Demonstrators shout: ‘Every city, every town, has its own Michael Brown’
When Ferguson teenager Michael Brown was murdered last August, anti-police sentiment hit all areas of America. The message was simple: this cannot go on. The problem is, it still does. Fresh cases of injustice and brutality appear all too regularly; on April 4 in South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott eight times in the back. Terrible, avoidable incidents like these are adding fuel to the fire of an ever-growing movement.
The call for action is strong, and the need to self-organise even stronger. Groups like #BlackLivesMatter – formed in 2012 following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman – fight “to end structural oppression”, formulating clear-cut demands like “a racial justice agenda from the White House that is inclusive of our shared fate as black men, women, trans and gender-nonconforming people.”
Yesterday’s march was organised by the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, a movement which has drawn support from the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker. It was set up by Carl Dix, a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist party, and public intellectual/high-profile rabble-rouser Dr Cornel West. Yesterday, they mobilised #ShutdownA14, which started life as a rally and soon morphed into a 1,000-strong march, bringing the streets of New York City to a standstill during rush hour.
Protesters gathered in Union Square at 2pm to listen to the impassioned words of speakers including jazz musician Arturo O’Farrill, Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler and Reverend Calvin O Butts.
“If you can’t respect us, you can’t protect us! The people united, will never be defeated,” said Rev Butts, while organiser Carl Dix likened the recent spate of police killings to genocide. A banner taking pride of place on stage paid tribute to some of the people killed by the police in recent years.
“Today we are acting for the people on that banner,” said Dix. “They can no longer speak, so we are speaking for them. They can no longer act, so we are acting for them.”
Ale Murphy, part of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, told Dazed #ShutdownA14 had been organised largely with young people in mind. “We wanted the youth to turn up today to support us because the youth are the future,” she said. “We want to take the streets with them because this has to stop.”
A student called Nia told us that she had been involved in the fight against police brutality for as long as she could remember. “The idea of having police in America came from poor white men policing rich men’s property. That whole notion and system needs major upheaval,” she said.
An 18-year-old called Tatyana said that she was worried for future generations. “I’ve got a younger brother and I don’t want him to grow up and have to live through this,” she said. “Getting stopped by the police is scary as you know they have the power and you don’t know what they’re gonna do with it.”
One of the main goals of #ShutDownA14 was to disrupt business as usual in New York, so when the speeches finished people began to march down Broadway towards City Hall and 1 Police Plaza, carrying out die-ins along the way.
Chants such as “Every city, every town, has its own Michael Brown” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police” sent ripples through the crowd as people held up their hands in solidarity with Michael Brown’s “don’t shoot” gesture. “We’re here to stop the killings in every state,” 44-year-old Jean Williams shouted as she marched towards Brooklyn Bridge. “We’re protesting to get the law changed. We need to re-train the police to make them more accountable.”
“We’re here to represent, express ourselves and unite,” said another protester, who told us he had nearly died at the hands of the police and therefore didn’t want to give his name.
Elsa from Copwatch said she was at the demo to try and keep everybody safe. “We’ve got to ask ourselves who watches the watchmen. If they’re gonna watch us then we’re gonna watch them back. We watch the police and make sure that they’re doing whatever they’re supposed to do without infringing on anyone’s rights, while we exercise our First Amendment rights.
“I’m a black person and black lives matter. We just need to continue to raise awareness and have these conversations.”
By 4pm, a large police presence had confronted the crowd at Brooklyn Bridge, with traffic at a total standstill. There were visible clashes as some protesters tried to break through police lines to get on to the bridge. At the time of writing, at least 35 people had been arrested, including Travis Morales, Noche Diaz and Sunsara Taylor – key members of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network.
Dazed spotted #ShutdownA14 organisers Dr Cornel West and Carl Dix in the thick of it and asked them how they felt the day had gone. “We’re definitely happy with the turnout,” said Dix. “They tried to push this movement out of the streets and said, ‘We’ll come and arrest you and intimidate you.’ But we have learned that nothing changes for the better without a struggle. And you got people here who are putting it on the line for that struggle.”
Dix continued: “To say that police are getting away with killing our children – and I don’t care what colour you are because these are all your children – is an understatement. So we are bringing the movement out on to the streets. We have Christians, revolutionary communists, young people, older people – everyone and anyone - and we are all saying that this must stop.”