Starting at noon, nearly 1,000 grocery stores across the city collectively shut down for eight hours. Many hung signs on their gated storefronts to explain why they closed for the day.
By 12:30 p.m., roughly 300 people had already arrived at Borough Hall, according to Dr. Debbie Almontaser, one of the organizers of the demonstration.
Borough President Eric Adams originally scheduled the rally for 4:30 p.m., but throughout the afternoon the crowd grew in size and volume.
By the time Almontaser had arrived, more than 1,000 people were chanting and holding signs. She estimated that nearly 5,000 people in total came to the demonstration on a blistery winter night.
“It was very crowded in this plaza,” said Almontaser, president of the Muslim Community Network. “When I was standing on this stairway and I looked all the way down there, I could not believe my eyes.”
Waving both the Yemeni and American flags, the energetic crowd chanted and cheered for hours. Hundreds of protesters occupied the steps leading up to Borough Hall, while scores of supporters stood in a small patch of greenery, holding up flags and signs.
As the sun began to set, the protesters moved away from the steps to prepare for a communal prayer on the plaza. At 5:15 p.m., thousands of people knelt down as the deafening noise turned to near silence.
When the prayer was over, Adams, draped in an American flag, kicked off the three-hour rally.
“We are here to protest, to pray and to show that we are patriotic,” he said. “With your display today of closing your businesses, you are sending a clear and loud message to America that you and your families have the right to be part of the American dream.”
Local and citywide elected officials also spoke, urging unity across faiths and communities. They pledged their support to the Yemeni and larger immigrant communities throughout the city.
“This is what democracy looks like,” said Councilman I. Daneek Miller of Queens, the only Muslim in the City Council. “This is what the struggle looks like. Continue to resist, we will not let up.”
Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said the Yemeni-American community members are “the best that this country has to offer.”
“It is people like you, and business owners like you, that make this city work,” the Palestinian activist said. “New York City would not be New York City without you, without your contributions.”
Almontaser said she was most proud of the bodega owners and workers who closed their doors together “to make a statement that we will not allow Donald Trump and his administration to divide us Americans.”
“We will stand for our religious rights and freedom,” she said.
Borough Park resident Nabil Esayi stayed at the protest with his four brothers until it ended around 7:30 p.m. He said when he heard about the bodega strike the night before, he decided to take part and spread the word.
“What’s the purpose for me to work very hard the rest of my life, and then one day my kids or grandkids will be out because of their religion or their color or where they’re from?” he said.
Esayi has lived in Brooklyn for more than two decades, and his father first settled in New York City in the 1970s. Now Esayi is raising his family in the borough, including his eight-year-old son.
Two days after Trump announced his travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen, Esayi’s son asked him what that would mean for his grandparents.
“It was very difficult for me to answer, it really hurts,” he said. “I think it is against our constitution and against humanity.”
The massive crowd was also filled with many young people, such as 18-year-old Mohammed Ali from Flatbush. The Vaughn College student said many of the policies Trump is enforcing mirrors themes he’s studying in history classes right now, such as separating people by race or religion.
“His vision of America becoming great again is just to separate the Muslims out of America,” he said.
Though Ali was born in the country, many of his family members were not. He said some of his relatives were immediately impacted by the travel ban. According to Ali, he had family members who “had to go back.”
“It was like a punch in the face, it was so sad,” he said. “Some of them were crying in the airport. I myself was terrified the moment he signed the order.”
Ali carried a large American flag with him at the protest. He said he brought it with him to show Trump that he’s both an American and a Muslim.
“I love my country the same way he does,” Ali said. “Maybe I love it more than he does.”
As the daylong demonstration winded down, Dr. Almontaser reflected on the process of organizing the storeowners. She realized they didn’t have a merchant association or chamber of commerce to bring them together.
Almontaser said she plans to work with other activists to form an association to help organize and mobilize the workers to be politically active and demand their rights.
“I’m proud of them and proud of the incredible turnout,” she said. “We will work with our fellow brothers and sisters of every race, color, creed and sexual orientation to work together and defend the American values this country was founded on.”