WASHINGTON – The growing, national protest movement against police violence spilled out into the streets of the nation’s capital Saturday.
Spurred by a recent spate of killings of unarmed black men by cops who have escaped criminal prosecution, thousands gathered here to join the families of many of those who have been killed in a march and rally billed as the “Justice For All” march. Busloads of demonstrators from all over the country filled the air with cries of “Black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe” as they advanced toward the U.S. Capitol building.
The march got off to a rocky start when some activists took issue with the professional tone of the event, which was organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and sponsored by dozens of other organizations from across the country. At one point a group of Ferguson protesters stormed the stage near where they march was planned to begin, with one activist grabbing the mic and yelling “shut it down” before organizers cut her audio.
“We are not here to play big shot. We are here to win,” Sharpton responded as he took the stage minutes later, adding that the Ferguson protesters on the front lines fought hard and deserved respect.
Sharpton, host of MSNBC’s PoliticsNation, called for the march following a grand jury’s decision Dec. 3 not to indict the officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island over the summer.
The decision in the Garner case came just weeks after a grand jury in Missouri declined to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. The non-indictment in the Brown case sparked fiery protests in Ferguson and in dozens of cities across the country, from New York City to Oakland, California, and internationally, including Paris, France.
On Saturday, family members of some of the most high-profile cases of unarmed African-American’s killed by police and armed white civilians joined in calling for justice and police reforms.
Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, thanked protesters for their support, saying “You’re helping our voices be heard!” Esaw Garner, Garner’s widow, led the gathered crowd in chants of “I can’t breathe.” Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, 12, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland on Nov. 22 while carrying a pellet gun, told protesters “We will get justice for our children. Believe that.” And Sybrina Fulton, the mother of slain teen Trayvon Martin, told the sea of marchers, “You guys mean the world to us.”
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The march began just after noon Saturday at Freedom Plaza, where demonstrators staged a rally before walking toward the U.S. Capitol, where protesters, leaders and the families of the victims of police violence plan to outline what organizers describe as a legislative agenda for Congress to bring widespread police reforms.
“We believe it’s imperative for The Crawford family to be a vital part of this national conversation on police misconduct,” Michael Wright, a lawyer for Crawford’s family, said in a statement. “Ever since the tragic loss of their son, John H. Crawford, lll, this past summer, John and Tressa have been committed to making sure this type of injustice never happens to another family. Being in Washington, D.C. this weekend is a step toward that goal.”
Sponsors for the march include a wide and diverse group of about 50 national organizations, including the National Urban League, the ACLU, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National LGBTQ Task Force and the United Federation of Teachers.
The march comes as spontaneous and meticulously planned protests and acts of non-violent civil disobedience across the country have snarled traffic, shut down retail and big box stores and even for a time shut down the Brooklyn Bridge in New York in recent weeks.
The killing of Eric Garner on July 15, and less than a month later the killing of Michael Brown Jr. on Aug. 9, ushered in a bloody summer of police killings, to which thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets under the broad banner of #BlackLivesMatter.On Saturday, large masses of protesters took to the streets of other cities Saturday, including New York, Boston and Chicago. In New York, demonstrators overtook Fifth Avenue, chanting “Black lives matter” and calling out racial disparities in policing.
Saturday’s march represents somewhat of a tipping point, as the non-indictment of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the Garner case energized what had become a maturing and aggressive protest movement fueled largely by the events in Ferguson.
Garner’s death by chokehold was captured in cell phone video recorded by a witness. Garner was initially accosted by a group of officers for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Moments after Garner passively resisted arrest, Pataleo could be seen wrenching an arm around Garner’s neck, taking him down to the ground. Garner could be heard pleading with the officer, saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
While Michael Brown’s killing drove a wide and deep division between whites and blacks, the non-indictment in the Garner case drew wide and bipartisan condemnation with many celebrated Republicans including former President George W. Bush calling the decision “hard to understand.”
In recent weeks, professional athletes, including NBA superstars LeBron James and Derrick Rose, as well as a host of other athletes in the league and the NFL have protested the Garner decision by wearing tee shirts emblazoned with Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe.”
Saturday’s march though, as broadly as it is supported by mainstream and traditional rights groups, comes at the same time as a so-called National Day of Resistance organized by a collective of younger, more brash activists engaged following Brown’s death in Ferguson.
A website for the group organizing the Day of Resistance, called the movement born out of the events in Ferguson a “Wave of Indignation.”
“What started as an urban revolt of young black people in Ferguson, MO has grown into a national movement for Black lives. The entire nation is awakening to the reality of our broken criminal justice system,” the site reads. “We cannot stop or slow down now. This Saturday, we’re taking it to the next level. We’re asking you to join everyone in the streets this weekend and #ShutItDown.
“It’s our civil disobedience, marching and chanting that got us this far – and we must keep going,” it says. “When you hit the streets, you’re letting them know: body cameras are not enough. Blue ribbon commissions are not enough. We need broad, decisive action NOW.”