Dozens of cameramen, spectators and reporters crowd around a visibly annoyed, though unflinching, Al Sharpton. His entourage—about 20 people dressed in either business attire or neon green vests—tries to give him breathing room from the sea of people. "I need everyone to move back," a flustered handler yells at the mob clicking photos and live-tweeting the scene.
The thousands of people are assembled Saturday for Sharpton's Justice For All March, preparing to start their short walk from DC's Freedom Plaza to a spot near the Capitol. This is Sharpton's show. But the Reverend isn't ready for it to begin. The green vests carve out a path—"Move it back! Move it back!" Sharpton won't march until he's in position, squarely behind a massive sign emblazoned with the logo of his civil rights group, the National Action Network.
Sharpton had organized the march in response to the racial tensions that have erupted nationwide since a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, decided not to indict the white police officer who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, bringing attention to other recent police shootings against unarmed black men and boys in places like Staten Island and Cleveland. But while the civil rights leader, now age 60, is still able to attract a massive throng of activists from around the country, there were indications on the ground Saturday that the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot!" movement may have moved beyond Sharpton's control.
"This movement was started by the young people," yelled an animated Johnetta Elzie, telling the crowd of the rubber bullets she was hit with while protesting on Ferguson's streets. "I thought there was going to be actions, not a show. This is a show."
Elzie wasn't alone. About a dozen young protestors joined her as she stormed the stage and took the mic at Sharpton's march, saying that the Reverend was a distraction to their work in Ferguson. It was another sign that the massive outcry against police violence that has swept communities across the country in recent weeks has unearthed tensions among activists, with young protesters feeling disconnected from Sharpton and the old guard of civil rights leaders whom he represents.
"There [have] always been some misgivings among many African Americans about Sharpton. He is a lightning rod," said Michael Fauntroy, an associate professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, DC. He added that the unease about the Reverend has been compounded by his sudden launch into the center of mainstream politics and cable news media . "At some level, he's co-opted by the government and the administration and his position in terms of big commercial media doesn't lend itself to the kind of independence you need to lead a movement."
As demonstrations against police violence have swept the country, a younger generation of protesters has emerged that tends to be suspicious of the Establishment, whether its Establishment cops or Establishment activists. They have formed new coalitions like Tribe X and Lost Voices to demand police accountability, and adopted a protest style that is more disruptive than many older activists are comfortable with. They shout in the faces of police officers and lie down on busy DC or New York bridges. Occasionally, their demonstrations devolve into violence. And their agenda is simpler than Sharpton's, focused narrowly on the local police forces they accuse of abusing power by shooting indiscriminately.
The generational divisions have left activists largely without a defined leader or agenda, with younger protesters wary that their older counterparts are trying to copopt what they see as a grassroots movement.
"We should not forget that the demonstrations that are happening from coast to coast are largely organized by young people of color and young folks that have adopted an intersectional message of liberation of their communities from police violence," said Andy Stepanian, a progressive media strategist who volunteers with the Ferguson protest group Hands Up United.
"[It's] not necessarily some of the traditional, welfare-istic or hyperbolic approach of the national organizations that we've heard about for years," Stepanian said. "There is a changing of the guard that's happening in this country. They're doing so organically without the help of groups like the NAACP or Rainbow Push Coalition and others."
Sharpton is aware of this tension. In his speech Saturday, he attempted to unify the disparate factions of protesters. "We don't all agree with each other. We don't all have the same tactics, but we have the same goal, and that is equal protection under the law," he told the crowd gathered near the Capitol Dome. "And that's not black against white. It's right against wrong."
A couple days after the march, Sharpton called me, after an aide informed him I was working on a piece highlighting concerns about his leadership of the police violence protests. The criticism isn't news to him, but he's also not happy about it. In a defensive, quiet tone, he informed me his critics, whether academics or young protestors with their hands up, are "simplistic."
"It's a lot of side show that really at the end of the day doesn't matter," he said dismissively. He's been hitting the pavement for months, he said, before smaller protests sprang up, and reminded me that he'd marched in New York this summer after a video surfaced of an NYPD officer killing Eric Garner in a chokehold. He was vehement that no generational discord exists among activists, arguing his organization is grooming young civil rights activists and that any disagreements with other protestors are tactical, not philosophical.
Sharpton pointed out that he'd been accompanied at Saturday's march by the families of victims, including Michael Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin. Their presence, Sharpton said, should be enough to quiet his critics. "How could the families be a distraction from their pursuit of justice?" he asked, raising his voice slightly. "It's their loved ones."
But while Sharpton may not see it, the generational divide over how to best combat police brutality was evident at his march. And other older civil rights activists seem to feel it. As the crowd slowly walked down Washington's main drag, Barbara Cole, a 77-year-old St. Louis native, told me she feels a sense of culpability as she prepares to pass the torch on to a generation struggling with the same racial tension that's been simmering in the US since she was born. "In my generation we should have corrected this and we didn't, so I'm kind of on a guilt trip."
Matt Laslo is a reporter based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter