Despite Bensonhurst’s proud conservative values and largely Republican constituency — the area voted more Republican than anywhere else in New York City hold Staten Island — Bensonhurst’s New Utrecht High School was bleak yesterday morning, with teachers and students openly breaking down.
“In our English class it felt like we were coping with a death. It was that type of mood,” Veton Vucetaj, a senior at the school who grew up on the Boro Park-Sunset Park border, said.
Yet, in Veton’s economics class, there’s a hand drawn poster celebrating Trump’s candidacy with an illustration of an eagle perched atop a brick wall, evidence of a divide in politics within the school, as well as the neighborhood.
“It feels surreal,” Veton noted.
“One of our teachers said there’s no feeling of checks and balances,” added Jonathan (Jon) Davydov, a Boro Park resident, also a school senior, “I was just depressed the whole day. A lot of people feel like it’s a joke.”
According to the two, Trump supporters at New Utrecht have been a present and vocal minority since the beginning of his campaign last year. Some students even expressed their support by going as Trump for Halloween.
Still, though, the pockets of Trump support are far denser in Dyker Heights than New Utrecht’s corner of Bensonhurst.
“We have a large, diverse population at Utrecht,” Jon said proudly — but not everyone shares his pride.
According to the students, a lot of their Asian classmates face significant racism and bullying from some of their white peers, a mentality they feel is not specific to their school.
“Dyker Heights is very prominent with that mentality,” Veton said with a shake of his head, adding, “I go there sometimes and hang out, and the neighbors have this idea that the Chinese people are invading their neighborhood.”
It is in response to this already present racism especially, the students feel, that Trump’s election is so scary. “It’s scary that he might stand for that [racism] and his views are going to be even more polarizing,” New Utrecht senior Ksenia Novikova of Gravesend added.
“People see Trump as a bigot, and now that he’s won on a campaign of bigotry, people think it’s normal,” Jon noted.
All three students are 17 years old and were thus unable to vote in the election, but even if they were able to vote, they say they feel the system is such that their voices wouldn’t have mattered. Indeed, their family members, some of whom voted for Trump, don’t feel like their votes counted, despite their candidate being elected. Yet the legal right to cast their say would still be nice.
“This affects us so much,” said Ksenia, “Some say we’re too young to understand, but we’ve been keeping up with the election more than many adults. We should get the opportunity to participate in the process.”
Aspiring politicians, the three of them will not let their spirits be broken by what they and many of their fellow students feel is a turn for the worse in American government.
“Right now it’s difficult to unite,” Ksenia said, “but it’s something we have to do. It’s important for us to come together no matter what party we are.”
“He’s our president now,” Veton added, “maybe we should try and give him a chance.”
While the students have little ability to change the results of the election, they are focused on becoming more politically involved.
“There’s not really a lot of political activism these days, especially from liberals,” Jon said, “We’re trying to reverse that in our generation and get higher turnout, higher activism. Local elections are important too, but no one really pays attention to that.”
“Most people don’t even know who their senators are,” Ksenia added, “Change starts from the bottom up, especially with youth. In our school, there’s this attitude that I can’t vote, I can’t do anything.”
“We talked about it in almost every class, except math class,” Jon said. The reaction from students was mixed: in some classes, people shrugged off the presidential election with feelings that four years is a short time. Overall, however, people were pretty negative, and neither Jon, Veton, nor Ksenia feel all the attention being given to politics at the moment will actually serve to get people more involved.
“I think it’s a pseudo politicization,” said Veton, “people know it through popular culture but aren’t getting involved in it. They don’t go in depth about what Trump said, they just support it or are against it.”
Jon went further, saying the election has had a “less politicizing effect,” and that he feels “deflated”.
In an effort to change this, the three have formed a group, Young Organizers United to Help — Y.O.U.T.H. They have allies in larger city organizations like Democracy Matters, Citizen Action of New York, and New York Common Cause, all of which will be joining them for a November 12th demonstration in Columbus Circle from 2 to 4 p.m. in protest of the Citizens United decision of 2010, according to a press release the high school seniors wrote up for the event.
Even in terms of their own group, they’ve faced frustrating bureaucratic red tape which has prevented them from expanding to a chapter within their own school. Still, though, they remain motivated.
As we walked back to the school, one student recognized Veton and started cheering, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” but Veton only laughed. “He’s just joking,” he said and walked into the building.
Update: The photo of the three students in the back of a local bodega has been removed at the bodega owner’s request out of concern for being involved with politics at this time.