Armed with posters and a camera, Delores and Shannon King made the three-hour trek from Portsmouth, Va., to the nation’s capital on Saturday to join thousands of people gathered for the Justice for All demonstration protesting the recent deaths of several unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers.
“We are here to support the cause,” said Delores King, who has an 18-year-old son. “This has to become a movement and not just a moment.”
The Kings and a sea of protesters marched east on Pennsylvania Avenue chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” After the march, the Rev. Al Sharpton called on Congress and the U.S. Justice Department to intervene on behalf of protecting black men from law enforcement.
“State grand juries have suspended the right of due process,” said Sharpton, president of National Action Network, the civil rights organization he founded in 1991. “We need national intervention.”
Protesters came from across the globe to demand an end to police violence and a change in the justice system. Interracial and intergenerational crowds gathered on a brisk winter afternoon: soccer moms next to union members, who were sandwiched between activists and such celebrities as filmmaker Spike Lee and television judge Greg Mathis, all connected through the tragic deaths of unarmed black men.
Mathis said that in the wake of recent refusals by grand juries to indict police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City, many Americans have become suspicious of the anonymity of the grand jury system.
“I’m here to advocate for the federal government to eliminate the secret grand jury,” Mathis said in an interview with The Root.
In a show of solidarity, the families of Eric Garner, 43, who died after a New York City police officer placed him in a choke hold, and Michael Brown, 18, who was shot after an encounter with a Ferguson police officer, joined the relatives of Tamar Rice, 12, who was gunned down by police in Cleveland while playing with a pellet gun. Also in attendance were family members of Trayvon Martin, 17, who was shot and killed after an encounter with a rogue neighborhood watchman, and Amadou Diallo, 23, whose death made national headlines in 1999 after four NYPD officers fired 41 times as Diallo reached for his wallet. Together the families watched as speakers called for a long-term strategy aimed at protecting black boys and men.
“It’s important that we make our voices heard,” said Jestina Weems. The 30-year-old said that when she was a child, police in Lowell, Mass., killed her father, Gary Jerome Weems. Now, she said, as the mother of a son, she worries daily about his safety.
“These killings are getting out of hand,” Weems said.
In 2008 Darlene Cain of Baltimore buried her 29-year-old son, Dale Graham, who had been shot by a city police officer. At the time of his death, Graham was an intern at the NAACP and the father of two young children.
“We have to remember everybody,” Cain said, adding that in recent years, only the more high-profile cases of police shootings have made the national news. In memory of her son, she started an organization called Mothers on the Move and lobbies members of Congress about the need for an independent organization to monitor police. She said she came to the event to bear witness.
While NAN, along with a dozen other groups, sponsored the march, some local youth activists from Washington, D.C., were dismayed that they were not given a platform to speak until they showed up and began to protest.
“We came here knowing that our voices would be excluded from the program,” said Janessa Robinson, an organizer with D.C. Ferguson, a grassroots group that helped spearhead demonstrations across the District after a grand jury in Ferguson refused to indict the police officer who killed Brown. “We had to force them to give us a voice.”
Robinson dismissed the march as “an event and not a representation of the movement” and chided national civil rights leaders for refusing to acknowledge the activists who have largely been responsible for the nearly daily protests across the country.
Sharpton downplayed the tensions when he took the stage to address the crowd of more than 10,000. “Show the world today this is not a black march or a white march,” he said to cheers. “This is an American march for the rights of American people.”
Also on The Root: “The Fierce Urgency of Now; Why Young Protesters Bum-Rushed the Mic”
Jamal Watson is the senior staff writer for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and the author of a forthcoming biography of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Follow him on Twitter.