On Tuesday evening, around 50 people clad in black gathered outside Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, among the city’s hardest-hit during the coronavirus outbreak this year. In solemn procession, they marched through Jackson Heights to 95th Street, nearing the neighborhood of Corona, the former epicenter of the pandemic in New York City. Ten women took turns reading the names of those who lost their lives to the virus in the US; occasionally, their voice would break, giving way to tears.
But amid the pain and loss, the demonstrators hoped to convey a message: “Vote.” Printed in white block letters on the black masks worn by each of the mourners, the imperative was like a small but meaningful symbol of redemption to the hundreds of thousands of victims whose deaths may have been prevented under a different administration.
“The Mourners Walk was meant to serve two purposes. The first is to allow people to grieve,” said Paola Mendoza, who conceived the event.
“Despite the enormous number of casualties, there has been no official national mourning. No minute of silence, no plans for a memorial to be erected in honor of the dead. There has been no collective grieving. Each family has been left to navigate their own tragedy.”
“The second purpose was to be together in community to spark a political reckoning that will be felt come November,” she added.
Mendoza, a filmmaker, author, and activist based in New York, organized the walk with the help of artists Sarah Sophie Flicker, Becky Morrison, Niama Sandy, and Tanya Selvaratnam. The evening began with a performance by violinist Kobi Malkin, who played Joseph Achron’s “Hebrew Melody” as mourners left white roses on the hospital steps.
The group then began their slow march north, in silence punctuated by the seemingly endless stretch of names, each followed by their age and city. A thousand victims were commemorated in total, still only a minute fraction of the 212,000 lives lost to this date due to COVID-19.
Clutching candles or photos of loved ones, some wearing black mourning veils over their masked faces, the walk’s participants stood out against the neon signs and street vendors; the rows of bakeries and barbershops of the lively, diverse Queens community that had been devastated by the virus months earlier.
“Jackson Heights is an immigrant community, with many of its residents working as essential workers, which was why this neighborhood was hit so hard by the virus,” Mendoza said.
“We wanted to bring a moment of mourning and acknowledgment to this beautiful community,” she continued. “We want them to know that we as a city and as a community will do what this inept administration has not done, acknowledge their pain, their loss and mourn with them.”
The event was attended not just by artists and activists convened by the organizers, but also by residents of the neighborhood, like Ali Abidi.
“My wife heard about the walk, and we thought it was pretty beautiful. I don’t think the country and the city has had a time to process grief or death of this magnitude,” Abidi told Hyperallergic. “I felt the need to participate. I’m 10 blocks from here, I live in Corona. The first month, we were the epicenter.”
President Trump, who announced that he was ill with COVID-19 last week, has continued to downplay the dangers of the pandemic. Earlier that day, he compared the coronavirus to the flu in a post since marked by Twitter as misinformation.
“This administration can try and gaslight us, they can lie to us. They can put us in danger. But they cannot take away our ability and need to mourn,” Mendoza said.
“It is because our mourning is politically dangerous to those in power that they are trying to take it away from us. They are trying to silence our grieving. It is up to each one of us to make sure our pain is not silenced.”