Bathed in the brightness of a sunny winter afternoon, several hundred people gathered in front of Islamic Society of Bay Ridge yesterday to participate in a March Against Hate. The MLK Day march, which was organized by a local group called Bay Ridge for Social Justice, aimed to give local residents an opportunity to express their disdain for the impending inauguration.
But in a neighborhood as famous for the racist tenor of Saturday Night Fever as its growing Arab population, the march also sought to build unity and trust among residents at a time when fear is on the rise. For organizers, what’s happening in Bay Ridge might even be said to be a microcosm of what’s happening across the country – in which a white middle class that feels left out in the cold stands at odds with an increasingly diverse and progressive community.
By one o’clock, the crowd had arrived, packed tightly into the sidewalk in front of the Islamic Center. Participants came with children and homemade signs in tow, bearing messages like “We will not be silent” and “No hate in our neighborhood.”
Danielle Bullock, 44, is an artist and educator who helped organize the march, and a resident of Bay Ridge. Asked why she felt the march was important, Bullock told the Village Voice it was due to the neighborhood’s large Muslim and Arabic-speaking population. David Farley, 49, is a teacher who also helped organize the march. “We just wanted to let [Arab American] residents know that we stand with them and we have their backs.”
With three Muslim New Yorkers murdered over the summer in suspected or alleged hate crimes, the city’s Muslim community has felt increasingly under siege, a sentiment that has only grown since the election of Donald Trump. Bay Ridge, which was historically a Norwegian, Italian, and Irish neighborhood, and still has its fair share of conservatives, has not been immune from rising tensions. In December, an off-duty NYPD cop in a hijab, along with her son, were harassed and threatened as they parked their car in Bay Ridge.
“I came to join with all these wonderful people to march for unity and to march for protecting the civil liberties for everybody in this community,” said Reverend Khader N. El-Yateem, 48, who works as a pastor at the local Salam Arabic Lutheran Church. “Everybody has the right to live here with dignity and respect,” stressed El-Yateem, who said his congregants largely hail from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen.
A member Bay Ridge for Social Justice readied the crowd for marching with a series of rousing chants. “We will not deport our neighbors! We will not surveil our neighbors!” participants shouted in call-and-response. As the crowd began to walk south of 5th Avenue, they hollered “No hate! No fear! Immigrants are welcome here!”
A group of about five people hung toward the back of the march, standing slightly apart, with signs that read “Don’t hate the NYPD” and “I ?? Muslim Republicans.” Although it was clear there was some tension between the group and the rest of the crowd, the other marchers mostly left them alone. Liam McCabe, 38, who formerly worked as a staffer for local Congressman Dan Donovan, told the Voice that he and his supporters were not counter-protesters – they were just there to promote greater inclusion of all Bay Ridge voices.
“We felt that this march against hate has taken on a bit of a tone of intolerance, and that it was very political. It’s only specific to one kind of hate” – Islamophobia, he explained – “particularly [as promoted] by Republicans.” McCabe recently switched his party affiliation from Conservative to Republican, and is rumored to be planning a run for Bay Ridge’s 43rd District City Council seat.
“This is a very diverse neighborhood,” said McCabe, noting that people don’t spend enough time talking about “the hatred toward the NYPD, or the hate against the white working class.”
Bay Ridge’s elected officials are mostly Republican. The neighborhood shares its congressional seat with the far more conservative Staten Island and is represented by Congressman Dan Donovan; in his previous job as the Staten Island District Attorney, Donovan failed to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner. New York state senator Marty Golden, who infamously proposed a taxpayer-funded etiquette class for his female constituents, ran unopposed in the November 2016 election (although he has lost Bay Ridge in the past).
Then there is State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who received the most flak from local residents attending Monday’s march. She, along with Assemblyman Ronald Castorina Jr., is suing the city to prevent them from destroying records associated with the IDNYC program, which de Blasio has promised to do in an effort to protect the undocumented.
Justin Brannan, a Democrat who recently announced he’d be running to represent the city’s 43rd District, was an enthusiastic attendee of the march. “Bay Ridge has always been a very diverse community, we’ve always been a melting pot,” he told the Voice. Brannan said that Bay Ridge is much more left-leaning than people think (it went for Bernie during the Democratic primaries and has far more registered Democrats than Republicans). He explained that the neighborhood was primarily represented by three Republicans because of gerrymandering.
“People are fired up and they feel like coming out of the shadows,” he said of the march and the increase in local political activity. “I think people who are threatened by it are longing for a past that never existed in the first place.”
Teddy Vallas, 28, another Bay Ridger who has lived there “all his life,” stepped out of his family’s real estate business along the march route to show his support. “It’s appropriate, especially now that the new administration is coming in – they have to know how the people feel,” he told the Voice.
The march arrived at the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church on 80th St, and piled into the church gym. Inside, the Voice spoke to Aber Kawas, 24, the lead organizer at the Bay Ridge–based Arab American Association of New York (AAANY). Asked how the local Muslim community has been feeling since Trump’s election, Kawas said that “it’s been a really difficult time,” and that a sense of fear had settled over some residents.
“It’s the reality. This is what Bay Ridge is like,” said Kawas when asked about the non-counter-protesters. Kawas emphasized that the latent racism in Bay Ridge was one reason that the day’s March against Hate was so important. “For community members always feeling unsafe in Bay Ridge, to be in a space where they see their own neighbors,” including white residents, showing solidarity with them, “I think is really meaningful.”
A series of local residents gave speeches about remembering the radical and revolutionary nature of MLK’s work, and called on Bay Ridge residents to unite to fight the Trump agenda. Alan Aja, who leads the Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Program at Brooklyn College, condemned Malliotakis, who is the daughter of Greek and Cuban immigrants.
“Immigration is a human right,” said Aja. “Oftentimes its those who are filing these lawsuits who forget their roots.”
In between speakers, Bay Ridge kids read rousing quotes from famous public figures, including Native American incarcerated activist Leonard Peltier, trans activist and communist Leslie Feinberg and feminist fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin.
Executive director of AAANY Linda Sarsour, who has been busy organizing the upcoming Women’s March on Washington, was met with thunderous applause as she addressed the crowd.
“If we are going to stand up to xenophobia, to racism, to islamaphobia, to homophobia, if we are going to say hands off our health care, hands off our reproductive rights, hands off our undocumented sisters and brothers, then we need to say that right here in Bay Ridge.”
Sarsour, who campaigned for Bernie, said that the Democratic primary results showed just how progressive Bay Ridge is – even if those progressive are “still in the closet” – and she called on residents to come together to protect one another by speaking out.
“I hope that we all commit today, that we commit that we will not be part of the silent majority. You can count on me, as a daughter of Brooklyn, as a daughter of Bay Ridge, that I will always stand strong,” said Sarsour in her closing remarks.
“I don’t care about the critics, I care about standing up and doing what is right. Together, that is who Bay Ridge is going to be.”