In a gesture of unity and goodwill, dozens of elected officials and religious leaders signed a pledge of tolerance and understanding at Flushing Town Hall last Wednesday, hoping to educate people and prevent hate crimes. The symbolic document has no legal or legislative significance, but those who participated touted its necessity nevertheless.
“Every time we publicly articulate the message of tolerance and the condemnation of hate crimes, it filters out to the general public and it may make some young person, who does not understand the gravity of what they’re about to do, think twice,” Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) later said. “So I think in some small way it helps.”
The pledge was designed to be a modernized version of the Flushing Remonstrance, a letter signed in 1657 by 30 English citizens in the community then known as Vlishing or Vlissingen, telling then-governor Peter Stuyvesant his laws against religious freedom were unacceptable.
Flushing was a Dutch colony, and anyone who was not Dutch, especially Quakers, could be jailed, lose property, or be sent back to Europe.
The Remonstrance is significant as the first document in the Americas to declare religious freedom and was a precursor to that clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Leading off by proclaiming Quakers will not be molested in Flushing, it also cites Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as examples of people who will be free to worship as they will in the town.
Written by public relations planner Michael Nussbaum and Queens Tribune editor Brian Rafferty, the new document, “A Pledge for Tolerance and Understanding,” proclaims acceptance and equality of all groups, including women, minorities and immigrants, who were not cited in the Remonstrance.
The pledge states, in part, “Every man, woman and child of this country, this city, this state and this nation, regardless of ideology, history or philosophy, is our brother and our sister. Together we face an open future free from hatred, bigotry, fear and persecution.”
The Remonstrance was an act of defiance against a government that did not allow for religious freedom, and subjected its signers to persecution. Today, tolerance and religious freedom are a matter of law, which the pledge’s signers simply sought to reaffirm.
Nussbaum, who hopes it will be used as a teaching tool in schools, plans to bring it to Albany to have it signed by the governor and will post it on Facebook and possibly create a website around it.
The Rev. Floyd Flake of the Greater Allen AME Cathedral in Jamaica called the gathering “essential” because it sets an example of what individuals need to do to get along with each other in a positive way.
Flake said it was his prayer that those who signed the document would use their influence to help members of the younger generation come together as one by nurturing them and teaching the power of tolerance.
“As human beings, we have a responsibility to one another — that responsibility to each other would preclude our belief that anyone is less than we are,” Flake said. “We are all equal in the eyes of God, and we are all equal in the eyes of the law.”
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown reaffirmed his commitment to vigorously prosecute hate crimes, particularly those that involve violence and destruction of property, which he said have become more common place in recent years.
“Such acts do more than cause physical or emotional damage, they also threaten the safety and welfare of all of us,” Brown said. “They tear at the very fabric of society. They intimidate. They disrupt entire communities. They do immeasurable damage to the stability that is crucial in a democracy.”
Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) later stressed the importance of the gathering by noting the anti-immigrant sentiment that still exists in her district, and stating that sometimes because of her appearance — she is of Chinese descent, but was born in Queens — people ask her how she learned to speak English. “If I didn’t have dark hair and almond-shaped eyes, that’s probably not a question they would be asking,” she said, adding that she has heard from constituents that people still make remarks like “Go back where you came from.”
“I think for the average person [the pledge] reaffirms that as elected officials, we are doing our best to get along with each other and hopefully it will inspire people to read the document and realize that this country is a melding of different cultures and people,” Meng said.
Alex Flores, a spokesman for City Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), expressed similar sentiments, stating that the pledge serves as an important reminder of the strength and diversity of Queens.
“It shows that we are all unified in this cause,” Flores said. “We must eradicate these hate crimes, wherever they rear their ugly head.”