WASHINGTON, D.C. – It was perhaps the largest, most organized national day of protests and civil disobedience in the months-long movement that was born in Ferguson, Missouri and has spread to major cities across the country.
On Saturday afternoon, thousands marched in New York City and Washington, D.C. to demand an end to police violence and the killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement.
In New York, police estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people took to the streets of Manhattan, with waves of protesters descending on Washington Square Park before taking over nearby streets and blocking traffic. Thousands marched north to Herald Square before turning south toward 1 Police Plaza, while other groups splintered off into smaller demonstrations throughout the city and across the Brooklyn Bridge. In Boston, dozens were arrested during mass protests.
And in Washington, D.C., several thousand demonstrators swept down Pennsylvania Avenue, from the backyard of the White House toward the Capitol. Marchers rallied before and after the march with chants that have become ubiquitous in the rallies built around the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the police chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I can’t breathe” – both references to the last moments of the men’s lives.
Grand juries in both cases decided not to indict the officers involved in Brown and Garner’s deaths, setting of a series of fiery protests in Ferguson, New York, and across the country.
The march on the nation’s capitol was as diverse as there has been in recent weeks, with a blend of races, ages and organizations. There were many clergy, various unions represented and grassroots activists and more recently engaged activists alike.
Some hoisted signs in the air with the words “Black Lives Matter” or with pictures of loved ones who’d been killed by police. A couple of people held posters with white youths killed by police, a sign that the movement to protect black lives has grown broader and more inclusive of police violence generally.
As much as the event, billed as the Justice for All March, was a show of solidarity for families who lost loved ones to police violence, organizers and speakers said they also wanted to send a message to Congress. The Rev. Al Sharpton said he wanted Congress to pass a law setting a jurisdictional threshold for what makes a federal case, for the Department of Justice to create a division in conjunction with that law and empower special prosecutors in cases of fatal police shootings.
Protesters and civil rights leaders were joined by the families and loved ones of young black men killed by police or authority figures in high-profile cases.
Some said they marched to show solidarity with those families but also to raise awareness for their own black boys.
Chance Pinkney, 10, stood along Constitution Ave. by 3rd Street holding a sign as big as his torso that read, “Black Lives Matter.”
He said he wasn’t exactly sure what the phrase meant, but he knew for sure why he and his mother joined Saturday’s march.
“We’re here to make sure that all the shootings stops,” he said. In November he heard about the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Tamir was carrying a pellet gun when a police officer, responding to calls of a boy carrying what looked to be a toy gun, shot the child. Surveillance video depicts the responding officer opening fire within seconds of arriving on the scene.
Chance’s mother, Felice Pinkney, said the march was the perfect lesson for her son, who she said attends a well-off, diverse school and is a bit confused by the complications around race and class so many of his peers face deal with daily.
“We’re here because his momma is scared. Tamir was only two years older than Chance,” Pinkney said. “He’s seeing the news and he’s trying to understand it all. I’m hoping this helps.”
The march in Washington was bookended by speeches by various community and civil rights leaders. At one point a group of protesters from Ferguson, veterans of the movement there, took to the stage and demanded time to talk.
There was an extended awkward few minutes as one of the organizers from the National Action Network called for calm and unity as the group from Ferguson stood their ground on stage.
Johnetta Elzie, 23, who has emerged as one of the more prominent youth voices from Ferguson, was one of the protesters who seized the stage to lead the crowd in a chant of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Before organizers cut off her microphone, Elzie said that she’s been shot by a rubber bullet and tear gassed on nine separate occasions.
“This movement was started by the young people,” said Elzie, “there should be nothing but young people up on this stage.”
But perhaps the most poignant moment of the march and rally came toward its conclusion, when Rev. Sharpton, whose National Action Network organized the march, introduced the family members of young black men killed, most of them by police.
He introduced the mother and widow of Eric Garner, the parents of Michael Brown Jr., the domestic partner of Akai Gurley, the father of John Crawford III and the mother of Amadou Diallo.
But the crescendo came as Sharpton introduced Sybrina Fulton, whose son, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed in 2012 by former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
The killing of Martin could be seen as something of a leaping off point for the more recent protests that have sprung from the deaths of Garner, Brown, Crawford II and others in recent weeks.
Fulton said it breaks her heart that so many people are getting away with killing so many black men. “We are going to fight this fight together,” she said to the sea of demonstrators. “You guys mean the world to us.”
Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, assured the crowd, “We will get justice four our children. Believe that.”
The march in Washington was largely peaceful, but there were testy moments.
According to a law enforcement official, protesters got too close to an open gate at the White House. The gate was open for those touring the holiday decorations, and at some point a group of protesters walked by, drawing the attention of the Secret Service. The agents immediately clsoed the gate. As protesters passed by the north lawn moments later, Secret Service seemed to increase their presence by the gate, with some even drawing their guns.
At another point, toward the conclusion of the march and rally around 3:00 p.m., a group of marchers splintered off, marching down 7th Street off of Pennsylvania Avenue. As they moved along, many passersby stopped and watched, while others tucked their chins to their chests and sped up as the group chanted, some with fists raised high.
“Mike Brown means, we’ve got to fight back!” they chanted.