Living up to King’s legacy

January 22, 2015

Protests in more than 25 cities across the U.S.--on Martin Luther King's actual birthday on January 15 and on the federal holiday four days later--marked the reappearance of the Black Lives Matter movement on the streets, in defiance of police violence and the backlash that came in the wake of the killing of two New York City police officers in December.

In Oakland, California, protesters gathered early on Monday outside the home of newly elected Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. They chanted, "Wake up Libby!" "No sleeping on the job!" and "You chose to prioritize blue, but today you will hear Black"--a reference to the fact that Schaaf spent her first day in office with police. Later, as many as 3,000 protesters marched through Oakland, before making their way to the Oakland Coliseum BART station, briefly shutting won the station. Later that evening, 68 Stanford students were arrested by the California Highway Patrol after they marched onto the San Mateo Bridge during rush hour.

In Boston, thousands turned out for a four-and-a-half mile march--symbolic of the amount of time that Mike Brown's body was left laying in the street after his murder in Ferguson, Missouri. The Coalition Against Police Violence said the goal of the march was to bring attention to the "epidemic of racial profiling and police brutality," as well as "honor all those who have been injured or died as a result of police violence." At symbolic die-ins along the route, protesters wore the name of a person who had died at the hands of law enforcement.

These were just a few of the protests around the U.S. Here, we publish reports by James Daugherty and Michelle Farber from the King Day actions in New York and Seattle.

ON JANUARY 19, nearly 1,000 people marched through Harlem to reclaim Martin Luther King Jr.'s radical legacy by infusing the demands and slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement into the traditional holiday.

Starting at 110th Street and Lenox Avenue, demonstrators marched for hours across Harlem and the East Side of Manhattan in a four-and-a-half mile route down to a park adjacent to the United Nations Building. Sponsored by a wide array of groups, but with Justice League NYC at the front of the march, it was a demonstration that the anger and demands against police brutality have carried over into the new year.

The crowd of some 900 people was young and old, multiracial and hailed from different boroughs around the city. Gianna Donovan, age 15, voiced a story all too familiar to the people in the march, saying she had participated in several of the marches against police brutality last year: "My mother has been a victim of police brutality, people in my family have been victims of it. I've seen it growing up and I'm getting sick and tired of it, so I started coming to the protests."

Marchers in the streets of New York City on Martin Luther King Day
Marchers in the streets of New York City on Martin Luther King Day (Joe Richard | SW)

Mujahid Farid, the lead organizer for the Releasing Aging People in Prison Campaign, lives in New York City and has regularly attended the recent protests as well. He explained:

I'm here to fight for justice. There's a revitalized movement taking place. More people are becoming conscious, police departments are being discredited as militarized forces--at least, in certain neighborhoods. During Occupy Wall Street, there was that big debate about whether police are part of the 99 Percent. A lot of time was wasted on that debate. But we can see through their actions who they represent: property interests, the 1 Percent.

The march paused for several minutes on its way to the United Nations to stage a mass die-in at the intersection of 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, the major thoroughfare leading to the 59th Street Bridge, blocking traffic as hundreds of people lay down in the streets.

Throughout the long march, the crowd continually chanted "I can't breathe" and counted off, all the way up to 11 times, to symbolize the number of times Eric Garner cried out when he was being choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Panteleo last summer. The same chants from previous marches were still popular, with the march taking up "Indict. Convict. Send the killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell," and at other points "NYPD, KKK, how many kids did you kill today?"

But the mood, size and energy of the march were considerably different than the daytime and nighttime marches that snarled traffic day after day in December of last year. Local and national media has been on a concerted campaign to discredit the near daily protests of last December, after two NYPD officers were killed by a mentally unstable young man who then took his own life late last year. The media on hand at the march asked people if they would disavow militant slogans and chants against the police.

The intense pressure against the protestors didn't just come from the media. Immediately after the two NYPD officers were killed, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called for a moratorium on the marches. De Blasio has continued to publicly slam the marches against police brutality, and called on protestors to participate in volunteer activities instead of marching on MLK Day.

New York City's largest unions, like SEIU1199 and the United Federation of Teachers, which mobilized their members in the past to participate in demonstrations against the chokehold murder of Eric Garner, were nowhere to be seen at the demonstration. As supporters of De Blasio and wary of creating a public rift in the labor movement by coming out against New York City police unions, the local labor movement chose not to mobilize their memberships to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march.

Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network were likewise uninvolved, because he and his supporters boarded several buses to visit the location in Brooklyn where the two NYPD officers were killed to lay wreaths, before heading over to Staten Island to do the same thing for Eric Garner. Meeting with Sharpton and other elected officials at the National Action Network headquarters earlier in the day, de Blasio invoked Martin Luther King Jr. in a speech calling for the protests to cease, saying, "We are looking for mutual respect between police and community. Martin Luther King would want us to move forward toward unity."

If the Black Lives Matter movement in New York City is to overcome this profound pressure to demobilize from many quarters, the movement needs to find a way to grow its permanent base and spread its reach across the city.

A first step toward that goal is the upcoming grassroots conference in New York City, simply called The Gathering. Initiated by a group of activists after the massive Millions March NYC, and set for Friday, January 30, at Riverside Church in Harlem, the conference has been envisioned as a democratic space where the grassroots of the movement can get together to share ideas, assess the movement, and strategize for new actions. This can be a crucial next step.

Every activist in New York should participate and bring their ideas and energy. The Millions March on December 13 of last year, which drew out 50,000 or more people, demonstrated that the outrage against police brutality in New York City runs very deep and the demands of the movement have broad support. The movement needs to figure out a way to re-connect with these broad masses of people and bring them back into action.

IN SEATTLE, as many as 10,000 marchers took to the streets in commemoration of the 33rd Annual Martin Luther King Celebration. This year's theme, determined by the Seattle MLK Celebration Committee, was "Fight For Your Rights in 2015."

The day began with workshops that covered topics from police violence to institutional racism, immigration and affordable housing. Following the workshops, a rally was held in the Garfield High School Auditorium with speakers ranging from Larry Gossett, former chair of the MLK Celebration Committee and King County Councilmember, to Missouri resident and participant in the Ferguson protests, Jelani Brown.

Following the rally, a spirited march wove through the city, stopping at the Juvenile Detention Center and the King County Jail before continuing to the march's end point, the Seattle Federal Courthouse.

At the Juvenile Detention Center, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant spoke about the city's plan to build a new youth detention center, set to open in 2019. This new detention center would cost taxpayers $210 million. Sawant addressed the crowd and asked, "What if we spend that $210 million on a program for youth jobs, instead of locking up our youth?"

Once at the courthouse, speakers, including spoken-word artists Celestine Ezinkwo, Christopher Robinson, Mike Davis, Derrick White, and poet Nikkita Oliver performed.

The last speaker of the rally was Jesse Hagopian, Seattle Public School teacher, leader in the MAP test boycott, editor of the recent book More Than A Score, as well as faculty advisor for Garfield High School's Black Student Union.

Hagopian told the crowd that we must reclaim the radical history of Martin Luther King, and that "Martin Luther King's legacy is one of direct action--of confrontation against injustice, a man who was arrested over 30 times facing down this racist system."

Following the last speaker, leaders from Outside Agitators 206 took to the stage. OA206 is a grassroots organization that has emerged from the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and has spurned forward resistance and direct action in Seattle and describes themselves as "abolitionists in the year 2014. We want an end to police terror, we want an end to slavery that is the prison system, and we want the people who profit from this held accountable."

They announced that the march would be continuing, unpermitted, following the conclusion of the rally, with the express intent of engaging in direct action and civil disobedience. At this point, roughly 150-200 protesters took to the streets, led by protesters on bicycles who were clearing intersections and directing traffic.

Roughly half a mile into the march, the police set up a barricade with their bicycles and refused to let protesters past. It is at this point that police engaged in the reckless use of pepper spray, spraying protesters and passers-by on the sidewalk. Jesse Hagopian was sprayed directly in the face. Later that night he released a statement via his Facebook page that read:

I was marching for Martin Luther King day today--amazing march! At one point after the big main march, group of bike cops set up a line to keep us from marching. Some people walked through the line, but I didn't. When my phone rang, I turned away from the cops and began walking away to answer the phone. A cop then ran up in my face and pepper sprayed me right in the face.

Activists continued forward and marched onto the Northbound on-ramp to Interstate 5. Police cleared the protesters from the on-ramp, so the protesters hopped up onto the I-5 off ramp and then attempted to hold the intersection of Mercer St., which is one of the most congested areas in the city because it leads to both the on- and off-ramps to I-5 and Highway 90 and is just blocks from Amazon's headquarters.

In a separate action, protesters chained themselves together with PVC pipe and blocked Highway 99, one of the main north-south thoroughfares through the city. The protesters released a statement, and were passing around copies of their press release, which read in part:

We lift up the demands of local black-led movements like Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, (YUIR), and End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC)'s No New Youth Jail Campaign to oppose King County's proposed $210 million "Children and Family Justice Center." We demand that King County work with those most affected by youth incarceration and create an alternative plan grounded in racial justice analysis and transformative, community-based approaches.

The group of protesters, led by Outside Agitators 206, attempted to meet up with the protest, but were blocked by police officers. By 4:30 p.m., all roadways were clear, but traffic had been substantially impacted for several hours. Protesters chanted, "If we don't get no justice, then you don't get no peace" and "Fight back, fight back today, USA killed MLK" as they marched from location to location.

A number of grassroots groups have formed in Seattle in response to police brutality and systemic racism, most notably Outside Agitators 206 and Women of Color for Systemic Change. These groups, as well as countless others organizing all over the city, have created a feeling of sustained action and resistance in Seattle, led primarily by youth and women of color. They are promising that there will be no business as usual until justice has been achieved.

Elizabeth Wrigley Field contributed to this article.

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