The Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network’s National March on Police Brutality is scheduled for Saturday in Washington, D.C. While attendance estimates are sketchy because of the rushed nature of the event, the march is seemingly being positioned by organizers as the culmination of months of protests that have swept the nation since the Aug. 9 state-sanctioned police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
The protests have continued to blaze, intensifying with, first, a grand jury’s decision not to indict former Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death; and then a New York City grand jury’s nonindictment of New York police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the July 17 choke hold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner—despite a video showing Garner begging for his life while being held down by a move that was banned in 1993 by then-New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
Not surprisingly, Sharpton has compared Saturday’s scheduled march to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which, in part, led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The legend of that historic march is solidified by Martin Luther King Jr.’s rousing “I Have a Dream” speech, and rightfully so. But what is happening across the country—indeed, the world—at this moment is reflected in what happened after the march on a bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
This movement, flying under the banners of #HandsUpDontShoot, #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe, is not just for peaceful black people willing to march for justice; it is for those willing to fight for it, bleed for it and die for it.
This movement ignores those leaders of today who seek to marginalize the youths who authored it in favor of establishment organizations who seek to edit it to their specifications. It does not conflate blackness with solely black men; instead it places the trauma inflicted upon women, children, transgender and gay black people front and center. Most important, it discards those practices that prioritize the politics of respectability over the urgency of denied humanity.
King has been evoked in some quarters as a means to silence and subdue protesters who have not been as polite as society would like; yet he did not prioritize peace over justice. In fact, he was assassinated because he could no longer be depended on to be passive or engage in protests that made white people comfortable—or, at the very least, allowed them to go on with business as usual. As he sat incarcerated in a Birmingham, Ala., jail (pdf) in 1963, he penned the following:
You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.
One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all.
That was in 1963, before the March on Washington. Bloody Sunday happened in 1965 and was organized in part to protest the killing of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson by white Alabama State Trooper James Fowler. And before the inevitable arguments that there is no comparison between Jackson, a civil rights activist, and Michael Brown, respectability couldn’t save Jackson’s life then and it won’t save ours now.
So let’s be clear: We cannot go backward. The old-guard, heteronormative, patriarchal marching on Washington—particularly when Sharpton’s day job is pushing the president’s agenda on cable television—is not the answer. Marches that consist of photo ops, pomp and circumstance are not the answer.
When a coalition of community representatives—Phillip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders; and Ashley Yates, Brittany Packnett, T-Dubb-O, Rasheen Aldridge and James Hayes—met with President Barack Obama, he “cautioned [them] against demanding too big and stressed gradualism.” In the face of the relentless assault on black lives, he asked them to slow down and think small.
Conversely, in 1963, King said this:
… when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
I was speaking with a reporter from Brussels, and he asked me if Sharpton’s march would be a defining moment in the fight against police brutality. My response? The young people on the ground have already defined a movement for themselves and for a generation of black people who are tired of waiting.