Dee Knight

New York

The right to play chess in a public space became the focus of community
organizing in northern Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park over the past month
when arbitrary actions by police angered many.

On Nov. 20 a multinational group of parents, children and other residents
rallied in the park’s Emerson Playground to support seven
African-American men who were ticketed by police in October for teaching
children how to play the board game.

During the protest, Parks Department workers installed picnic tables in another
area of the park for playing chess. However, they aren’t specially
designed for playing chess. The park’s only stone chess and backgammon
tables are situated in Emerson Playground where they are separated from the
children’s play area by a fence.

This is where the chess players were on Oct. 20 when “the police rolled
up on us like we were drug dealers,” said 49-year-old Y. A. Harrison, one
of those who received a summons. (, Nov. 18) He said he and
the other players regularly showed kids how to play the game on Saturdays.

“If we were teaching them to pitch pennies and gamble, that’s one
thing,” Harrison said. “But this is chess. We weren’t trying
to add to the problem.”

A police spokesperson claimed that officers were responding to residents’
complaints and that they were following New York City Parks Department rules,
which bar adults from the playground if they are not accompanying minors. The
summonses, reported at, cited the men for failing to obey park
regulation signs. They must appear in Manhattan Criminal Court on Dec. 28.

News of the tickets and upcoming court date were met by outrage at police
actions by many community members who sympathized with the ticketed chess

Zaida Grunes, a mother of twins whose 17-year-old son learned to play chess in
the same place where the men were ticketed, wrote in the
“Manhattanspeak” blog on Nov. 18, “When my toddler twins are
old enough, I will be sending them to Inwood Hill Park, alone, and hope that
there is a caring, attentive individual sitting at a chess table, willing to
give my kids their time and patience to teach them not only a game, but a

Inwood parent Jackie Rodriguez-Jones said she was incensed over the situation
and planned to do what she could to support the players. “This is about
people. People who did nothing wrong. People that the community sees and passes
by them … people who need to know their community is aware and concerned for
them,” she wrote on her Facebook page. (, Nov. 19)

The Inwood neighborhood is home to a multinational working-class community, but
gentrification is affecting the area, with wealthier residents along with
police aiming to push poor people out of parks and other public areas.

Everyone has the right to use a public park, and that right must be defended.

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