Across the US on Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters marched against the legal sanctioning of police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed young black men. In New York, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago and Oakland people of all races and ages marched under the slogan “Black Lives Matter.”
The ongoing protests have drawn in wide layers of society – especially youth from the millennial generation, together with privileged Yale law students and high school student groups. They have been protesting as citizens, not just in defense of the rights of African-Americans, but against the unjustified use of lethal force by increasingly militarized local police.
The Guardian’s Steven Thrasher described the scene in Manhattan as some 40,000 protesters flooded the streets: “The march was supposed to end at One Police Plaza but Foley Square, in front of it, was jam-packed – far more so than it was at the protest the night after the Garner non-indictment was announced. … Noticeable in the march was the presence of young people, from many infants to young white boys chanting, to young teenagers singing. … Noticeable too was a protest contingent as diverse as the city itself, with Muslim, Christian, Jewish, black, white, Hispanic, Native American and Asian New Yorkers out in large numbers. This, too, was very different from Occupy Wall Street.”
At the 10,000-strong “Justice for All” march in Washington, led by Al Sharpton and civil rights organizations in the National Action Network, “before the procession left its gathering place at Freedom Plaza … a group of young demonstrators mostly from Ferguson seized the stage. Opposed to Sharpton, who they view as a celebrity activist seeking to take over a movement they started, they said young advocates who did the heavy lifting should be at the forefront of the march.” However, they were excluded from the platform, where relatives of African-Americans killed by police called on Congress to reform the criminal justice system.
UPDATE: Alternet reports that when organizers at the Washington march tried to get the Ferguson protesters offstage, they were met with loud chants of “Let them speak!” “Ultimately, they allowed Johnetta Elzie of St. Louis to speak. Elzie, who protested in Ferguson for more than 100 days, explained that young people started the movement and it needs to continue that way. She later told the press: ‘I thought there was going to be actions, not a show. This is a show’.”
The protests have created new leadership groups who have quickly developed tactics to control demonstrations. The day after the announcement that there would be no charges against the officer who killed Eric Garner with a choke-hold, protesters “had seemed to roam the streets, intermittently splitting apart and converging to shut down traffic on several important highways and bridges around the traffic-heavy island of Manhattan,” reported the Guardian. But the following night, December 4, brought out many younger protesters who were far more organized: “a coalition of groups led demonstrators. On the Brooklyn Bridge some organizers wore headsets and stopped marchers for photographers.”
They have developed the moral authority to challenge “black bloc” groups trying to hijack demonstrations in Berkeley and in New York. According to the Gothamist, as the December 4 march wound into Tribeca, “some black-clad protesters turned over trash cans and dragged bags of garbage into the street, before protester Steve Saporito chased them away. … ‘I don’t want upper-middle class white kids coming down here and causing mischief so their rich parents can come bail them out, and fuck up what’s going on here,’ Saporito explained.”
But leaders of left groups in California are reluctant to criticize the smashing of windows and looting of stores during marches in Berkeley over last weekend. Alternet reports: “On Saturday [December 6], Berkeley police rioted first, viciously attacking protesters. Some protesters, young men, then vandalized chain stores. A day later, hours after a protest began where hundreds of people marched peacefully, a dozen or so young white men led a second vandalism spree. Before the next night’s march, organizer Yvette Felarca [of the group ‘By Any Means Necessary’] defended their reactions as a legitimate expression of rage. ‘You can never replace the life of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but windows can always be replaced,’ she said, using a megaphone to address a campus plaza filled with marchers.”
However, “moments later, a young African-American woman [a student at U.C. Berkeley] took the megaphone to made the opposite point. ‘I want to say that this is a nonviolent protest. It is a peaceful protest,’ she said, also prompting cheers. ‘I was beaten on Saturday night and please respect that… If you see any agitators, if you see any anarchists wearing black masks, please pay attention to them and call them out. Because they will try to incite a riot’.”
Long-time Berkeley resident and activist Cynthia Morse, who is white, described the vandals as “skinny white kids … coming from all over the country; homeless; need something to do. They start to show up. And then there’s homegrown people who want to attack capitalism this way,” Morse said. “There’s also the very valid point that without the cops behaving the way they do, there probably would be very little of that. Nobody would come here to fight the cops if the cops weren’t attacking.”
Felarca appeared to equate vandalism in Berkeley with the riots in Ferguson. But there is a difference: in Ferguson rioting was a spontaneous outpouring of rage within the community, while in Berkeley it was planned destruction under the cover of other nonviolent demonstrators which attempted to substitute personal anger for the movement of the community. Black bloc tactics in effect only provide the police with a convenient cover for military-style suppression of protests, stifling the perception that they are attacking citizens exercising First Amendment rights.
Obama’s tepid response to the grand jury decisions has frustrated protest leaders, particularly the claim he made that he’s “never seen a civil-rights law or a healthcare bill or an immigration bill result because a car got burned.” At a town hall meeting in Washington, activist and hip-hop artist Jasiri X said: “Guess what, President Obama? It was over 100 days of peaceful protest, but we didn’t get a meeting with you then. But now, when Ferguson burns, when protests are happening all over the country, now all of a sudden we can get your attention. Now when it burns down you want to have a conversation about putting cameras on police. Well, guess what—it was a video camera that showed Eric Garner being choked by NYPD.”
While Obama was able to co-opt some of the populist rhetoric of OWS, he can only make anodyne statements about police violence because, as an “earnest moderate,” in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, he is unable to defy state forces that maintain order, any more than he can prosecute CIA torturers. “Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land,” Coates argues. There are things that cannot be said in public discourse, he explains, such as: “America does not really believe in nonviolence … so much as it believes in order. What cannot be said is that there are very convincing reasons for black people in Ferguson to be nonviolent. But those reasons emanate from an intelligent fear of the law, not a benevolent respect for the law. … the death of all of our Michael Browns at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them originates in a force more powerful than any president: American society itself.”
While there is a lot of truth in what he says, particularly in relation to institutional racism, the protests this weekend are a sign of how American society is changing. As the population becomes increasingly nonwhite and more white people acquire minority relatives through marriage, they become aware of how racism affects people they care about. A commentator in Talking Points Memo, who is white, writes about how his Latino cousin was killed by police. He says that the way the Ferguson community mobilized and the video of Eric Garner’s death “are searing these facts of injustice into the minds of a broad swath of people for the first time, much like my cousin’s murder did for me. These issues have broken out of the ‘minority issues’ box.”
There is a perceptible difference between these protests and Occupy Wall Street. While OWS was equally pluralistic and imaginative in its tactics, it was a more abstract campaign against the power of the financial oligarchy, and could only mobilize those who could afford to camp out and get arrested (thus excluding many people of color who couldn’t take such a risk). Today’s movement is more diverse, inclusive and is defending the rights of all citizens against uncontrolled state violence.