept the counter-protesters off of us, we talked to the reporters for about 20 minutes while in a state of shock, gave away may 10 toys, and decided it was time to go.

"Um, how do you suggest we do this?" I asked one of the officers. They walked us over to the middle of the intersection while the mob started pushing forward. An off-duty taxi drove by (in Harlem, all taxis are off-duty), and the cops pulled him over and told him he was now on-duty. One of the activists had her Jeep parked up there, so four of us piled in the taxi, and the other two got in the Jeep. Squad cars escorted us 40 blocks out of the neighborhood. We pulled over by my daughter's midtown daycare center, and my trembling wife and I went in to retrieve our little girl before heading back to my place to meet the rest of the activists.

The New York press would report this as, "OUTRAGED HARLEM PARENTS SPOIL SICK GUN PRANK." Our quotes were distorted, our number and gender were misrepresented, and in general the local news accounts were closer to fiction than to factual accounts of the event.

As with the earlier coverage, the national press was a different story. Papers around the country and around the world saw Guns for Tots as the silly little prank against the nanny state gone berserk that we always intended it to be. The problem is, I have to live in this politically correct sewer. (I'm sorry, my wife wants me to say, "We love New York," and since she was one of the angry white male Libertarians who bravely went to Harlem last Thursday, she gets her way on this one.) So I'm living in this beautiful city, and while I'm now a semi-folk-hero in flyover country, I have to ride the subway wondering if every black and brown face I encounter recognizes me as the sicko who thinks it's funny to give minority kids something that will lead to their early deaths.

Could anything have gone more badly? Sure. Bernie Goetz, the famous subway shooter, is a member of the Manhattan Libertarian Party. We could have brought Bernie up to Harlem. The reporters would have loved that one. Now Bernie and I both get to live in the city we love as pariahs to our politically correct neighbors, but champions to the world outside the Gulag Manhattan.

Ernie Hancock tells me we did great, but he's disappointed that we didn't use our 15 minutes in the national spotlight to hit hardcore libertarian themes, like making real guns legal again in this city, instead of trying to save the squirt guns. I've tried to make it up to Ernie this week by being hardcore on all the tons of talk radio I've done in the aftermath of Guns for Tots, including the nationally syndicated Ken Hamblin Show ("The Black Avenger"), and of course on "Declare Your Independence With Ernest Hancock" out of Scottsdale.

Guns for Tots will continue to pay dividends for the Manhattan Libertarian Party. We lost a few LINOs, who are now finding a better home for themselves in the NY GOP, but we've also received new inquiries and new donations as a result of Guns for Tots. We also have a great idea for a fundraiser.

We're thinking about charging everyone $100 a ticket to watch Bernie Goetz and me take a walk down 110th Street. Carrying squirt guns.


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