Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ride of Remembrance and Hope October

photo by Keegan

A few weeks ago, a few of us made our way to Prospect Park West to reflect on the year since Sammy Cohen Eckstein was killed by a van driver on Prospect Park West. 

My kids play and go to school there every day.  In many ways, his death ignited a movement, pushing the city to pass traffic laws reducing the speed limits that might have saved his life in New York.  Further, it mobilized groups such as Families for Safer Streets and Right of Way, serving as a call to action.  

For years now, friends and family have been lost to my life from HIV/AIDS.  There have been countless other losses.  But my greatest fear, the greatest fear of every parent is losing a child, much less anyone else.  Yet, it happens every day in New York.  Cyclists and pedestrians are lost once every 48 hours, almost every day here.  The emotional residue is part of an ongoing  story of victims of traffic fatalities in New York.

Saturday, we’d trace the steps of a few of those who’ve lost their lives to the lawless, under enforced, often poorly designed car centric streets of New York City.  Here, cyclists are harassed, ticketed, must endure constant jeers and threats as they ride among streets with bike lanes filled with cops.   Some hecklers resort to more violent means to vent their frustrations toward pedestrians and cyclists. 

For the last year, I have participated in memorial rides with Right of Way, joining a burgeoning movement for street safety New York.  

 Saturday would be an epic demonstration of support for this movement and those most impacted. The day before the ride, NY Magazine reported:

"On Saturday, volunteers with the direct-action group Right of Way will join forces with Families For Safe Streets, a group of relatives of crash victims that formed last year, to install stenciled street memorials for their lost loved ones in eight locations in three boroughs."  
  Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein, parents of Sammy,  would join us. 

The alarm on Saturday went off at 5:56 AM for the 19 mile ride from my house in the Gowanus in Brooklyn up to Mosholu Parkway at Paul Avenue in the Bronx, where I’d join the rest of the Right of Way. 

The sun was not up, as I made my way out along Smith Street, to Jay and over the Manhattan Bridge.   It would not start peeking out until around 6:45 as I rode past the United Nations.

Riding past 120th street, I ran into George and Keegan from Right of Way on our way uptown.  

We’d make our way over the Willis Avenue Bridge past the majestic buildings of the Grand Concourse over to Mosholo Parkway and Paul Avenue, near the Bronx Botanical Garden and Lehman College. 

Josbel Rivera


This is for everybody that has hope and ears.

Josbel feels you man.

It's time to make a change.

Josbel Rivera was killed off Mosholo Parkway and Paul Avenue, by a hit and run driver the day after Christmas in 2011.  His brothers were there to greet us and tell us his story.  Neither was happy with the conviction - leaving the scene of a crime, rather than homicide - of the man who’d killed Josbel.   After driving away from the scene, he attempted to burn hs car.  Not the behavor of an innocent man, noted Josbel's brother,  Jaasiel.  The police seemed more concerned with the arson than with the loss of Josbel's life.  Obliviously nothing is going to bring the brother back, but there have to be deterrents. 

It is hard to find justice for those lost in street fatalities.  But Jaasiel was heartened with the change of the speed limit to 25 miles per hour.  He suggested advocacy was the best way to follow such a tragedy.

We had a moment of silence after Keegan finished painting the street memorial:

It is hard describe the emotion that wells up inside looking at such colors, watching the words take shape in the streets, standing with family members who’ve gone through such a loss.  We all have to support each other. 

A woman walked by, noting how scary the street traffic  was around that site, shaking her head in sadness.  She told us was well aware of what happened to Josbel.

The day is only going to escalate, Keegan chimed in as we rode away.   I was barely able to handle the first memorial and it was only 8:30 am.

Leaving, several other riders from Right of Way joined us as we for rode from the Bronx to the Upper West Side for the next memorial. 
Barbara was just about on time. 

Ariel Russo


Ariel baby girl,

we carry your heart in our hearts

Russo’s parents, grandfather and several friends were on hand.  Everyone seemed to be sharing stories and consoling each other.

Ariel’s brother stood looking at the memorial.

Its hard to describe the feeling of watching a young woman grieve the loss of her child.  I could barely hold it together as I watched the family standing taking in the raw feelings.

We all cope in our own ways.  Amy Cohen talked with several of the family members, connecting her story, theirs, and efforts to create something better, even while opening up grief for the world. Hopefully, through these gestures a little awareness helps change things.

“Sometimes, the issue picks you,” Amy explained. “You never imagine trauma is going to happen to you.”

But it does. 

Ariel's grandfather stood talking with an old friend from the neighborhood, wondering why the police even let the car chase keep going. “Someone’s going to get hurt,” his friend explained. “They had to have known that.  Why not just get the license plate?  Someone’s gonna get hurt.”  For these men, this was a story about police putting everyone at risk to chase a young Latino man, who was scared of what would come if he was caught.  “They don’t even think about the collateral damages.”  It was all part of a changing gentrifying neighborhood, going through rampant development, as well as hyper policing, putting most everyone in danger.  Talking, we glanced over at the memorial for Ariel. Events such as this, the painting, the stories, the recollections, the color, paints, art on the street - these were part of what the neighborhood used to be about, they explained. People use to always paint the names of those lost, making memorials, until the police started saying this was illegal and the developers argued it reduced property values. But the city still does. People still remember.

Finishing, we rode over to 59th street and Park for the next memorial.

Rubin Baum


At 59th, we met Shepherd, the son of Ruby Baum, who was killed two years prior on this corner.

“This is the first time I’ve been back,” explained Shepherd, taking in the scene where his father pulled his wife away from an ongoing car, but was not able to get out the way himself.  That was hs final act, noted Shepherd, still grieving for his father. 

“He died so I would not be an orphan,”  Shepherd continued, then wheeping.

“People need to look out for each other.  They need to slow down,” he explained, gesturing to the cars honking and zipping and careening from along the street, often ominously.

“Whats the hurry?” asked Shepherd.  “I would give everything for another second with my father.  He was my hero and my best friend.”

“People have to look out for each other,” explained his mother Denise, the wife of Rubin.  

“Hey, can you step somewhere else?” she chimed at another pedestrian who’d stepped on the Right of Way memorial.  Anger is part of it. So is very real fear. 

"His grandad was  hit and killed by a car back in 1977," noted Denise. "Now, he thinks its gonna happen to him."

“Thank you Right of Way.  We love what you are doing,” noted Denise as we were leaving.

Matthew Brenner


A Force of Life Unparalleled...          

With us Forever...

What seems to connect all of the family members who joined Families for Safer Streets and Right of Way was the hope that through telling their story, they would help prevent someone else from going through what they had gone through.  Each supports each other as they find their own ways of translating their grief into action. Some provide mutual aid, others a shoulder. 

Arriving at Sands, on the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge, we met Frances, whose son Matthew was killed by an automobile turning backward to make its way onto the bridge entrance.  She did not seem to begrudge the driver as much as the city and the situation.

“I’ve been  standing here watching one near miss after another,” explained Frances, pointing at the dangerous intersection where her son perished. She pointed out that the sign was not clear where to go to get from the bike lane, across the street to the bike path.

“My son’s phone was stolen after the crash.  So we didn’t know where he was for days,” she continued.  “I called the police and they said they had a John Doe with lots of tattoos.  Does your son have tattoos? they asked, coarsely. When I responded yes they said then get down here.” 

More than anything, Frances explained that she felt let down by the brisk police department and coroner’s office.  “They didn’t do any forensic work.  Their descriptions of the body were anything but accurate.  People should not have to go through that or be belittled by the police, especially after somethiugn like this.  But it happens over and again noted  Steve Vaccaro, an attorney whose practice involves families impacted by traffic violence  “Over and over they say get over it.  Life goes on,” noted Vaccaro, wondering why it seems to be too much for the police to empathize. 

“The city wants people to be more ecological, to walk and ride bicycles," observed Frances.  "But they don’t take care of them. They don’t make it safe.”

Frances and Amy talked about their children and what keeps them going. “I have to believe he’s in a better place,” explained Frances.  Yet, not everyone is consoled with such thinking.  Frances is already becoming a safer streets advocate, willing to connect the loss of her son with a larger pattern of violence inflicted on cyclists.  

“We all have to look out for each other,” she concluded. The same point was expressed over and over throughout the day.



For those who passed

And those who will

The unknown we strive to save

“Its so important that we have a memorial for this unknown cyclist,” explained Steve Vaccaro.  His point, of course, was that we have to challenge silences which further the pattern of neglect endured by those coping with traffic violence.   Rather than find assistance from the city, families must contend with a view that violence cannot be deterred. For Vacarrao, this is a silent “epidemic.”  Yet the city keeps on suggesting violence is inevitable, just a part of life to get used to. They keep on stonewalling.

AIDS activists used to suggest we leave the coffins of the dead, of those who’ve suffered needless death,  that we leave their coffins out on the street, in front of city hall. Through street memorials, Right of Way reminds the  world about this silent epidemic.

Lucian Merryweather


Brother, Son, Grandson, Friend

At Dekalb and Clermont, few seemed ready to suggest that such losses could or should ever be a part of life in  Brooklyn. Riding over, Cindy Wiegerink, and I talked what happens when a family loses a child. She lost her  child two years ago.  In large ways and small, your life will never the same, she explained.  Not only a child, her best friend, you never get that back.  

My grandmother died at the age of 99.  Just months before her death, she recalled her first child, lost some eight decades prior.  A mother never quite forgets when she loses a child.  Few of us do. 

You could see that feeling of loss and shock on the faces of everyone standing at the corner of Dekalb and Clermont, where 9-year-old Lucian Merryweather was struck down by an SUV while standing on the sidewalk.  Kids were chalking for Lucian, while others stood with tears in their eyes in scene full of raw emotion.  Red faces, tears.  

The last time we were here, the memorial for Lucian was still up. But over time, the chalk faded.   

No one seemed to be able to say a word.

Keegan and Josh painted the memorial.

 Lucian’s parents stood with a photo of their son, their faces red.

He was everyone’s Brother, Son, Grandson and Friend, his mother explained. His loss could have been anyone’s.

More memorials were planned, but I could stay for no longer. 

Flickr: The NYC Ghost Bikes Pool × 765Search by image
Mathieu Lefevre 4 - 7th Annual Memorial Ride and Walk

Even with Mathieu Lefevre and Leighton Parnham's memorials coming, I had to go see something else, see my kids, and be grateful they are ok.  Humbled by the message from the Families for Safer Streets, I left.  We all have to look out for each other.  We all have to take care of each other.  We all have to support each other, to stay connected, and fight like hell for the living.
liz patek

The last memorial laid out what was important

Leighton Parnham

October 18th Memorials

ROAR photo by Right of Way


On Saturday, October 18th, members of Right of Way bicycled from the Bronx, into Manhattan, and through parts of Brooklyn to install 8 new street memorials for people killed by drivers.
The day was pegged to October 18th for two reasons: to mark the third anniversary of the death of Mathieu Lefevre, and to celebrate the life of Matthew Brenner on his first birthday since his death at the hands of a driver this July. The families of both victims flew to NYC from Canada and Texas, respectively, for the commemorations.

At 7 of the sites, they were joined by family members of the victims.

The eighth was for an “Unknown Pedestrian.”

“The families of the first seven requested that this unknown loss be memorialized alongside their very personal losses,” said Keegan Stephan, an organizer with Right of Way, “as a gesture to all victims of traffic violence: known, unidentified, and the unknown who will still suffer until Vision Zero is achieved.”

This “Ride of Remembrance and Hope” was a sequel to the inaugural ride in which Right of Way installed memorials for Families for Safe Streets on August 3rd, 2014. At each site, an image of wings, flowers and rays of light emerging from ashes was spray-painted onto the sidewalk or street where the victim was killed, along with the person’s name, the date she or he was fatally struck, and a commemorative phrase written by the family.

Here are details about each victim, and observations their family members made while we installed the memorials:

Josbel Rivera, age 23, was killed in the Bronx at Musholo Parkway and Paul St, the day after Christmas in 2011 by a hit-and-run driver who later burned his car rather than own up to his crime. At the memorial, his brother Shaniel said that increasing the fines for hit-and-runs was a great step, but they must lower the speed limit on all of Musholo Parkway, and enforce it.

Ariel Russo, age 4, was killed in Manhattan, on the sidewalk of West 97th Street off Amsterdam Avenue, where an unlicensed driver fleeing police in an SUV pinned Ariel and her grandmother against the metal grating of a restaurant. Ariel’s family said the police should not pursue people at high speeds through school zones – that they should know the risks on place more value on the lives they endanger.

Rubin Baum, age 80 and a decorated Korean war medic was killed at Park Avenue and 59th Street in Manhattan, shielding his wife from two vehicles that collided and hurtled toward them as they hailed a cab. Rubin’s son Shepherd Baum said that he had not been to the intersection since his father was killed, and had avoided all of Park Avenue until returning for the installation of the memorial.

Matthew Brenner, age 29, was killed in Brooklyn under the Manhattan Bridge, riding his bike against traffic on Sands Street after missing the entrance to the bike path of the bridge. His mother, Franci Brenner, came to New York from her home in Texas to mark what would have been Matthew’s 30th birthday, Oct. 18th. As the memorial was installed, over a dozen cyclist missed the entrance to the bridge and ended in the same predicament as Matthew. They missed the entrance to the bike path, found themselves on the onramp to the BQE, and were forced to turn back, against traffic. “There are no signs on the street telling cyclist where to enter the bike path, and no signs saying ‘Danger, wrong way’ if you miss it,” Franci said, shocked. “This has to change.”

Unknown Pedestrian, at Elm Place and Livingston Avenue in Dumbo, is the 5th site, where an Unidentified Pedestrian was struck and killed in broad daylight on July 3 of this year. “As with 25% of the crashes this year,” said Michael Mintz, an organizer with Right of Way, “the NYPD did not report this fatality to the press at the time of the crash, as protocol dictates, so it was never written about. As a result, the victim remains nameless, genderless, and family-less…possibly forever.”
Lucian Merryweather, age 9, was killed last November when an SUV driver struck him on the sidewalk of DeKalb and Claremont Avenues. His was one of several horrific fatalities of children that helped motivate the push for Vision Zero. His family was joined by a large gathering of people from the community, who have been rallying behind them for more slow zones and traffic calming ever since.

Leighton Parnham, 19-years-old, was killed on the corner of Metropolitan Ave. & Humboldt Street in East Williamsburg, by a hit-and-run driver in August, 2012. His mother, Cindy Wiegerink wanted her son to be included during the October 18th memorials even though she did not think she would be able to join from her home in Michigan. At the last minute, she was miraculously able to fly to NYC, and joined the entire ride, biking from location to location on a borrowed bike.

Mathieu Lefevre was the final victim memorialized October 18th, also in East Williamsburg. Exactly three years ago, on Oct. 18, 2011, a truck driver passed Mathieu as he rode home on his bicycle, then turned across his path, killing him. “The NYPD’s seemingly willful mishandling of video and other evidence, and its cruel stonewalling of the family’s desperate requests for basic information about the fatal crash, helped lead the safer streets community’s to focus on the police department as the single greatest impediment to traffic reform,” said Charles Komanoff, an organizer with Right of Way.

“There was a resounding theme throughout the day that these memorials are not for the dead, but for the living,” said Keegan Stephan. “To help those who grieve from losing a loved one, and to inspire the rest of us to consider the value of human life and make meaningful change: to the way our systems treat victims, to the way our society protects its most vulnerable members, to the way we drive, and to the way we treat each other.”


  1. Really nice, Ben. The grief never goes away, but these courageous family members are making things change with the power to turn their grief into powerful advocacy. We are forever in their debt.
    Thanks to Right of Way for making this happen, and making sure these stories are told again and again.

  2. thanks Hilda! really thank you for all you do! peace