The final days of America in 2014 will bear witness to nationwide protests over the dual decisions to not indict white police officers in the separate deaths of unarmed black men. It's the tangible seal on a quasi-apocalyptic year in which villains like the Islamic State, Ebola, and Bill Cosby dominated the news cycle—reading headlines about torture reports, Congressional gridlock, and the hazards of climate change, it can seem like whatever social progress has been made in the past five decades has all been for nothing. But 2014 is also a moment in our national consciousness where everyone seems to agree that something bad has happened. And in New York City yesterday, the movement that has arisen from that collective anger was out in full force.
In the early afternoon, approximately 25,000 protesters of all shapes, races, and sizes converged on Manhattan's Washington Square Park for the "Millions March," with a planned route through Midtown and back down to 1 Police Plaza, the headquarters of the NYPD. The crush of people was so dense it took nearly an hour and a half for the park to fully empty.
"We want people to shut down their cities for justice," the march's organizers said in a press release. "We are continuing where the freedom fighters of the Civil Rights Movement left. We are a new generation of young multiracial activists willing to take up the torch and we're not going to stand for this anymore."
That same day, Reverend Al Sharpton and his National Action Network organized a somewhat smaller civil rights march in Washington, DC, but though both events drew inspiration and outrage from the same well, the crowd in New York was younger and less tied to the activist old guard that Sharpton can be said to represent.
"Why go to Washington? Congress is closed on Saturdays—they're not there," Calvin Hunt, a Harlem native, told me at the Millions March. "It's a waste of time and gas. It happened here in our backyard, so we march here."
There were many families on hand yesterday, and Hunt brought his two young sons with him, almost as if to prep them for what he sees as the realities of the system. "I want them to see what's really behind the curtains in New York City," he said.
Taking off down Fifth and Sixth avenues, the noisy mass repeatedly came into contact with the participants of SantaCon, which the Village Voice recently described as New York's "most reviled bar crawl." An occasional "Blue Lives Matter!", the slogan of the pro-cop counter-protest, was heard emanating from a Santa every so often, but nobody seemed to care. The interactions between drunken revelers and determined protesters remained civil for the most part, though they did inspire a chant that went, "No Justice, No Christmas!"
K. Lamonte Jones of Brooklyn College wore chains around his neck and hands to symbolize "embodied slavery." When asked if he sees the protest movement slowing down anytime soon, he referenced Bacon's Rebellion, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Protestant Reformation as examples of momentum. To him, the Black Lives Matter movement has the same moral force. "It's not a white or black problem," he said. "It's a human problem."
There were plenty of ideas about what could be done to solve this problem percolating on the ground. Nicholas, another protester I spoke with, proposed that the US should begin a ten-year national dialogue in 2016 that discusses the state of violence and civil liberties in our country. That conversation would culminate in a second Constitutional Convention in 2026, the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of the Independence. "The US is incredibly good at saying it'll do things but then not," he said. "And trying to stop movements in their tracks, but not this one."
Throughout the march, the NYPD maintained a heavy presence, both in numbers and barricades, and the occasion was mostly peaceful. Tension arose on the Brooklyn Bridge, however, after the organized protest ended and an offshoot took matters into its own hands. Beforehand, as the crowds entered 1 Police Plaza, a small group surrounded a some police officers, holding their hands up in protest as one cop tried to move them. "He thinks this is a game!" the crowd shouted. "This ain't a game!" (The NYPD said last night that two of its officers were assaulted during the protest, and one person was arrested.)
But the most telling part of the day came at its end, when the families of victims, including Ramarley Graham, Alberta Spruill, and others, stood at the center of thousands, using the mic check technique to amplify their voices. Ron Davis, the father of Jordan Davis, the 17-year-old shot dead by a white man at a gas station in 2012, addressed the crowd first.
"My name is Ron Davis and my son was killed for loud music," he said, tears visible in his eyes. "Yell my son's name. Jordan…" The crowd responded "DAVIS!" a number of times, as Ron's voice got louder and louder, until he burst out, "That's my baby!"
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