WASHINGTON -- Thousands took to the streets Saturday in cities across the country for a so-called “National Day of Resistance” to protest the decision of grand juries not to indict police officers for the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York.
In Washington, tens of thousands participated in the "justice for all" march, which was organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton. The march began with a rally at Washington’s Freedom Plaza, blocks from the White House, and ended with another rally, about eight blocks east of there at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, with the Capitol as a backdrop for a stage and large screen TVs set up in the middle of the road.
It was there that relatives of the victims of police spoke to the crowd. Among them were the mothers of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo and the wife of Eric Garner.
Lesley McSpadden, Brown's mother, mostly kept to herself with friends and family members before joining the other moms and relatives of those killed by police on stage. Michael Brown Sr. spoke with supporters from Ferguson and across the country and participated in a prayer circle with supporters from Detroit. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan and Author Michael Eric Dyson were among the public figures seen talking with protesters from Ferguson.
When it came time for McSpadden, Brown's mother, to address the crowd, she was clearly taken by the moment and couldn’t speak. Several people in the crowd directly in front of the stage shouted, “We got your back.” With that, McSpadden thanked them and the crowd for their support.
She said that if such a large turnout didn’t get Congress to make changes in the law, then nothing would. She ended her comments by raising her hands above her head and led the crowd in a chant of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
St. Louisans in Washington
Marchers from Ferguson and St. Louis who traveled to Washington, D.C., said they feel a sense of pride and ownership in the national movement that has grown from the events surrounding Brown's shooting death.
Beverly Jones is one of about 40 area residents who made the 14-hour trip to Washington. She said it was important for her to be here “because we actually have a story to tell, this movement actually started in Ferguson, Mo.” Proud of what has grown from a handful of dedicated demonstrators who spent nights camping on the street across from the Ferguson Police Department in September to a nationwide movement, Jones said, “We are not trying to lead the movement; we are just trying to be part of it.”
Many of those present from Ferguson and St. Louis were quick to tell reporters that they’ve been part of the effort since before it turned into the high-profile protests across the country.
Chuck Modiano, a self-described activist, looked back on those early days. “If you go back to that to that time,” he said, “it was a very lonely, very vulnerable time, a very scary time to think that the movement might die out.” He says now it is somewhat fashionable to be part of the movement. “We really have a debt to pay for all of the young people in Ferguson, who kept this alive – to get to this point.”
In September, while visiting a friend in St. Louis, Paula Valbrun attended protests in Ferguson “and decided to stay. In college in 2007, she said she researched police brutality and got to know family members of a young boy killed by police. After attending her first protest in Ferguson she said, “I just felt the need to join. I felt like finally people realized how much of a problem this is and I wanted to be part of it.”
While excited at the large turnout, Valbrun said the day was bittersweet because “I was on stage with the mothers when they spoke and it was hard for me to watch Amado Diallo’s mom, Trayvon Martin’s mom and Michael Brown’s mom. It was history, but it was very hard to witness, just tragic, because they lost their kids and no justice has been brought.”
Filmmaker, Spike Lee, and his daughter stood silently in front of the stage as the moms talked about their grief and their hope that the country would finally come together to bring about change in both policing and how grand juries do business.
While none of the marchers interviewed by St. Louis Public Radio was willing to say so on the record, privately, several said, they are “concerned” with what appears to them to be an effort by groups such as Sharpton’s National Action Network to take control of the “message” that started with a handful of protesters in Ferguson.
When Sharpton and a group of VIPs stood behind a large red and black banner from the National Action Network, waiting to start the march, hundreds of marchers decided not to wait and started down Pennsylvania Avenue. Several of those marchers called out to assembled reporters and camera crews that the “march was not about Al.”
Sharpton raised the issue at the beginning of the second rally, suggesting that it was the media that were trying to create a “divide” in the movement. What was clear, is that beyond Michael Brown’s family, few, if any of the more prominent protesters from Ferguson were on hand in Washington. At the same time as the D.C. event, tens of thousands marched in New York. One PR firm helping to promote the New York event said earlier in the week that most of the protest leaders from Ferguson would be in New York. That could not be independently verified by St. Louis Public Radio on Saturday.
In St. Louis
More than 150 people marked the day in St. Louis with a march to the city’s medium security jail on Hall Street, sometimes called the “workhouse.”
Protest organizer Juliette Iacovino said they wanted to draw attention to the “deplorable conditions” inside the jail and “draw attention to the problem of mass incarceration as a racial caste system and the drug war as one of the primary culprits of the racial discrimination in the justice system and the disproportionate number of people of color in the prison system.”
Many prominent Ferguson protest leaders were not at the march in St. Louis. From accounts on social media, at least some of them were at Day of Resistance events in other cities.
In addition to calling for change in the national prison system, protesters also demanded the release of inmates arrested during previous Ferguson-related demonstrations.
“We have a number of people that are specifically still in the workhouse on Hall Street that were specifically from the Shaw protests and they are being held on extremely high bonds, like $20,000 cash-only bonds,” said jail support coordinator Hattie Svoboda-Stel with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment.
Svovoda-Stel said there were roughly 12 to 15 protesters currently being held in the jail, and that protesters are reporting “inhumane treatment” from the guards.
After gathering in Hickey Park in north St. Louis, the demonstrators on Saturday marched through the streets chanting “America, America, let my people go.”
The group stopped in front of the barbed-wire-topped fence surrounding the jail, where Darrick Smith, 25, spoke through a bullhorn.
“It’s still with me to this day,” Smith said. “The C.O.’s treat you anyway they want to treat you because the people in there we don’t get no commissary, nothing to eat, so they will do anything to eat. They will fight. They will make inmates fight to eat. They turn people into animals. But I didn’t let that happen to me.”
The crowd cheered and encouraged Smith as he described his experience, and then other protesters with bullhorns began addressing inmates inside the building who shouted through their open window.
In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report alleging mistreatment at St. Louis jails. A spokesperson for the city’s department of public safety says significant changes have been made since then.