NEW YORK — Some of the most powerful moments in New York City take place on nights that are uniquely beautiful. Such was Monday night, a 70-degree evening that was cool with a quick wind and twilight dragging on far longer that it should. This was the kind of night where you rise from the subway, and the distinct puffiness of the clouds grabs your attention and lets you appreciate the expansive sky for an extra second before joining the bustle of a crowd all heading in one direction. On a gorgeous night like this, the masses could be going to a surprise free concert in the park or to catch a particularly good view of the sunset. But just a day after a gunman murdered 49 people at the Pulse nightclub before being killed by police in a shootout, every person that made their way to the West Village knew exactly what they were heading towards and why they were going.
Stonewall Inn, the site of the beginning of this country’s gay rights movement in 1969, continues to serve as the backdrop for moments both joyous and agonizing in the history of the LGBT community. When New York passed the Marriage Equality Act in 2011, people celebrated around the small bar that started the fight all those years ago. A year ago, when the Supreme Court granted the same privilege for gay and lesbian couples across the country with the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, they did the same. On Monday, the city gathered to mourn 49 members of the Latino and LGBT communities who were senselessly gunned down in an act of hatred and homophobia.
That word repeatedly came up throughout the night. Senseless. Because how else do you describe something so horrific, so astonishingly cold hearted, so stunning in its massive loss? Groups of friends, coworkers, and couples huddled together in the crowd as people slowly moved towards the podium (where Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio would be speaking) or to the other side of the block to stand near the iconic face of Stonewall with its red neon sign, Christmas lights, and rainbow flags dripping from the overhang. Everywhere you turned, the single word filled every conversation.
A group of men — all of them having lived in New York for decades and, as such, are intimately familiar with these types of gatherings — huddled together near the old brick Northern Dispensary building on the corner of Stonewall and Waverly. Chad Thompson felt mostly saddened by the events on Sunday. “It’s heartbreaking, senseless.” That word again. “Hopefully everyone wakes up and doesn’t forget to celebrate all of the lives that have been lost.”
Another member of the group, James Eden, was more impassioned by the shooting than his friends. His comments reached towards ferocity like the leaders who would speak later in the night. “All we can do is keep going. Not being afraid to go to pride. Not being afraid to go to clubs. I have friends who work at clubs who are afraid.” His voice rises and reaches an emotional pitch. “We have to keep going to congressmen. Keep going to the NRA. No one needs to own an assault rifle ever.”
As the masses packed closer together on the narrow streets of Greenwich Village, assault rifle ownership was on many minds. Not specifically because it was the weapon the Orlando shooter (and San Bernardino shooter, and Sandy Hook shooter, and so forth) used to carry out his attack. But because the thought of a gun being able to inflict that much carnage in such a short time naturally rises to the front of people’s thoughts when a large group is gathered to mourn those gunned down en masse.
Amidst the conversation about their partner’s day at work or a friend’s weekend plans, there are murmurs about safety. Not outright concern or panic, more like the passing musings that someone might have about an upcoming vacation.
“Do you think it’s safe to be out here?”
“These measures seem good enough.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
It’s the same way that people spoke and acted following the Boston Marathon Bombing, on edge and unsure of how loose they should feel in the same type of packed area that was so easily prone to attack once already.
A young mother with a baby weaves through the sea of attendees followed by the Captain of the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Unit, and nobody blinks an eye. But when a couple yells at the crowd from a fire escape, the oceans of people tense, wondering whether it is a shout of danger or joy. Thankfully, it is the latter as they call down to a friend participating in the vigil whom they spotted from their perch. For every New York Pride Parade banner hanging from lampposts up and down the block, there is a #NotOneMore poster. For every “Love is Love” T-shirt, there is a mass shooting statistic being raised above someone’s head for maximum visibility. A cluster of young professionals discuss their favorite gay bars in Minneapolis and getting tickets to a Yankees game in equal measure. They, too, wonder whether they should stand within a crowd so soon after dozens were killed in a hate crime that targeted their community, their friends, their loved ones.
The unspoken truth inherently known by everyone in the crowd is that the only measure that will be enough — the only measure that will stop these side conversations about personal safety at public events — is the one measure that probably won’t ever happen in the United States. Not in a million years, not after a million deaths.
That’s simply the country we live in now, and the thousands of people crammed into ten blocks in Manhattan on a weeknight know that is an indisputable fact. As Leah Gunn Barrett, Executive Director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, will remind everyone later in the night, guns kill 92 people each day in the United States. When that statistic is achieved by spurts of 20 or 30 or 50 people killed in one fell swoop, people end up mourning those victims in an environment like this one.
Just in time, as another gust of wind unfurls a dozen rainbow flags held overhead, the expected call-and-response occurs.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
As the sky turns to darkness, the horde of people (now stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions) pushes towards the podium once more and then relaxes as the night’s program finally begins. Before a stream of speakers begins their remarks, the Big Apple Gay and Lesbian Corp Marching Band sets the mood with “Battle Hymn of the Republic” before moving on to such contemporary gay anthems as “Firework” and “We Are Young.” It’s a melancholy singalong, but one that feels right.
Finally, the crowd has an event to focus upon instead of discussing Sunday’s massacre amongst themselves or letting their silent fear seep out. The crowd feels more at ease while knowing activists, leaders, and politicians will address crowd’s acknowledged fears while honoring the dead. Refrains of “We are Orlando” and “New York loves Orlando” rise up and roll through the street until everyone is chanting along in time.
Tituss Burgess from Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt steps onstage to congratulate the crowd. He swats down cries of “Pinot Noir!” (a reference to the show) with the simple truth of “Yay for us for coming out and doing what we are supposed to be doing.” Even though it’s only the beginning of the program, eyes are already forming tears as the theater veteran launches into an emotional and choked up rendition of “Somewhere” from West Side Story. Burgess, in his reasoning, says “I give what I have.” Even though his voice and his heart surely aren’t all he has to offer, they are perfect in that moment. The crowd lets him know that he made the right choice with almost complete silence. Later, they will be quiet again when the victims’ names are read aloud one by one.
Among all the guests, it is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who tells the crowd exactly what they want and need to hear. New York leadership at the city and state level has not always aligned with the goals of the LGBT community, but tonight, everyone stands together and implicitly agrees with the Governor’s words. He says what many other politicians across the country chose not to say in the past 48 hours – that the ability to buy an assault weapon has “gone on too long” and that “until we have a national policy, none of us are safe.” Cuomo, never one to miss the opportunity to inspire people with words, did just that with the meat of his speech:
“We all must stand up with one voice and condemn this activity as one society. Now the question is, with all this emotion, what do we do with it? What do we do with it? And what I say to you tonight is let’s take that emotion and let’s make it a force for good and let’s make it a positive force. And let’s take that emotion and let’s rise up and let’s rise above and let’s reject the ignorance and reject the bigotry and don’t stoop to their level. And let’s forge a community that is actually strengthened by this attack and more unified to achieving justice for all.
Let us this evening, let us follow Dr. Martin Luther King’s words when he said “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive hate, only love can do that.” Let us heed the words of James Baldwin: “Love does not begin and end the way we think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war, and it is a war we cannot lose.” Let’s do, my friends, what New York does at its best. What we do at our best is rise to the occasion and we show the way forward.
That’s what we did when we were the first big state to pass marriage equality and it rippled all across this nation. That’s what we did when we stood up as a state and passed gender … and it rippled all across this nation. When we passed the hate crimes law that is the strongest in the United States and it rippled all across this nation. When we stood up and banned conversion therapy and it rippled all across this nation.
New York. New York is not just another state (he says as an arrogant New Yorker). New York is different. New York is special and when New York talks, when New York speaks and when New York leads, the other states take notice. Let’s say tonight, with this emotion, we feel this is the day when the federal government must promise us that they will pass sensible gun control because ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.”
Enough is enough, Congress. Enough is enough. Just like that, the crowd goes all in on the numerous stump speeches and tributes that follow Cuomo’s. Suddenly, the person-to-person tension dissolves, and no nerves spark from one person to another. Instead, those sparks slowly form a knot of energy that is directed at the unfairness of Islamophobia, laws that restrict gay rights, and trans discrimination. These daily plights affect not only the people gathered in a small New York square, but those living across the country and around the world (those who cannot access the same comforting words on an inspiring Monday).
Mayor de Blasio reiterates the same goals and focus as his Governor. As does the President of the Stonewall Democrats, Eunic Ortiz, who promises, “Our lives are equal and we will be respected.” Gunn Barrett reminds everyone of the horrible fact that “America does not have a monopoly on these individuals. What sets us apart is it is dead easy to get a gun.”
Congress is called “feckless,” and systematic discrimination is discussed. Police Commissioner Bratton is booed through most of his speech, as is now the norm when he appears in front of a liberal audience. Openly gay Councilwoman Rosie Mendez echoes the governor in her insistence that “[the gunman] killed 50, but he attacked us all.” As the requisite policy mentions and notes of sorrow are checked off in turn, couples hug, and some audience members remove their hats to bow a head in prayer, thought, or just silence.
The speeches may be inspiring, and they might rally this group of people into believing that change is possible and change is imminent. Who knows? It very well may be. This might be the gruesome event that changes it all. Or not. Regardless, 49 people were still brutally gunned down in an attack that is just as unfair and unimaginable as the scores of others that have come before it. So, as the night comes to a close and the final portion of the program arrives, all of the outrage, promises, and hope from the chilly evening coalesces into one feeling of unavoidable sadness at the lives lost. All of the inspiring speeches in the world can’t save 49 lives that have already been wrenched from their families and friends.
A chant of “say their names” builds, and the organizers grant the crowd their wish. As a rotating cast of scrappy local activists, city leaders, and dapper elected officials recite all 49 names from the podium, a near-complete silence falls once again. Bill Drummer, in a wheelchair and a “New York Values” hat, holds his votive high as the victims are remembered. When the masses finally turn away from the stage that has captured their attention for over an hour, the mood has shifted to that of a hopeful future. The fear from earlier is gone. The tension in the shifting crowd has dissipated and been replaced with a comfort that comes in knowing there are people who see you and understand that fear. They will do what they can to rid the world of it once and for all.
If those promises turn out to be hollow or unattainable, then that is a bridge to be crossed. But as everyone reconnects with wandering friends and gathers around the door to Stonewall for a final wish or to drop flowers on the threshold in memory of the victims, the look in their eyes is that of faith. That someday, somewhere, they won’t need to attend a specific place where marginalized groups feel safer than they do in their everyday lives. On Sunday morning, a terrorist violated the expected safety of gay clubs everywhere with nothing but an assault rifle and a heart filled with hatred. On Monday night, at least for a time, people got the feeling of a safe space back on the streets outside of Stonewall.