The intersection on 96th and Broadway isn’t just any ordinary intersection. If you pass by on a Friday afternoon at five o’clock, you’ll find a gathering of community members reading through a list of names. The list, which continues to grow longer each week, contains the names of victims of police brutality, and the attendees are there to remember and mourn the many Black people killed by law enforcement in the United States. They then stand in silence for nine minutes and 29 seconds, the amount of time George Floyd was knelt on by former police officer Derek Chauvin, and read out an African proverb: “You speak my name and I will live forever.”
The group has held the “Say Their Names Vigil” every single Friday at 5 p.m. (except in cases of rain or heavy snow) at that same intersection since June 24, 2020. The weekly vigil was started by two Upper West Side residents, Ann Shirazi and Jenny Heinz, in response to Floyd’s murder in May 2020.
“We realized how many George Floyds there were,” Shirazi said. “We would never have known about George Floyd if not for this teenager who videoed it on her phone ... murders by the police happen all the time everywhere in the United States ... how could we remain silent?”
Shirazi and Heinz felt they weren’t the only people in the community who wanted to take action but felt stuck in their homes due to the pandemic. A local weekly vigil, they felt, was a way that they too could be a part of the larger movement to end police violence.
“My husband and I were doing the pots and pans at the window at seven o’clock every night like everyone was doing,” Shirazi said. “And then we began to read some names of people who has been murdered by law enforcement at our window.”
“People in our neighborhood were very frustrated because they were watching on television young people out on the streets after George Floyd’s murder, and they felt like they couldn’t go on big marches because we were in the pandemic,” Shirazi added.
In June of 2020, Shirazi and Heinz chose the 96th street intersection and began sending emails to their friends and community members to urge them to come out to the vigil. They were pleasantly surprised when nearly 200 people came to read out the names at their first vigil in 2020.
“We didn’t even have a microphone,” Heinz said. “So we were just repeating the names as loud as we could.”
Two years later, they now have a core group of around 30 people who show up “through thick and thin” to read names and stand in silence each week.
“We’re always amazed because we’ll start off with maybe four or five of us, and I’ll think ‘it’s going to be small today,’ but then before we know it there are 30 people there,” Heinz said.
Shirazi recounted one powerful moment when the mother of Amadou Diallo, the second name after George Floyd on their list of those murdered by law enforcement, stumbled upon the vigil.
“We were reading the names and all of a sudden Amadou Diallo’s mother came upon us by chance and she spent about half an hour talking to us,” Shirazi said. “When she read ‘you speak my name and I will live forever’ she said that us doing this made her son live forever. It meant everything, and we knew that we were doing the right thing.”
Heinz added that many of the people who attend week after week are older members of the Upper West Side community.
“It’s been really wonderful because this is not the neighborhood that the Upper West Side used to be, it’s changed enormously,” Heinz said. “This is a community of a lot of us older people who really value neighborhood involvement and community.”
As the group reads out the names, volunteers hand out the lists to passerby, and many of those people stop to read with the group. In addition to foot traffic, there is also plenty of car traffic by the intersection, which Shirazi said actually allows their message to reach more people, as drivers who pass see their two banners which read “White Supremacy is Terror” and “Stop Killing Black People.”
“We do somewhat like the fact that there is car traffic also, because cars go by and they raise a fist, or they honk and it feels like we’re all in this together.”
The “tragically expanding” list of names is now five pages long and continues to grow. Each week, Shirazi sits at her computer, looks through the names of people who have been killed by law enforcement, and adds names to the list.
“They aren’t all from 2020 or 2021,” Shirazi noted. “Sometimes there will be someone from 1979 or 1992 because it doesn’t matter ... the fact is that this has been going on for so long.”
Shirazi then chooses around four names, conducts extensive research on the lives of the individuals and puts together a short bio for each individual to send out to the community via email.
“It’s not enough just to read names,” she said. “People need to understand who these people were, or at least a fraction of them.”
“This is a community of a lot of us older people who really value neighborhood involvement and community.” Jenny Heinz