Thursday July 7, 2016
#BlackLivesMatter march for #AltonSterling, #PhilandoCastile, and all.
As I march through my city, enraged at the continuing and most recent murders of black folks in seemingly benign situations, I remember the first time I was part of an impromptu march in response to a publicized attack on a black man (not counting 1968). It was 24 years ago – 1992 – and Rodney King had been brutally beaten by a group of white cops. The officers were acquitted, riots broke out, and NYC marched through the streets.
24 years ago: I’d been working a part-time receptionist gig in midtown, and the meet-up point was Times Square sometime in the early afternoon. Wearing my pencil skirt and my kitten heels, carrying my bag full of dance clothes, I left work to join the people. I passed by shops closing up everywhere, pulling down their gates, fearing an outbreak of violence and destruction (which never happened). I joined up with the crowd of incensed New Yorkers and we soon began our march down toward the West Village. At some point we came up against a phalanx of cops in their riot gear – before tasers and zip ties and body cameras or cell phones. I remember how young they looked, how scared they looked, and how much adrenaline was in the air.
A fellow marcher and I fell backwards over some police motorcycles. Two cops grabbed us both by our shirtfronts and shoved us up against the nearest wall. I remember swearing my head off while explaining what had happened, and wondering at the same time: Can I be arrested for cursing at an officer? But they let us go, and we marched on.
Somewhere near Houston Street the march dispersed, and I caught a train to my African dance class in Brooklyn.
And here we are, 24 years later. This time we were meeting at Union Square and marching up toward Times Square. This time I came from home, so had more appropriate shoes on. And this time, as we were marching, I remembered that march so long ago, and it occurred to me that Rodney King was “only” beaten up.
If that happened now, he’d be dead.
In our new world, a beating is passé. Murder is what’s on. Murder after murder after murder.
Around 5 p.m. I joined a crowd of sad, hurt, and enraged New Yorkers gathering in the south end of Union Square Park. Already the barricades were going up. There was a summer stage concert going on – completely incongruous music. At some point they turned up their volume, but soon, they were done and we were ready to move. We had to stream through a strategically tight opening between barricades to begin our march across 14th street. We chanted as we walked over and up and through the city. At times, folks chanted Whose streets? Our streets! I thought: Wishful thinking.
Sure, we streamed through traffic, snarled it some, rerouted around the cop lines to stream back through the streets. But we don’t own these streets. We passed by, through, and under all the blazing markers of ownership of our daily and nightly lives. We passed by the neon mega chains. We passed by the loud signage telling us who and what to buy. We passed by the cool cucumbers in their crisp cotton shirts looking down from behind high glass windows while sipping their expensive drinks. We passed by clean cut manicured couples clearly miffed at the inconvenience we created. We passed by fancy carriages, the horses getting skittish. We passed by the Strand bookstalls that tempted me to swerve – but I resisted. We passed by scared white chicks in their cabs. We passed by black and brown cab drivers honking in tune with us. We streamed our way up 5th avenue, past the museums most of us can no longer afford to visit. We made our way up through all the streets that are not ours at all anymore. We passed into the night, and up into Harlem, closer to what used to be a home, where folks stood in the streets and hung out their windows, cheering us as we went by. At this far point there were fewer of us, only about 200 hundred left. Eventually we came face-to-face with a calm line of cops up by the entrance to a bridge folks thought to shut down.
But no matter how many times we’d chanted “Shut It Down”, the cops weren’t going to let us do that; and nobody wanted to die for it, so we regrouped and went up Malcom X Boulevard to 145th, then across to St. Nicholas where, after 8 miles and 4-plus hours of marching, we finally sat down to have some silence, honoring those most recently murdered in cold blood.
When the police finally arrived, dispersal began, and many of us, including me, said goodbye there.
It was good to cover this city with our rage; good to shout Black Lives Matter, and Racist Cops Have Got To Go; good to shout out What Do We Want? Justice! When Do We Want It? Now! But Our Streets? Less and less. Shut It Down? How? When? Where? What? A bridge? A street?
Yes, all streets; that might help. Everyone “Out of Your Homes and Into the Streets” – maybe then we’d get somewhere.
But I fear the weapons of the masters. And I am in no doubt they will not hesitate to use ‘whatever means necessary’ to silence the rabble – including, now, robot bombs.
Without the kind of uprising and organization folks had in place in the 1960s, without phalanx after phalanx of our own, willing to die – because that is far more likely now than it was in the 60s – it won’t mean a thing.
This day, I felt like the cops knew it was best to let us blow off some steam – they weren’t really interested in messing with anyone. But they did have their boundaries, and bridges were at least one. Oh the happy youth who thought they were getting over on the cops, moving from one check point to another, thinking they were outwitting them. Wait til they suit up, like in Baton Rouge as I write this.
Early in the journey, one young person passed by me and said “Just like the 60s!”
I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or not, but all I could say was “No, it is NOT like the 60s; nothing like the 60s. Don’t sleep -” The 60s were tame compared to what’s on now. And sure, we had a moment back then, but assassin’s bullets worked so well that our legs were taken out from under us and we’ve been floundering ever since. Malcom X, Fred Hampton, MLK, RFK…No, we lost.
One legacy of the undoing of that movement is this understandable idea that there should be no leaders of the current movement. But without leadership, there is no organization. When I was in Oakland at the initial Occupy skirmishes, this idea of no leaders played out: one person said Go this way; another said No, go this way. Some followed one person, others followed another. All the while I was thinking: Not only is our strength becoming dissipated, but these people folks are following could be working for anyone, splitting us up, leading us into a dead end, or worse, into a cop corral. But…try saying that, you older person. This is not your revolution.
I don’t want no revolution; I don’t want another go round on the circle.
I want out.
I want Evolution.
Black is Beautiful, and so is Diversity. And I want to celebrate that.
I want to share what we have with each other. I want smiles all around when I’m on the subway train. I want an end to rampant heartless greed. I want a country of villages of neighborhoods of the unique flavors that make the best of what this country has always been.
I couldn’t live without what I’ve experienced and learned from other cultures.
None of us would even be here – probably none of us anywhere in the world.
So, sure love is the only way out.
But it is hard not to rage when enraging things are happening, being committed, for years, 24, 60, 400 – or is it 500 years!
America is not the only country where one can find racism or oppression, but America is our country, and America threw that “All Are Created Equal” idea out there; so those of us who are fed up have got to say NO to the BULLSHIT. Every day, in every way. We don’t all have to get along; we won’t, we can’t; but we do have to cultivate an overall sense of Justice for ALL, Tolerance for differences, Love of the strengths we have here.
And for the small-minded tight-hearted haters, we have to leave no room – anywhere.
Excise that shit.