Several dozen activists, most of them leaders in the black gay community, turned out Monday on the steps of City Hall for a press conference that was intended as a show of community solidarity and brotherhood in the face of the latest in a long line of vicious attacks on gay men of African descent in New York City. The brutal murder of Michael Sandy, a gay black man lured to Plum Beach in Brooklyn allegedly by a group of white men who attacked him and then chased him onto the Belt Parkway where he was fatally struck by a car, seemed to have staggered all those who spoke on Monday.
“We stand here at this dark moment in history,” Tokes Osubu, executive director of Gay Men of African Descent, or GMAD, said in an eloquently intoned talk. “Once again a promising light of our future has been darkened too soon… The death of a loved one is always very painful. When that death is of one so young and caused by such wretched and cruel means it leaves a hole in a life that will never be filled. A life has been snuffed out, a family destroyed, and a community heartbroken.”
“There’s a message in the world today that it’s okay to kill a faggot, that it’s okay to heap vituperations and violence against those who we do not agree with,” said the Reverend Zachary Jones, pastor of the Unity Fellowship Church in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene.
And then there was Kevin Aviance, the popular performer, himself brutally attacked in the East Village in early June.
“I am shocked that I have to lose another brother or sister in my city,” he said. “All I ask New York is—we’re people, why can’t we work together here? When there are problems, talk to us. You don’t have to put your hands on us.”
But along with the shock, the outrage, and the weariness, their was also determination to find new ways to tackle what has become an endemic problem and also a focus on nonviolence and love strikingly reminiscent of the 1960s African-American civil rights movement.
“We wanted to say that it’s no longer enough just to march and rally, it’s important to discuss the proactive things we’re going to do the day after a rally,” explained Clarence Patton, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. “We are looking for the community, for citizens, for elected officials to start to work for environmental change because there’s an environment that allows for this kind of incident, that sometimes even encourages this to happen, and unless we start working on that we will just be rallying and marching again.”
“We cannot just keep coming here together and rallying our collective anger and outrage every time a black gay New Yorker is the victim of violence. It just isn’t working anymore,” Osubu said, pointing to the critical responsibilities that school teachers and religious leaders bear in creating change. “We need a stable coalition of community and civic leaders who are dedicated 365 days a year to ending this cycle of violence. Silence is our enemy.”
In a pointed reference to his fellow members of the clergy, specifically including the black clergy, Jones said, “We stand as a community making a statement that we will not only not tolerate this kind of violence… we will not tolerate this kind of message that goes out continuously from pulpits, from schools.”
Keith Boykin, a board member of the National Black Justice Coalition, an LGBT group, also challenged the broader African-American community, telling Gay City News in an interview after the press conference, “Frankly, I’d like to see the black leadership speak more on this issue. I’d like to see other people in the black community take this issue as seriously as we took the Howard Beach incident 20 years ago,” in which a group of whites attacked three black men, in a sad irony also chasing one of them to his death on the Belt Parkway.
Two elected officials were among the black leaders on hand Monday—Brooklyn City Councilwomen Yvette Clarke and Letitia James. Clarke won the September Democratic Primary for an open congressional seat and is a sure bet in the November election.
Daniel Dromm, a Queens gay activist and schoolteacher who was one of the few whites out front at an event meant to showcase the determination of black leaders, talked of the failure of leadership in the city’s public schools. Referring to the 1990 anti-gay murder of Julio Rivera in Jackson Heights, he said, “Sixteen years ago we were asking the Board of Ed to do something because these people are so young… But never in the course of their education do they ever hear, first of all, that it is wrong to attack a gay person nor do they ever hear the word gay mentioned in a positive way. And as long as we allow that to go on, it’s not going to change.”
Osubu and Boykin spoke to traditional civil rights themes of nonviolence and love.
“Hate took the life of Michael Sandy from us,” he said. “We will not respond to hate with hate. On this spot, let us all commit to stop the hate that abounds through our collective determination, through action, and, please, through love.”
“Where hate is the problem, love is the solution,” said Boykin. “In the words of Audre Lorde, when I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid and I say to all of you who are here today that we must not be afraid. We must learn to love.”