Monday, March 31, 2008

80-Year Old Catholic Deacon Arrested for Anti-War T-Shirt

Wear this t-shirt in public, and you could be thrown in jail.

From today's Newsday (article by Sophia Chang):

Among the many milestones in Don Zirkel's life -- serving in the Army, editing The Tablet, the Diocese of Brooklyn's newspaper, and working in the state Division of Human Rights under Gov. Mario Cuomo -- perhaps the most famous will now be his arrest at the food court in Smith Haven Mall.

"Eighty years, and I have never been arrested before for fighting injustice," Zirkel, of Bethpage, said yesterday.

On Saturday, Zirkel, 80, was at an anti-war rally outside the mall in Lake Grove, wearing a white T-shirt splotched with red and emblazoned with a simple message about the fatalities of the Iraq war: "4,000 troops, 1 million Iraqis dead. Enough."

Zirkel said he was at the rally to support the anti-war protesters. "I was an encourager. I was an affirmer," he said.

During the rally, Zirkel and his wife went into the mall's food court for coffee and French fries. After he declined mall security's request to either turn the T-shirt inside out or leave, he said police put him in a wheelchair and escorted him from the mall. Suffolk police charged him with criminal trespassing and resisting arrest. He was released on bail and is due to be arraigned May 22.

Police also said Zirkel was passing out leaflets at the mall, a charge he disputes.

"I'm being punished for six words that spoke the truth. That's insanity. War is insanity," said Zirkel, who said his nephew recently returned from active duty in Iraq.

"I'm wearing the T-shirt again," he added.

Though Zirkel says this is his first brush with the law, he has led a life of what he calls "social action," most notably through his involvement with the Roman Catholic church.

Zirkel said he served in the Army during the Korean War as a corporal and chaplain's assistant, though he was not deployed. After he was discharged, Zirkel attended St. John's University, earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy and theology."
Smith Haven Mall is right down the road from us. I wrote a brief letter to Simon Property Group (SPG), the owners, complaining about the arrest and saying that we would not shop at the mall until they drop charges against Zirkel, issue an official apology to him, and make sure incidents like this do not happen again.

I encourage others to send SPG a message as well. This is not just a local event but affects all of us.

And not just in a theoretical way. "Simon Property Group, Inc. is an S&P 500 company and the largest public U.S. real estate company. . . . It currently owns or has an interest in 380 properties." They own major malls all over the United States.

UPDATE: The official press release from the Suffolk County Police says that Zirkel "upset mall patrons by wearing a shirt with graphic anti-war images. Donald Zirkel, 80, of 150 Sunny Lane, Bethpage, was handing out anti-war pamphlets, and wearing a shirt featuring anti-war slogans and images at the mall around 4:00 p.m."

Where, exactly, are "graphic anti-war images" on that t-shirt?

Also, Smith Haven Mall released a media statement:
Contrary to media reports, there were other circumstances that contributed to the arrest of Mr. Zirkel that extended well beyond his claims, including his insistence on continuing to rally inside Smith Haven Mall by handing out pamphlets and interacting with patrons in the mall’s food court, despite being asked to cease and desist these activities. . . .

In keeping with our Code of Conduct, it is our corporate policy not to allow protests or demonstrations of any kind to take place on mall property regardless of the topic.

While we regret the outcome involving Mr. Zirkel, we also cannot allow the pleasant shopping environment we strive to maintain to be disrupted by allowing protests to take place each time an outside organization wants to use the mall as a vehicle to get their message across.
The legal issue seems to come down to whether or not Zirkel was handing out leaflets in the mall. Both the Suffolk County Police and Smith Haven Mall reports say he was. In the Newsday article, Zirkel disputes the charge. If he was handing out leaflets, the mall has the legal right to prevent him from doing so, though I can't believe the only solution was to have an 80-year old Catholic deacon arrested.

The Smith Haven Mall statement, however, doesn't address the more disturbing issue. Did their security guards try to force Zirkel to turn his t-shirt inside-out? There was nothing vulgar or obscene on the shirt. Wearing a t-shirt is not handing out leaflets. The action seems politically motivated and doesn't have anything to do with maintaining (or forcing) a "pleasant shopping environment."


Jeff said...

That's outrageous. You can probably go into that same mall and buy a Dead Kennedys "Too Drunk to F___" t-shirt. In fact, there are probably kids hanging around the food court wearing them, and this guy gets arrested??

I think he was arrested simply for being 80 in a mall. He's not buff enough, like an Abercrombie model. After all, you can't see the word ENOUGH, because he's got the old man pants up to the armpits thing happening.

Garpu the Fork said...

I'm trying to find out if my local mall is owned by them. Wish the guy said where he got the shirt in the article, because I'd get one and wear it at mine.

cowboyangel said...


Now, maybe his t-shirt was just a really long one. :-) 80 in a mall is probably a big crime to most mall shoppers.

That's one of the things I really liked about Spain - how present the elders were in the society - la tercera edad. Here, they're too often seen as inconveniences.

I had the same thought about obscene t-shirts and mentioned that fact in my letter to SPG.

cowboyangel said...


Northgate Mall - does that sound familiar? That's an SPG mall.

One of my colleagues said she had the same t-shirt, so they can't be that hard to find. I'm sure online somewhere.

Garpu the Fork said...

Oh yes it does. It's close to Chez Fork. Well, off the 66, that is. Might have to take one for the team and actually hang out at a mall.