UPPER EAST SIDE, NY — On June 2, 2020, eight days after the murder of George Floyd, protesters occupied two full blocks of East End Avenue outside Gracie Mansion and held a silent vigil in memory of people killed by police. The following night, they returned.
Improbably, the vigils never stopped. On Wednesday, a few dozen people met in Carl Schurz Park, as they have done almost every night over the past 12 months, marking the one-year anniversary of the gatherings that became known as Upper East Side For Black Lives Matter (UES4BLM).
“It was just good to see that it’s still going,” said Saundrea Coleman, who attended the first vigil last year and later became one of the group’s main organizers.
Along the way, organizers say they have driven meaningful change in a neighborhood hardly known for its protest scene — even as they received harsh, sometimes violent resistance from others on the Upper East Side.
“I think things are changing”
The vigils began when Patrick Bobilin, a neighborhood activist and onetime candidate for State Assembly, attended a similar event in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park in the wake of Floyd’s death last spring.
“I realized something like that could be valuable in my neighborhood,” he recalled. “So I sent a couple messages out to a few neighbors.”
The hundreds of people who attended that first night’s vigil sat silently for a full 30 minutes before leading a “Black Lives Matter” chant and then dispersing ahead of the 8 p.m. curfew that the city had ordered.
In the ensuing weeks, attendance remained in the low hundreds, shrinking to a few dozen by the fall. Guest speakers ranged from the writer Maeve Higgins to the great granddaughter of Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly Black woman who was fatally shot by police in her Bronx home in 1984.
In the depths of winter, five or six people braved the elements and shivered together in the park each night, Coleman recalled.
Since the protests’ early days, however, participants have felt pushback. Hecklers occasionally walk up or drive past and shout profanities, threats of violence against protesters have appeared on social media, and the “altar” to victims of police violence that demonstrators constructed in the park is vandalized constantly — including a recent night when it was smeared with feces, Coleman said.
Other antagonizing moments have included a baffling “No Protesting Allowed” sign that appeared in the park in October, and an incident in August when Coleman’s cousin, visiting from California, was tackled to the ground by a stranger as she marched on the East River Esplanade.
Still, Coleman said the group’s achievements carry more weight than the occasional hostility. She pointed to the formation in December of Community Board 8’s social justice committee, which she co-chairs and which has pushed the board to call for major police reforms and accountability for the Capitol rioters.
“I think things are changing,” Coleman said. “As long as people continue to speak out, speak truth to power, we’re starting to look at all of these systemic issues that have plagued Black people.”
Bobilin said he hopes the current organizers find new ways to engage their neighbors, to ensure that the vigil does not become “something that people either just pass by on their morning run, or try to avoid from 7 to 8 p.m. if they don’t agree with it.”
“My worry is that it becomes routine, whether for the neighborhood or for the attendees,” he said.
Coleman said the group is already planning one major change: once UES4BLM reaches 400 consecutive days in July, it will cease to be a nightly event and will pivot instead to a Friday-Sunday schedule.
That reduction will give organizers more time to step back and consider the best ways to approach their work, Coleman said. But the underlying issues show no sign of going away.
“At the end of the day, Black people are still dying,” she said.
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