This past Sunday in Bay Ridge, a combination march and vigil for those on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 contained both sober realities and infectious joy.
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Gravesend, Gerritsen Beach, Manhattan Beach, Marine Park) and City Councilman Justin Brannan (D-Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach), hosted the event dubbed the “United in Thanks March for Essential Workers,” which began at 80th Street and wound its way down to the 69th Street Pier.
Attendees were given hand sanitizer and masks, but also American flags and white carnations – not to mention signs bearing slogans like “THANK YOU EVERYDAY HEROES.”
Roughly 50 marchers included representatives from the FDNY, NYPD, the Census, Bay Ridge Cares, and the Bay Ridge/Dyker Heights-based Bravo Volunteer Ambulance, as well as supportive locals participated in the event. Volunteers from the Bensonhurst-based United Chinese Association of Brooklyn led the way, bearing a sign reading “UNITED IN TRUST;” representatives from Bensonhurst Emergency Services carried up the rear.
Among the more colorful characters at Saturday’s march was musician and activist Ace Burns, who roller-skated to the march with a guitar strapped to his back. Burns led the crowd in a round of the military cadence “Everywhere We Go,” with the lyrics altered to thank a host of essential workers – the FDNY, the MTA, night nurses – and even “honest” and “God-fearing” people.
“My family’s been here five generations,” Burns told the crowd, “so when I say ‘thank you,’ what I mean is, ‘we thank us.'”
Among the crowd roused by Burns’ example were a pair of surprise guests familiar to Brooklyn politics junkies – and no, that’s not a reference to Justin Brannan’s tattoo-sleeved arms, out on a rare full display. A straw-hatted City Councilman Brad Lander (D-Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Waterfront, Gowanus, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, Kensington) could be seen singing along with Burns in a pleasant baritone. Also present was Assemblywoman (and current Congressional candidate) Nicole Malliotakis (R-Bay Ridge, Staten Island) and several of her crew.
At 2 p.m., the march was to stop at the 69th Street Pier and transform into a vigil for those lost in the fight against COVID; the enthusiastic marchers got there 20 minutes early.
“I guess this means we’re all healthy and spry,” Gounardes joked. “We all worked out during the quarantine!”
There were few chuckles for the rest of the afternoon, as the march turned into a makeshift vigil for those lost in the fight against COVID. The crowd observed a moment of silence for those fallen heroes – the solemnity admittedly slightly undercut by the sight of a man skinning fish over a trash can – and then a spate of guest speakers began their remarks.
“We all know people who’ve gotten sick because of COVID,” Gounardes told the crowd. “We all know people who’ve died because of COVID… who can’t put food on the table because of COVID.”
Gounardes claimed that COVID revealed an ugly truth about our society – that the virus exposed the neglect communities of color and low-wage workers face during disasters like these. However, he noted, a “fortunate truth” also came to light during the pandemic – that good people walk among us.
“Our heroes were not the people who work on Wall Street, who live in sky-high skyscrapers,” said Gounardes. “They put on a uniform every day, regardless of color. They were the essential workers: the true heroes.”
One of those essential workers was Lt. Anthony Almojera, from Sunset Park’s Emergency Medical Services. Almojera told the crowd that while we’ve passed the peak of COVID infections, the mental toll of the virus on his coworkers will last forever.
“We’ve had four suicides to remind us of that,” Almojera said. “We’ve seen more cardiac arrests [among our ranks] in two months than in ten years.”
Still, despite the profound loss, Almojera noted there was reason for hope – that “the ability to see past color, socioeconomic status, and political affiliation is what has held us together in our darkest days.”
He ended his remarks with a quote from the late Maya Angelou, and a wish for a brighter tomorrow.
“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise,” Almojera said. “Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear, I rise.”