The Fierce Urgency of Now: Why Young Protesters Bum-Rushed the Mic

Many young protesters believe that the Rev. Al Sharpton was co-opting their movement, so on Saturday, when none of the Ferguson youth leaders were slated to speak, a few hopped onstage and took the mic.

Erika Totten (center) struggles for the microphone to ensure that her voice would be heard during the Justice for All march on Saturday.  
Erika Totten (center) struggles for the microphone to ensure that her voice would be heard during the Justice for All march on Saturday.   Nicole L. Cvetnic/The Root

Billed as a rally against rampant police violence, Saturday’s Justice for All march in Washington, D.C., organized by several civil rights organizations, including the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and the National Urban League, faced some criticism in the days leading up to it.

The primary concern among critics is what appears to be the purposeful distancing of Saturday’s march from the revolutionary movement that began in August after the state-sanctioned shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by former Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson, while simultaneously benefiting from its momentum.

Although there were moments of great emotion during Saturday’s march—particularly when the families of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Jonathan Crawford III, Amadou Diallo, Brown and Garner voiced their gratitude for Sharpton and the sea of supporters who have kept their loved ones’ names alive—the criticism that has followed the event largely proved to be true, and young protesters all the way from Ferguson made sure the world knew it.

Johnetta Elzie, 25, an activist on the ground in Ferguson and St. Louis who has emerged as a leading voice in the movement, stormed the stage with other young organizers after NAN officials reportedly denied them access.

When I caught up with Elzie via phone after the march, she said that they came to participate in a protest, not to be denied access to a “VIP section.”

“When we first got there, two people from NAN told us that we needed a VIP pass or a press pass to sit on the ledge,” said Elzie in disbelief, the frustration still resonating in her voice. “If it is a protest, why do you need to have a VIP pass?”

Elzie’s friend and fellow protester Erika Totten got both of them a pass to be on the program.

“They gave us badges but didn’t write our names down. They never intended to let us speak. So when Erika said to follow her onstage, we did,” she said.

According to Elzie, once she finally did get a chance to speak, they cut her microphone.

“I was glad to get the support of the some in the crowd who chanted, ‘Let them speak, let them speak.’ One lady in the crowd said that I was being disrespectful. I think it’s disrespectful that black people are being killed every 28 hours. So what they’re telling me does not matter. It’s not our job to convince them that all black lives matter.”

Elzie’s feelings come from a place that has always been a part of every civil rights movement. For every peaceful speech given by Martin Luther King Jr., there is the image of gun-toting Malcolm X peeking out the window. Both are extreme narratives in the same fight.

In the months that followed Brown’s death, the rallying cry of “Hands up, don’t shoot!” was quickly joined by “I can’t breathe,” the last words spoken by 43-year-old Staten Island, N.Y., father of six, Eric Garner, when it was determined that New York City police Officer Daniel Panteleo would face no consequences in Garner’s death.