For eight minutes and 46 seconds last Tuesday, McCarren Park was meditative. Amidst the evening sunlight, crickets chirped and a cool breeze lapped at lingering sweat. Dozens sat quietly in a grassy field as an ice cream truck jingled in the distance. In a political atmosphere marked by shouting across each other on social media, pundits waxing banal and thousands chanting on city streets, the intentional silence was a respite from a pandemic and protest-infused turmoil.
For attendees of the McCarren Gathering, staying silent for eight minutes and 46 seconds—the initially reported duration a Minneapolis police officer had pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck—is an evening ritual. The gathering has taken place every day in the park for more than two months, putting a local spin on Black Lives Matter protests that have roiled the nation. However, what began as silent vigil has become a roughly hour-long period of conversation, with daily programming, events and speakers. And there are no signs that the gatherings will end any time soon.
“I have never seen anything like a community like this,” said Trevor Bayack, a resident of South Williamsburg who attends the gathering approximately five times a week.
The seeds of the gathering were planted more than 80 days ago, according to the protest’s current organizers, a group of mainly North Brooklyn residents who number less than a dozen. (They would like to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation and to focus the gatherings on the group, not on individuals.)
On May 29, five community members met in the leafy park to hold a silent vigil in recognition of George Floyd, shortly after a police officer killed the 46-year-old Black resident of Minneapolis.
Following the initial gathering, organizers with North Brooklyn Mutual Aid, a group of volunteers that emerged to help with the effects of the pandemic as it shut down the city, spread word about the protest. Three days later, approximately 1,000 protestors gathered for what was then informally known as the McCarren Vigil.
“I came on June 1, and I was amazed,” said one of the long-time and current organizers, commenting on the size of the crowd.
Locals and residents from across the city continued to assemble in the park, and it soon became a launch pad for more assertive activism.
During the almost one-week-long curfew imposed in the wake of widespread protests and intermittent looting in the city, protestors marched out of the green space to eventually confront a charging battalion of police officers.
And a large crowd assembled in the park and then paraded towards South Williamsburg, where City Council Speaker Corey Johnson was rumored to be riding out the pandemic in his boyfriend’s apartment.
Dubbed the McCarren Gathering, the nightly protest has morphed from silent introspection to outspoken discussion. It holds regular Saturday screenings of movies in the park that relate to systemic racism and inequality, like “I Am Not Your Negro.” Organizers program yoga sessions and open mics. They’ve even hosted an Afro-Brazilian drum group.
“Everyone stops and you can truly listen,” said Megan Watson, who treks up from Sunset Park every few weeks to attend the gathering. “It’s a safe and calm space compared to everything else.”
For some of its more dedicated visitors, the gathering gives them a sense of community during a time marked by social isolation and distance.
“This is an amazing way to meet people,” said Marc Rosenberg, who lives in Williamsburg, one evening. “Tonight, I can probably name 10 or 15 people that I did not know until I started showing up here.”
According to the organizers, ‘community’ is what the gathering boils down to. They want to encourage conversations on systemic racism and oppression but also provide opportunities for community members to meet their neighbors. (They sometimes ask attendees to “talk to their neighbor”—i.e. the person sitting next to them—and reflect on, for example, the times that they’ve witnessed racism firsthand.)
In a time with so much economic and political instability, the daily moments of silence, the Saturday night film screenings, the evening conversations with neighbors, all create a stable raft onto which New Yorkers can latch. Like attending a religious service, there’s comfort in seeing the same people night in and night out.
And the organizers and attendees of the McCarren Gathering know this. With plans to continue the gatherings through the foreseeable future, they conclude every evening the same way:
“As we always say, see you tomorrow.”