Huge US anti-racist protests herald new movement

December 18, 2014
More than 50,000 people poured into the streets of Manhattan for the December 13 day of protests. Photo by Jan Hennies/OutImager

MANY TENS of thousands of people took to the streets December 13 in New York City, Washington D.C., and others cities in a powerful demonstration that the movement against police violence and lawlessness is only growing larger and stronger.

As protesters in New York City got ready to march, Ann, an African American woman from the Bronx, summed up the message of the day. "It's a definite war," Ann said. "A lot of people aren't calling it that, but it's a war. I'm seeking justice for my family and other people who need it."

The outpourings of protest, large and small, were proof that the movement against police terror and racism was still spreading in the aftermath of the twin injustices in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City--where the white police officers who murdered Mike Brown and Eric Garner in broad daylight are free today after grand juries decided not to indict them.

For those who came out to demonstrate last weekend, and for many more besides, they will never see the world the same again after the crying injustice of these two cases--not only in small Southern city, but the country's largest metropolis.

But the tensions and questions about the direction and leadership of the emerging movement also came to the surface on Saturday--most of all at a national mobilization in Washington, where rally organizers Al Sharpton and the National Action Network stopped the young activists from Missouri whose determination has made Ferguson a household name from sending their more militant message to the crowd.

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THE LARGEST demonstration of the day took place in New York City, where estimates 50,000 or more responded to the call to protest. During the four-mile march, the demonstrators itself stretched over a mile long in Manhattan's wide avenues.

The march began at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village led by relatives of victims of police murders, including Frank Graham and Constance Malcolm, parents of Ramarley Graham; Nicole Paultre, fiancé of Sean Bell; and Iris Baez, mother of Anthony Baez.

Also at the front was Taylonn Murphy, whose daughter's murder sparked the massive police raid last summer on the Grant and Morningside housing projects. Despite his daughter's death, Murphy rejects the idea that more policing is necessary to address crime.

The demonstration headed toward Herald Square, where things got decidedly odd as the protest mixed with thousands of drunken revelers in Santa costumes taking part in the annual Santacon pub crawl. A few Santas joined the protest, a few got into hostile arguments, and most were simply bewildered.

The march then turned south on Broadway, headed for One Police Plaza and the headquarters of the NYPD, where family members at the front of the march stood up on planters and told their stories of police violence against their loved ones via the peoples mic.

That was the end of the pre-planned march route, but thousands of protesters then continued to march well into the night, continuing what has quickly become a tradition of taking over streets all over New York City. A few hundred marched up to Harlem via the Upper East Side, while a larger crowd of thousands forced their way past hundreds of cops to take over the Brooklyn Bridge and march deep into Brooklyn.

At midnight, the protest culminated more than 10 miles away from the bridge at the Louis Pink housing projects in East New York, where the unarmed Akai Gurley was gunned in a stairwell by officer Peter Liang on November 20.

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IN WASHINGTON, D.C., more than 10,000 people rallied and marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol in a demonstration called by the National Action Network (NAN), headed by Al Sharpton. Joining Sharpton on the stage were a number of family members of police violence, including the parents of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Amadou Diallo and John Crawford, as well as Trayvon Martin's mother Sabrina Fulton.

"What a sea of people," said Mike Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, to supporting cheers. "If they don't see this and make a change," she continued, "then I don't know what we got to do. Thank you for having my back." Sharpton declared: "We don't come to Washington as shooters and chokers. We come as the shot and the choked, asking you to help deal with the American citizens who can't breathe in their own communities.

But bitter frustrations with the organization of the march emerged when activists from Ferguson tried to speak to the crowd--but were told that they didn't have the required VIP pass.

After traveling all the way from Missouri to be in Washington--not to mention pioneering the movement that brought out so many thousands in D.C. with their weeks of resistance after Mike Brown's murder--these organizers refused to be denied. Taking the microphone from the emcee, Johnetta Elzie and Erika Totten exposed the attempts by rally organizers to exclude them from the speakers list and then led the crowd in the passionate chant that emerged from the streets of Ferguson: "Hands up! Don't Shoot!"

The confrontation on the stage, seen in this video, may one day be remembered as a turning point, for having captured the growing frustrations of a new generation of activists with the attempts by mainstream civil rights leaders like Sharpton to contain and shape what is said and done.

As in other previous cases, this conflict was portrayed in the media as friction between two generations--but it is more about whether the movement for racial justice should take its lead from the working class grassroots or continue to seek alliances and cozy relationships with wealthy backers and Democratic Party officials, with all the compromises and concessions that come with them, as Sharpton's recent career makes clear.

On stage, NAN officials tried to claim that Elzie, Totten, and the other young Ferguson protesters were being disrespectful by trying to take the focus away from the family members of police violence. But in New York City, family members and young protesters were easily able to work together and jointly lead the march through Manhattan.

The confrontation was symbolic of the differences between the two national demonstrations on December 13. In contrast to the D.C. protest, which was called by Sharpton and the NAN with little input from other activists, the New York City action grew out of an appeal on Facebook put out by two women unaffiliated with any groups. As the call picked up momentum, they were joined by other activists and organized planning meetings in the lead up to the march, culminating in a marshals' training the night before that drew over 200 people.

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BECAUSE THEY were called two weeks in advance, Saturday's protests were able to draw a wider crowd of people than the earlier demonstrations, most of which were organized on one or two days' notice.

Tameka and Ray, an African American couple from New Jersey who brought their children to the New York City protest, said they wanted to teach their kids "to stand up, and that their voice will be heard--and that their lives matter," Ray said. Tameka added: "I heard about the [earlier protests] after they were over. This one was a little more advertised on social media, so that's how we heard about it."

There were many families on the march, but the overwhelming demographic was the same as previous marches--young and multiracial, including many high school students.

People came from around the region to march in New York. Celeste Stuart of Greenfield, Mass., explained that she traveled to New York because "because this is an issue that is very close to my heart. My partner is a BBlack man who has experienced racism numerous times. And I realized that the treatment of African Americans is brutal."

Dante Robinson, a Black high school senior, said, "I came because they're killing us. I consider it an obligation to stop it from happening."

More so than on previous marches, many people organized themselves into small contingents, marching behind a banner. There were more formal contingents as well, representing student groups, Palestine solidarity activists--and medical students, who chanted, "White coats for Black lives!"

Unlike previous marches in New York, Saturday's demonstration followed a route arranged with the police department in advance, a decision that sparked controversy among some activists in the lead-up. But on the day itself, the mass march in the afternoon gave way to more spontaneous breakoff marches in the evening. Not only that, but march organizers didn't give any ground in their dealings with the police.

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NEW YORK and Washington were the biggest of the demonstrations on the December 13 day of demonstrations, but there were protests held in cities around the U.S. The Ferguson Response Tumblr page had listings for 69 events, large and small.

-- In Oakland, California, a crowd estimated at 3,500 came out for probably the largest of the many demonstrations in the San Francisco Bay Area since Mike Brown's and Eric Garner's killers went free.

Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant III, murdered on a BART station platform in the early morning hours of New Year's Day in 2009, spoke to the huge crowd outside the county courthouse. "We want officers to be held accountable for their actions...[to] feel that pain just as we have to feel it," Johnson said.

Oakland was the site of some of the largest demonstrations in the aftermath of the no-indictment announcement in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner case, but more recently, the action shifted to neighboring Berkeley. Those demonstrations defied expectations by growing in size last week, with demonstrators able to continue the model set in Oakland of taking over major Bay Area highways, in defiance of police crackdowns.

-- In Boston, the demonstration in solidarity with the national call for action on December 13 drew a multiracial crowd of over 2,500 people to Boston Common outside the Massachusetts State House.

Organizers held a speak-out and invited people of color who have been affected by police violence to tell their stories. Half a dozen people spoke about their experiences of racism in Boston and how they were inspired by the growing movement against racism.

One of the organizers of the demonstration, Brandi Artez, said:

This isn't just Ferguson--it's Villa Victoria, it's Roxbury, it's Dorchester, it's Mattapan. I've been accused of stealing my own car because they didn't think I should have an Acura. The whole world is watching. If they want to come to my community and profile me, I'm going to come downtown and show them.

From the State House, people began marching through downtown Boston toward the Nashua Street Jail to show solidarity with prisoners. As the marched went on, protesters were stopped by police barricades near the Interstate 90 onramp. At that point, demonstrators staged a die-in for four-and-a-half minutes, and then began another speak-out. W

Wayne Dozier, the grandfather of DJ Henry--a Pace University student killed by New York police in 2010, whose family is still seeking justice--spoke out at the die in: "This is what democracy looks like! I just want to stand here today and say thank you. Thank you for being an American. Thank you for taking your rights to the street. Thank you for making a difference."

One of the marchers, Kenny Joyner, added to this point in an interview: "Before, it was mainly black people fighting. But so many white people came out to this protest and showed their support. It's an American problem."

After the speak-out, protesters marched a different route to Nashua Street Jail. As the demonstrators gathered outside, prisoners visible through the windows of the jail held up their fists and hands, while chants rang out: "Brick by brick, wall by wall, free the prisoners, free them all!"

When a group of demonstrators attempted to march closer to the jail, police stopped them--and then attacked the group, beating and arresting 23 people.

Protesters marched back towards downtown Boston, where they shut down Downtown Crossing and Copley Square. As Gianni Ragland said, "It feels like more people are becoming awake of what's really going on and how the government is set up. We the people need to come together as one if we want change."

-- In Los Angeles, several hundred people converged on Hollywood and Highland for a demonstration under the banner #WeAreFergusonLA as part of the December 13 national day of action.

Protesters improvised a miles-long march routes throughout Hollywood, staging multiple die-ins, blocking traffic at several major intersections. One group of protesters, starting with about 50 people and growing to about 200 by the end of the afternoon, marched to the CNN headquarters at Sunset and Cahuenga to stage their first die-in. This group also periodically stopped their march to either quietly face down the LAPD officers who followed our every move or to chant "Who do you protect? Who do you serve?"

These marchers staged a second die-in on the sidewalk in front of the Chinese Theater. A week before, a smaller group of protesters was able to do a die-in on the concrete slabs bearing the famous handprints and footprints of movie industry luminaries. This time, though, LAPD officers formed a line to protect the celebrated sidewalk indentations from the symbolic actions of peaceful demonstrators.

The protesters' next move was several laps around the Hollywood and Highland intersection, tying up traffic for a half hour. Some motorists honked their displeasure with this inconvenience, while others showed solidarity. One Black mother, stranded in traffic with her young child in the passenger seat, cheered on protesters with one hand raised in the "Hands up don't shoot" gesture while capturing images of the protest with her mobile phone in her other hand.

This area was already a frequent gathering place for people organizing Ferguson-inspired protests against police violence. But it became especially important on December 5 when two LAPD bicycle officers shot dead a still-unidentified man here for "threatening" them with what, according to conflicting eyewitness accounts, may have been a pocket knife, a fake stage knife or no knife at all. The killing here was met with a protest of as many as 3,000 people at Hollywood and Highland on Saturday on December 7, for a protest dubbed "Blackout Hollywood."

-- In Chicago, hundreds of people gathered downtown in solidarity with the larger December 13 protests in New York City and Washington. The multiracial crowd held die-ins on State Street and along the Magnificent Mile, the city's main shopping area. Laying outside the Nordstrom store on Michigan Avenue, protesters chanted, "I can't breathe."

A massive police presence did everything it could to keep the protests out of the streets, and to disrupt and split up the march. At one point, police forced their way in between demonstrators, refusing to let either side cross the street to rejoin the others--even as shoppers crossed freely against the crosswalk signals. As protesters chanted, "The streets are public, let us cross!" and "Do we really need a shopping bag just to cross the street?" people on each side coordinated a plan, and eventually reunited the march.

When protesters tried to enter a shopping center for a die-in, police attacked protesters, injuring several and arresting 23.

Despite the police attacks, people continued to march and organize jail support, before holding a final speakout near the famous Water Tower building--where chants like "Chicago to Mexico, police brutality has to go!" and "If we don't get no justice, then they don't get no profits." Further demonstrations are planned for the coming week, including one demanding reparations for victims of police torture in Chicago.

-- In Columbus, Ohio, home to the Ohio State University (OSU) campus, the newly formed social justice group OSU for Justice organized a die-in on December 13 to raise awareness about the unjust killing of Mike Brown and broader issues of racially motivated police violence.

The event started on the Oval, at the center of campus with an open mic for anyone who wanted to speak on issues of racism and police violence. The speeches focused on personal anecdotes of racism, distrust of the police, and abuse by police.

A half-hour into the open mic, one organizer proposed that instead of doing the die-in outside, where few would see it, we ought to go inside Thompson Library. The crowd, now grown to 150 people agreed and entered the library, attracting a lot of attention from students studying for finals. After four minutes and 30 seconds, the crowd got up and proceeded outside once more.

The demonstrators then moved on to the 18th Avenue Library for a sit-in that took place despite the harassment of a campus security officer, and then a die-in at the Ohio Union. After a march that took over one of the city's main streets, there was one more die-in to come--in the shopping district on High Street to the south of campus. After more speeches, demonstrators returned to the Ohio .

The December 13 protests in Columbus followed other anti-racist mobilizations in the past few months, and demonstrators seem to be quickly accepting more confrontational tactics.

-- In Asheville, North Carolina, some 200 people marched against police violence on December 13. The demonstration began at the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church and marched to Pack Square, with protesters chanting "Black lives matter!" throughout.

At Pack Square, organizer Sheneika Smith began a speak-out. She talked about the Civil Rights movement as "an era where they marched for miles and miles and miles to make a mark on history"--and said that "we could very well be at the beginning of a new mass movement." Another speaker noted that "we are in good company," with the tens of thousands of people demonstrating across the country.

The demonstration ended after high school student Xavier Jannah, co-founder of the Asheville School Multicultural Club, told the crowd, "I was lied to. I was told that racism no longer exists in the U.S." Asheville School is predominately white--the club was formed last year to bring students together to address racism in the school, and this was its first time mobilizing for an event off-campus.

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SATURDAY'S PROTESTS marked a further step for the emerging movement for racial justice against the police.

By bringing in larger numbers than ever before, they demonstrated that growing numbers are challenging the legitimacy of police departments as agencies in charge of administering justice. They gave people a focal point to organize classmates, co-workers, and social circles and put them in touch with future organizing--at the New York City march, there were two separate trainings for future direct actions being circulated.

There will be many challenges moving forward there will be many challenges, starting with the questions of what type of organization can be formed to carry forward the struggle and how they can give shape to the spirit of the protests that have erupted since the two grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City.

There will doubtless be disagreements over the way forward--the conflict on stage in Washington, D.C., showed as much. But that's a necessary part of rebuilding the struggle against racism and injustice in the U.S.

"I think a lot of people don't know what the process is [for winning change]," Tameka explained as we talked at the demonstration in New York City. "We're far removed from the civil rights movement, so we don't know what the steps are...Whatever steps it takes--legislation, whatever--we want to know, and we want to be involved with it."

Then Tameka's son Joshua, who couldn't have been older than 10, interrupted us: "I have three words: 'Fight the power!'"

[Reprinted from Socialist Worker.]

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