A Borough Apart in New York, a Massive Nine-Minute Vigil and an Eruption of Outrage

Protesters kneel in silence in New York City on Wednesday. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

NEW YORK (CN) – Roughly half an hour before curfew descended on New York City, hundreds gathered in shadow of the Queensboro Bridge on Wednesday, got down on one knee, and kept locked in that position for nine full minutes, a grim commemoration of the act that sparked a nation into protest.

It was the same position assumed by former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for that amount of time until the unarmed black man died at the age of 46.

“I was actually locked in the mind of George Floyd, to tell you the truth,” Andre Stiff, a black man three years Floyd’s senior, said of the moments of silence. “I was imagining how could that possibly feel with someone holding me and constricting my breathing for nine minutes, handcuffed, and couldn’t do a thing. Couldn’t fight back.”

Stiff took an emotional pause before adding: “It’s mind-blowing.”

During those silent minutes, demonstrators kept mostly still. Some took photographs of the peaceful Queensbridge Park, bordering the East River and overlooking Roosevelt Island and Manhattan. Some held up homemade placards with the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “Fight for Black Lives.” One sign read simply “8:46,” the minutes and seconds that Chauvin’s knee remained on Floyd’s neck.

By the time the march reached North Williamsburg, the crowd had grown to thousands spanning several blocks along Wythe Avenue. (Courthouse News photo/Josh Russell)

Just hours before the vigil, Minnesota’s Attorney General Keith Ellison unveiled charges that answered the demands of some of the protesters across the country by stiffening Chauvin’s top count from murder in the third degree to murder in the second. Ellison charged the three other officers with aiding and abetting.

For Aafia Chaudury, who organized Wednesday’s event, the timing of the occasion was secondary to her need to take action.

“So, whether it was today, whether it was any other day, I don’t think that was as important to me,” she said. “But I can’t just sit around at home and not do anything. To me, I have to go home at night and sleep at night thinking, ‘Did I actually make a difference?’ and so this was just one small part one small step in that direction.”

As federal and some local authorities have — without evidence — blamed outside agitators for civil unrest, Chaudury emphasized that Long Island City — where the park is located — is her neighborhood.

“We had started our own neighborhood mutual aid organization, so we’ve been supporting the neighbors with food security and the elderly community here during Covid-19,” said Chaudury, who works for the pharmaceutical company Regeneron.

That mutual aid group, LIC Support, helps run errands for homebound people like grocery shopping, pharmacy pick-ups, and laundry. The grip of the pandemic was evident throughout the demonstration. Nearly everybody wore face masks or had personal protective equipment. Multiple people showed up in doctors’ and nurses’ scrubs and uniforms.

“And so, with everything that’s happening, we felt that it was really like our neighbors needed like a space and a forum to express grief of everything that’s happening,” Chaudury added. “And not everybody wants to go into the city or is near Brooklyn to participate in marches. So we wanted to do something local.”

Protesters observed nine minutes of silence on Wednesday. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

Throughout the United States, the public has gotten a starkly different picture of public protest than the vigil, which ended with a reminder of curfew and kind interactions between the organizer and New York City police.

That was not the tenor of the protest in Brooklyn, where protesters called attention to a different shooting by police that has inspired less national attention: black EMT Breonna Taylor, whom Kentucky police officers fatally shot while executing so-called “no knock” warrant at her Louisville home.

A few hundred protesters gathered at 3 p.m. in the Crown Heights neighborhood in central Brooklyn, where they collected on both sides of the four lanes of traffic on Eastern Parkway, cheering as cars honked their support before mobbing on to the streets and marching down Bedford Avenue into oncoming traffic.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators gathered peacefully on Wednesday along Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. (Courthouse News photo/Josh Russell)

“Say her name!” the peaceful demonstrators called out to the response of “Breonna Taylor!” interspersed with chants of “George Floyd!”

The marchers aired their anger and frustration with the New York Police Department without resorting to any acts of violence or destruction along six-mile walking route Wednesday afternoon.

“How do you spell racist? N-Y-P-D!” the marchers shouted in call-and-response, alternately calling out “How do you spell murderers, N-Y-P-D!”

“No Justice, No Peace! — Fuck These Racist-Ass Police,” was chanted repeatedly throughout the day, as was the omnipresent “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, All These Cops Have Got to Go!”

The ubiquitous Black Lives Matter movement and accompanying slogan were referenced throughout the day in demonstrators’ chants and handmade signs, as well as on posters on the doors and windows of sympathetic, allied neighborhood businesses.

By the time the group got several miles down Bedford Avenue to where the historically black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood turns into the Orthodox Jewish enclave of South Williamsburg, the group had grown into the thousands. The crowd was somewhat mixed racially although predominately comprised of white marchers trailed by several dozen NYPD vehicles.

Protesters take a knee to honor George Floyd, who was killed while in police custody. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

The demonstrators called for the end of the killing of black people by police as well as the defunding and disarming of the New York Police Department.

The route went three miles North through McCarren Park and into the mostly white and Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint before turning back around and concluding along the East River waterfront directly in front the of Williamsburg Bridge an hour before the city’s 8 p.m. curfew.

In the wake of recent attention brought by Taylor’s death and the unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd, activists have called on lawmakers nationwide to regulate or abolish such warrants, which allow law enforcement to enter a property without immediate prior notification of the residents, such as by knocking or ringing a doorbell.

The late American soul singer Gil Scott Heron called out the same police practice nearly 50 years ago in his 1972 song /poem “No Knock,” which he wryly dedicated on an album to John Mitchell, the 67th attorney general under President Richard Nixon.

“No-knocked on my brother Fred Hampton, Bullet holes all over the place, No-knocked on my brother Michael Harris, and jammed a shotgun against his skull,” Heron rapped over bongo drums and flute, referencing the 1969 killing of Hampton, an iconic 1960s civil rights activist and deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party.

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