Last night in New York, Denver, Houston, Washington DC, Boston, and Minneapolis, protestors marched in solidarity not just with Freddie Gray and the people of Baltimore, but with all victims of police brutality, symbolizing what has become a nationwide struggle for racial justice and accountability.
In Manhattan, police reportedly arrested 120 people; in Denver, cops arrested 11 and deployed pepper spray; in Houston, police outnumbered demonstrators; and during a quiet, curfewed night in Baltimore, police arrested 18 more people, bringing the total number detained in that city to more than 250 since Monday's initial unrest.
Late Wednesday afternoon, thousands of people gathered in and around Union Square in Lower Manhattan for a rally intended to kick off what would have been a massive march. Organizers with Millions March NYC and female relatives on police brutality victims addressed the massive crowd through microphones, struggling to be heard over the sound of NYPD helicopters circling overhead, while police loudspeakers (technically a fancy device called an LRAD) advised demonstrators that marching in the streets or blocking sidewalks would result in an arrest for disorderly conduct.
Still, despite sound problems—and with a little help from an Occupy Wall Street–style People's Mic—the message of the rally's speakers was clear: This #BlackLivesMatter movement is not only about Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, or Michael Brown. It is, as Asha Rosa, a fierce organizer with Black Youth Project 100 and the most audible voice at the rally put it, "For Rekia Boyd, and Mya Hall," and other victims of police violence across the country. The movement, speakers said, must be nationwide, and it must be intersectional.
"We need to be saying that not only able-bodied, cis-gendered, straight-presenting, black men's lives matter, but that black women and girls lives matter, the lives of black queer folks matter, the lives of black trans and gender queer folk matter, undocumented and noncitizen black people matter," Rosa said. Her message echoed earlier presentations, which included cries like "Black women matter!" "Trans lives matter!" and "Queer lives matter!"
Organizers stressed that black women started the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and movement, and bemoaned the underreporting of what they called the devaluing of black women's bodies, alongside the importance of their place in the struggle for freedom.
Other common themes were black resistance and the importance of not placing a hierarchy on victims—labeling some as criminals and some as straight-A students—or on demonstrations as "peaceful" or "violent." Many protesters said that though rioting may not be deemed "right," it is the culmination of pain, suffering, and helplessness in the struggle to be heard, to be considered human.
Collette Flanagan, who founded Mothers Against Police Brutality after her son was killed by Dallas police in 2013, said at the rally she understands but does not necessarily condone destruction in Baltimore, adding that "When someone lays a hand on your son, you go HAM."
"What do we want?" the speakers asked, while the audience replied "Justice!"
"When do we want it"?
"If we don't get it?"
"Shut it down!"
On that note, and following a final warning from cops that demonstrators who marched in the street would be arrested, the protest took off west down 17th Street, but hardly made it a block before police turned it around. Almost immediately, the NYPD held the street and forced demonstrators onto overflowing sidewalk corners. Officers plucked, grounded, and cuffed demonstrators, hauling them one by one down 17th Street and into their vehicles. The crowd cried out in distress, watching as police forcefully shut down an event that had only just begun.
Marchers dispersed into separate actions all over the Manhattan, showing up at the West Side Highway, the Holland Tunnel, City Hall, and ultimately, Times Square, where the same forceful—and often seemingly unprovoked—arrests continued as participants refused orders to stay on the sidewalks.
When marchers were able to proceed without police intervention, the rowdiest, most disorderly thing they did was bang their hands on the side of buses, cheering as they hurdled through the street to the sound of horns honking in solidarity. Once the police descended, though, people blocked intersections, ran down the streets, and shouted angrily. In other words, as cops got more involved, protesters become more disruptive.
After finally making it from City Hall to Times Square, a nearly four-mile walk, a relatively small group of demonstrators erupted in joy at reconnecting with another group of activists. Upon arrival, I saw a familiar sight: a young woman of color, crying in handcuffs, being loaded into a squad car. In the hour before, a series of arrests took place, and once we arrived, the group swelling through the tickets booth pavilion took off toward Columbus Circle, where dizzied and dwindling demonstrators asked, "What's next? Where is everybody?"
Some organizers eventually settled in at Grand Central Station, where a small group formed a circle where they held a four-minute moment of silence, symbolic of the amount of time it took for medical attention reach Eric Garner on Staten Island in July. Then came a discussion about tactics, how to approach the dilemma of marginalization and economic injustice, and how to show solidarity for the lives lost in cities across the nation. Things got heated before settling down into a question of how the group could re-connect in the future, with organizers deciding on the hashtag #FreedomFightersNYC and, standing in a circle holding hands, quoting Assata Shakur: "It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains."
Finally, at the behest of 18-year-old regular organizer Prince Akeem, who started the quiet chant, each member of the circle said one word to commemorate their evening. "Unity." "Respect." "Solidarity." "Empowerment." "Liberation."
"Take that one word and carry it with you for the rest of our life. We have nothing to lose but our chains," said Akeem.
With that, a march that had been plagued by separation and confusion ended for this group with an inspirational moment of elusive unity, not just with each other, but with groups in the streets across the country.
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