BY DOMENICK RAFTER
Editor in Chief
At times, too overcome with emotion to talk, Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) stood at the podium, wiped his eyes and thanked everyone for coming. On a chilly, breezy June evening, under royal blue skies, only a week after a happy colorful celebration occupied the same space, more than a 100 gathered in a somber, sorrowful tone mixed with anger and a dose of fear.
A little more than 12 hours after the worst mass shooting in American history, the crowd gathered in Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights to mourn, reflect and call for unity and peace. Surrounding tables with candles and rose pedals, attendees listened to the parade of speakers, some shedding tears, nodding their heads and embracing each other. The shock was obvious, the anger palpable, the sadness overwhelming.
Tears And Heartbreak
At around 2 a.m. Sunday morning, Omar Mateen, 29, a Queens-born resident of Florida, stormed into Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL. and opened fire with his AR-15 rifle. By the time police stormed the club and killed Mateen three hours later, he had already killed 49 people – the highest death toll of any mass shooting in American history.
The attack appeared to be influenced by the shooter’s apparent hatred for LGBT people and perhaps by fundamentalist Islam. Reporters indicate Mateen declared allegiance to ISIS before the shooting, though he also was apparently a regular at the club and had profiles on several LGBT dating apps.
In the aftermath, concerns have arisen over possible backlash against Muslims in the United States – perhaps coming from LGBT people. Dromm sought to use Sunday’s vigil as a chance to unite the two communities.
Fighting through tears, the openly-gay councilman who was thrust into the public eye a quarter century ago after the murder of Julio Rivera, who was killed because of his sexuality, just blocks from where the vigil took place, pleaded for peace.
“We cannot allow these attacks to tear us apart,” Dromm said, holding up a sign that said “I Am Muslim.”
A Call For Unity
Ali Najmi, president of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, reminisced on the history of that sign. Several years ago, as some Republicans were calling for an investigation into Muslims in the United States, Dromm stood with the Muslim community against profiling.
“Dromm and the LGBT community stood with us against Islamaphobia,” Najmi said. “We must stand with them now.”
The vigil was organized by Dromm and several religious organizations including SUKHI New York, a nonprofit that manages events at Diversity Plaza and is run by Pakistani-American Agha Saleh.
“Nobody can divide us on the basis of extremism, color, faith, creed or race,” he said. “We are one nation under God.”
Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) called for unity, but also for LGBT and Muslim people to publicly express pride in who they are.
““If you are LGBT, walk through the streets, be proud. Hold hands, even kiss your partner,” he said. “And if you are Muslim, walk through the streets, hold hands, be proud, be strong. We are all in this together.”
The vigil brought in some of the city’s top officials, including Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Public Advocate Letitia James and City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
“This is about extremism, not religion,” Mark-Viverito said.
James perhaps made the greatest call for unity, describing the 50 lives lost as “50 reasons to stand together.”
But it was Stringer who raised the volume. Angry, and at times animated, Stringer called for gun control.
“We think about the text from the son to his mother; ‘I’m going to die,’ … because of a hateful individual who walked into a store and, just like buying a new phone, this maniac walked in and bought an assault weapon and then went to a nightclub and caused mayhem,” he said loudly into the microphone.
A Community Reacts
In Jackson Heights, Queens residents shared in the sense of shock, anger and sadness.
“My heart goes out to all of those people who lost their lives,” said Jorge Mendez, a Jackson Heights native. “I can’t imagine heading to a club to have a good time and within minutes, finding that my whole existence is in danger because of who I love.”
Justin Grey, an openly gay man, admitted to having nightmares about the Orlando shooting.
“When I was gay and closeted a year ago, I knew the type of hatred that man had when he went in there shooting, but nothing in my right mind would ever go and mass murder all of those people,” Grey said. “While no one knows for sure what provoked this man, the rumors suggest that he may have had his own kind of self-hate for being gay. That may or may not be true, but it doesn’t give you a right to decide whether these people live or die because of who they love. Gay people don’t go around shooting or killing straight people because they love the opposite sex. It’s extremely upsetting.”
Jose Mora, also a Queens resident, noted that his mind was on the families of the victims.
“All I can think about is the families of those who lost their lives,” he said. “They all went out to have a good time, mingle and meet new people and in a split second they were met with gunfire. The craziest turn of events and their families never got to say their good-byes. It breaks my heart to know that.”
Julian Mora identified more local issues and gun control in the wake of the attacks.
“Is no one questioning how this man got into the club with a gun in the first place? I live in Astoria, where Club Purlieu was just shut down after gunfire erupted and I can’t figure out how these nightclubs don’t guarantee for people’s safety,” said Mora. “It takes people getting shot before real actions are taken. Nightclubs need to be sure that weapons aren’t allowed, weapons, drugs, all of that. Why are we still having these conversations? A nightclub in the city was also shot up by a rapper by the name of Troy Ave. There’s a pattern, I think we need to do something about this issue and fast because aside from it probably being a hate-crime or a terrorist attack, there are ways to prevent these things from happening without affecting the second amendment.”
Victor Franco, an openly-gay man and Jackson Heights native, said he disagreed with the attack being called terrorism.
“Officials originally called it a terrorist attack, but I can’t see how that’s possible,” he said. “This was a clear hate-crime and I hope that something gets done about this soon, so that no one else loses their lives.”
A Sense of Hope
While melancholy, there were some at Sunday’s vigil who thought some good could come out of the tragedy. Few attendees at the rally who spoke to the Queens Tribune worried that the attacks would further divide the country or lead to a terrible backlash against Muslims.
“I think we’re going to see our groups unify more,” said Sam Charley, a Jackson Heights resident who attended the vigil. “There’s the rest of the country and then there’s this community. I see LGBT people and Muslims interacting here all the time. There’s more that unites them than divides them and they know that.”
Indeed while many of the speakers were delivering their words of comfort and mourning Sunday evening, a gay couple stood in Diversity Plaza, unabashedly embracing. Eventually, the two entered a casual conversation with two women in hijabs.
“Are you married?” one woman, in a heavy accent, asked.
“Well why not?” the woman asked again with a smile.
The four laughed and continued their conversation. In that moment the horror and bloodshed of Orlando seemed a million miles and a million years away.
– Yvette Brown contributed to this story.