There was something particularly poignant about this year's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Besides lining up with the release of Selma, the movie about his signature voting rights protest in Alabama, the commemoration of the country's most beloved civil rights hero comes at a time when the national conversation on race relations has been heating up again, to say the least.
So it's only natural that police reform protesters would seize on this moment as a chance to revive the Black Lives Matter movement—albeit tentatively—in the streets of New York and other cities around the country.
In a three-hour, 60-block-long march, over a thousand protesters made their way down from Harlem to the United Nations in Manhattan, stopping traffic on Lexington Avenue as they were followed by a cavalcade of officers in blue. The well-organized procession was led by a blaring speaker that played "We Shall Overcome" speech, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," and the more recent "Glory," culminating in a massive die-in in front of Bloomingdale's in Midtown.
The march was the most substantial collection of anti–police brutality activism since Mayor Bill de Blasio called for a temporary pause in protests after the tragic murder of police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn last month. But can the reform crowd actually force changes to the criminal justice system?
"There will always be bumps in the road, but this is definitely not a flash in the pan," Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law professor and former Democratic candidate for New York State Governor, told me Monday. "What I think is exciting is that we see new leadership here. And they have an intelligent, moral, thoughtful, and serious message."
Those "bumps in the road"—an NYPD counter-protest, the deaths of Ramos and Liu, and the subsequent police slowdown, where arrests plummeted—were evident in the turnout on Monday; the "Dream 4 Justice" march, as it was dubbed, was relatively tame. Still, a significant crowd, both old and young, showed up—enough for one to think this grassroots movement might have a sufficient residue of momentum to stick around a while. And the quickly approaching deadlines for the grand jury decision on the accidental death of Akai Gurley and the release of Eric Garner's grand jury proceedings provide the building blocks for longevity.
To that end, it remains to be seen whether or not this crowd will listen to voices like that of City Councilman Jumaane Williams, the co-sponsor of the Community Safety Act, when he told them, "If you celebrate with us today, you should be struggling with us tomorrow."
"We are back in numbers, but there's actually more numbers than you can see all over New York City, hidden in camouflage but waiting for change," Sudan Abdus-Salaam, a 50-year-old participant, said at the front of the march. "We don't want people dying or police officers dying, so that's why we need to end the negativity we've seen. I think the legislators are taking heed of that and paying a little more attention."
Later this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will decide whether or not to veto a bill that would transfer responsibility for disciplining police officers from local commissioners to independent arbitrators. He will also have to respond to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's request to be the special prosecutor in cases like that of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who placed Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold this July. The City Council could soon vote on the Right to Know Act and a chokehold ban, both of which are opposed by the NYPD and Mayor de Blasio.
Out on the streets, Joseph Guzman wasn't so optimistic. "They're fighting for indictments here, but it doesn't matter," he told me, "because even when you get to trial, you realize the whole system's rigged."
Guzman would know.
In November of 2006, he attended a bachelor party for his best friend, Sean Bell, at a club in Queens. As they began to head home, a team of undercover NYPD officers unleashed 50 rounds (one of them emptied and reloaded his clip) at the car carrying Guzman, Bell, and their friend Trent Benefield. The cops apparently thought the men had weapons—they didn't, though Bell was legally intoxicated and apparently drove into a police van—and the barrage killed Bell, who was to be married the next day. Guzman and Benefield were seriously wounded.
Bell's murder ignited raucous protests across the city—including one that saw Guzman himself get arrested. Three of the five detectives responsible for killing his best friend were indicted, but then acquitted of all charges. They were all later fired or forced to resign. Guzman, who still has four bullets lodged in him from that night, settled for $3 million.
On this cold Monday afternoon, Guzman walked up a hill beside me, tired from the steep incline (he had a cane and a leg brace for some time after the shooting). I asked him if he feels any different about this push for police reform, but he seemed exasperated by it all.
"Nothing's changed," he said, shaking his head.
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