Unity for A Vigil And A Peaceful Protest March

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 “Say his name! George Floyd! Same his name! George Floyd!”

 This was the call and response led by Andrea Colon of the Rockaway Youth Task Force (RYTF) as the vigil for George Floyd began on the boardwalk at Beach 95th Street, Sunday May 31.

A mix of people gathered to honor the black man killed in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. At Sunday’s vigil, some sat quietly, others carried signs such as “Peace Be With You,” which was held by Keith Goldberg, Arnold Saunders, and Cliff Shevlin. Goldberg said, “We did it in Rockaway. It needs to be done everywhere.”

After the vigil, Colon explained that the Rockaway Youth Task Force’s aim for the event was to serve the function of honoring George Floyd’s memory but also to “Give a voice for both black and brown people to demand accountability from police department’s nationwide.”

On Tuesday, June 2, their mission continued with a much larger demonstration. The Rockaway Youth Task Force, with civic, religious, and elected leaders organized a peaceful protest march from the Mott Avenue subway station to O’Donohue Park at Beach 17th Street on Tuesday evening. The street was packed with those who came to march in solidarity and voice a loud and powerful demand for police accountability, both here in the city and across the country.

City Councilman Donovan Richards spoke before the procession to the beach began. On Mott Avenue, he outlined clearly the goal of the evening, to highlight injustice, but adding that the march is meant “for all of us.” Richards explained that the goal was to uplift and protect our community here in the Rockaways stating, “I’ve noticed a lot of people not from Rockaway. If you are here to loot or damage property, this is not the place. We are here for progress.”

Richards also made it clear that the event was not about the condemnation of the entirety of the New York City and New York State Police Departments. Richards stated his “love” for 101st Commander Eric Robinson and officers of the 101 yet insisted “bad apples” be called out by members of the NYPD. “It doesn’t mean that we are not going to hold you accountable when black folks are being killed out on the street for the color of their skin,” Richards said. The councilman spoke of some ways he is aiming to create change, including an upcoming city council hearing to ban the use of a chokehold as a tactic for the NYPD, and sponsoring a bill to create a “discipline matrix to hold the bad apples accountable.”

In response to rumors and fears ahead of Tuesday’s protest, Richards set the tone for a peaceful protest that proved naysayers wrong. “There are those who thought we could not come together in a peaceful manor and communicate in a right manor. Let’s show the world that in Far Rockaway, we can do it right.”

He then thanked those who showed up in solidarity of the movement. “Let me thank the allies that are here, who don’t have to be here. The Jewish community. You didn’t have to stand with us, but you did,” Richards said.

Representative Gregory Meeks addressed the crowd after Richards and made a clear and poignant statement regarding those assembled, “Diversity is here. Diversity and community. That is what America is about.”

The messages were clear from the speakers and by the Rockaway Youth Task Force who led the march and chanted: “This is what community looks like!” NYPD officers walked along the sides of the group of hundreds of peaceful protestors.

The crowd moved down Mott Avenue, turning down Beach 20th Street. Supporters were not only in the street, but many appeared from windows and porches from nearby homes and apartments. As the rally passed St. John’s Hospital, those who have been on the frontlines of the coronavirus battle, cheered for those on the frontlines of the battle for justice for the black community. As the march continued along Seagirt Boulevard, cars honked in support as traffic was halted to allow the march to cross the street and make its way to the park, just off the beach.

At a final gathering, speakers led with words of inspiration and prayer. One speaker from anti-gun violence organization Rock Safe Streets expressed that the movement should not just be for George Floyd, but all black lives, including those who were killed in recent shootings in Rockaway. “If we continue to shoot one another, then how do you expect racism to die? We have to come together as a unit. We have to love each other,” she said.

At one point, tensions grew as the RYTF put Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato on the spot, asking her to show support to repeal 50-a, a law that allows police misconduct records to be sealed. Pheffer Amato responded, “I’m here to show solidarity, but I’m not making a divide when you put me on the spot like that. There are many reforms that need to be done. I’m not going to sit here and tell you something to want to hear,” she said.

In response, the crowd got louder, but other speakers brought the focus back to the main message in their unifying effort. One speaker said, “We had a lot of misinformation and miscommunication in the past. The purpose of today to is create clarity. We want to show solidarity with people in other states that are we responding and reacting.” Another said, “We’re showing solidarity. Community. But we want accountability for the powers that be.” The event ended with everyone in attendance taking a knee, together.

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