A small gathering of around 60 people attended a rally at the Grand Army Plaza on Manhattan’s East Side, organized in light of the attack on Empire star Jussie Smollett on Tuesday.
Labeled as a solidarity event, the rally's organizers aimed to show public support both for Smollett and for the larger community of LGBTQ survivors of violence, according to the Facebook event listing and Jason Walker, HIV/AIDS campaign coordinator for Vocal-NY and the rally’s lead organizer.
“I want this rally today to be a message that people of color, if you’re gay, trans, gender non-conforming, bisexual, lesbians — we’re going to live our lives and that we’re going to be proud,” Walker told the crowd. “We’re going to continue to resist. And we’re going to continue to love.”
The two-hour rally featured upwards of 15 speakers and was co-sponsored by more than 40 various city, state and national organizations focusing on LGBTQ and racially marginalized communities, including Queerocracy, New York City Black Pride and New York Transgender Advocacy Group.
Other major co-sponsoring organizations included GLAAD, The Audre Lorde Project, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Women’s March New York and The Trevor Project.
Walker began the event with the chant, "When queer communities are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back. When people of color are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back."
Braving the 22-degree temperature, representatives from various advocacy groups each took over the megaphone, delivering speeches demanding an end to violent attacks like those on Smollett.
Angelica Torres, a Latina trans woman and LGBTQ advocate who has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, called Smollett one of the kindest and most generous people she’s ever met.
Torres and others also linked the event to the broader experience of the black LGBTQ community and asked for those who attack people based on their race and sexuality to be held accountable.
"We are here today in solidarity with Jussie," said Beverly Tillery, executive director at the New York City Anti-Violence Project. "We are outraged by Jussie’s attack … but we need to be outraged by the everyday hate violence that we’re all experiencing and witness every day."
Beyond speaking out for Smollett and LGBTQ people of color, speakers primarily used their time to address what they described as a growing movement of violence against LGBTQ, black and other marginalized communities under the current presidential administration. Several speakers directly pointed to President Donald Trump and both the language and policies as the fuel for the attack on Smollett.
"These people who wear red hats who talk about making America great again are the negative reciprocal of endorsing our lives, of progressive ideals. The idea that we can all be together and thrive," said James Keith, co-founder of Slay TV, a queer media network.
About halfway through the rally, a small group broke out into a chant. Walker, who eventually asked the police to step in, said that he believed the small disturbance was instigated by a YouTube-like personality with a camera person. The two individuals, according to Walker and other rally attendees, were attempting to upset those in the crowd. The chant lasted only a few minutes before dying out.
Walker had only a few days to organize the rally, initially reaching out to an email list formed last year after RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Honey Davenport accused Lower East Side bar The Monster of racism.
"After I heard about Jussie’s attack, it just sat with me for a while,” Walker said of his response to the news of the attack on the actor. "I just couldn’t really concentrate on work. I reached out to that email thread to see if anyone was doing anything for Jussie.”
Walker then got on a call with those interested in holding a rally where several of the event’s early organizers brought up the attack on Candice Elease Pinky, a black trans woman who was shot five times at a Houston gas station on Jan. 24. Pinky and the deaths of other black trans women ultimately broadened the focus of the rally beyond Smollett.
"The Jussie Smollett attack was politically motivated, and that represents where we are sociopolitically," said Walker. "We wanted to acknowledge that what happened to Jussie was messed up, while at the same time recognizing that attacks like what happened to Pinky are something we need to make visible as well."
Before Friday, Smollett hadn't commented on the racist and homophobic attack he experienced in Chicago after two men beat him, poured an unknown substance all over him and put a noose around his neck.
In the actor's first statement since the incident, he echoed many of the sentiments shared at the rally, telling Essence that his experience is representative of a larger issue.
"As my family stated, these types of cowardly attacks are happening to my sisters, brothers and non-gender conforming siblings daily," Smollett said. "I am not and should not be looked upon as an isolated incident."