When arriving at Union Square we almost stepped over the Island of White Privilege–not a real island that is, but rather a metaphorical one represented by political chalk art with the names of police brutality victims cast out into the sea; plunged into the abyss fabricated by America’s white supremacist institutions.
The demonstration we attended Thursday evening was a call to justice for the murders of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in St. Paul by local law enforcement. It was a call to bring, as chanted in the crowd, “the killer cops to jail!” and to organize Americans’ frustration that “the whole damn system is guilty as hell!” Initially we couldn’t hear any of the speakers because Summer Stage was going on, disrupting the protest set up by the Stop Mass Incarceration Network.
“Enough is enough!”; “Black lives matter!”; “Hey hey! Ho ho! These killer cops have got to go!”; “The people united will never be defeated!”; “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”
Eventually our chants and the air of energetic passion brought the smooth jazz to a halt, allowing speakers with megaphones to share their own experiences with police brutality indiscriminately targeting the Latino and African American community. People of all shades joined the protest with picket signs, shirts, stickers and pamphlets. If people on one side of the crowd couldn’t hear the primary speakers, they simply started their own chants.
In the heat of the moment the crowd began to shout, “March! March! March!” And that is exactly what we did, dropping our role as the press, and joining the protest as citizens, disrupting traffic on 14th street, then up fifth avenue to 33rd street where the march split with some protesters returning to Union Square, and others marching up to Times Square.
Greg, an engineer who has lived in NYC his whole life, agreed to answer our questions on what he thought about the protest and the issue at hand. “It’s a question of being tired and these injustices have been going on for too long,” he said. “[The police] are likely to shoot us down like dogs in the street. It’s getting to the point where they just don’t have the respect for us as citizens, as Americans, and they shoot first and ask questions later.”
This peaceful demonstration of civil disobedience, however, foreshadowed the tragedy to come in Dallas last night when 12 police officers were shot by snipers during a protest, leaving five dead.
“What do we need? Revolution! When do we need it? Now!” flooded the streets. Communist and socialist pamphlets advocating a political revolution permeated through the crowd. People want to know how we will change the nation’s oppressive institutions and it seems some Americans have an answer–with blood.
It’s a jarring truth that the tragic events which occurred in Dallas, the same city where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a sniper (or snipers?) 53 years ago, will have a major impact on the mindset of protesters moving forward. With deaths occurring on both sides of the ideological divide, fear and anger is in the hearts of both police officers and those who rail against them, and there are no greater motivations for violence. With the divisive split between the law enforcement community as a whole and outraged citizens growing deeper and deeper each day, it is presumable that more violence is on the horizon–a fact which some welcome, but which perhaps misses the point that many activists are trying to make.
To meet violence with violence is a sure way to escalate an already tense situation, but it’s not hard to understand how the nation has arrived at this threshold. Unwarranted deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials are not new in the African American and Latino communities–responses seem to only kick into full gear when injustice rears its head in the media, which is exactly what happened after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. With the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and countless others passing with no justice practiced against the police officers, many members of and sympathizers with the targeted racial communities are nearing the end of their rope.
Following the events of the last 48 hours, we interviewed Janelle Clements, a student and activist from New York City, who was able to offer some very clarifying insight into the growing prevalence of violence in the movement. “I think things are getting bolder. Police are militarizing, people are killing and using guns like no other country. We’re becoming more animalistic, and one may see that as worse. One may see that as necessary. Either way, there is something brewing that will lead to more violence,” she said. When asked about the Dallas attack specifically, she expressed her condolences, but her response also illuminated a detrimental misconception which has arisen as a result of the attack. “The Dallas shooting was so unnecessary and so horrible… Those good men should not have had to die for [people] to see that there is violence brewing.” Her claim was that last night’s murders were a direct result of the violent tensions in our country, but that they certainly did not create the current violent social climate. Violence has been festering for a long time, and what the public really wants to see is justice arise for victims. The longer victims go without justice, the more exacerbated the violent atmosphere becomes.
By no means were student activists the only ones weighing in on the events which have rocked our country. While away visiting European leaders in Warsaw, President Obama issued a statement following the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, saying “Regardless of the outcome of such investigations, [into their deaths] what’s clear is that these fatal shootings are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve.” Following the news of the Dallas attack, however, the President revisited the topic, this time condemning the retaliating violence which claimed the lives of five police officers, and injured seven more. In discussing what drove the shooters, President Obama stated: “We will learn more, undoubtedly, about their twisted motivations. But let’s be clear: There is no possible justification for these kinds of attacks or any violence against law enforcement.”
It’s interesting to note that even within the movement, there are different goals amongst protestors. At the protest we attended yesterday evening in Union Square, Manhattan, there were two different calls- one being made for evolution, in which the divide is bridged between the law enforcement community and people of color, and the call for revolution. The revolutionaries weren’t looking to make amends– they were looking to change the entire foundation of a system that was constructed with white supremacist and capitalist ideals.
As more and more unjust deaths emerge, it is up to America to decide whether they will respond with peaceful protest, or with violence. Americans must ask themselves if it is necessary to shed sweat, blood and tears for revolutionary change in this country, or if we should fight the oppressors like Martin Luther King Jr. did with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. What will make change? What does change look like, and what are the sacrifices we have to make as human beings in order to make a more egalitarian society?
Will anger, fear and revenge lead the movement toward justice, or will it be lead with the love activists like James Baldwin and MLK Jr. demanded in the past? The American landscape is changing everyday with countless factors affecting how Americans will respond to tyranny. There’s no question that we Americans have the power to make change, but looking forward after the Dallas incident, how we organize and concentrate power is and will continue to be the million dollar question.
Joanna Wagner (Boston University) and Teddy Ostrow (Columbia University) are students completing an internship with La Voce di New York. They both have experience with social activism and drew from their experiences while writing the article.