It was a beautiful day in Washington, D.C. The scheduled lineup of speakers included, Michael Eric Dyson, Cheerleader-In-Chief Al Sharpton, the NAACP. MSNBC was fully present as throngs of loyal, irate, passionate demonstrators from around the country massed to send a clear unequivocal message to the government—this shit has got to change—all standing politely in Freedom Plaza, with speakers exhorting chants of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!, I Can’t Breathe! Justice for Michael Brown! Justice for Eric Garner!”
We had actually talked about whether or not to attend a rally with Rev. Sharpton its titular leader. We spoke with cohorts and black leaders, many expressing their misgivings about how representative Sharpton can be now that he is ensconced with his own TV show; after having watched his coziness with the White House, even after the president appointed Charles Ramsey the former Washington, D.C. police chief who presided over harsh police crackdowns on protesters that ultimately cost Washington taxpayers a fine of over $100 million in a lawsuit in which the protesters prevailed.
Ultimately two determinants swayed us to attend: we had to give the devil his due in the sense that Rev. Sharpton has been a stalwart against police brutality for a long time; and more importantly, the people in Ferguson were asking for a huge turn out over the weekend. So we went, expecting to hold our noses while taking one for the team.
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A few details were immediately apparent from the periphery of Freedom Plaza: It is a sprawling, open space that, by virtue of its being elevated, makes seeing and photographing the full extent of the crowd impossible; the speakers, even with amplifiers, were largely unintelligible in the din; and many conversations were underway throughout the mass of people about what tactical actions could have been taken to shut down the city with that many people—were there the inclination among the march’s organizers.
Then, as the people in Ferguson have demonstrated time and again, something unexpected happened—at first with a chant that began growing at the edge of the stage—Let Us Speak! Let Us Speak! This, from the contingent who had come the thousand miles from Ferguson to add their voice to Sharpton’s rally—only to find themselves, ignored, blackballed and pushed to the side by the event planners in favor of more palatable—and predictable—voices.
Let Us Speak! Let Us Speak! Let Us Speak!
As the chant grew louder, the emcee admonished them to show some respect, declaring that Michael Brown, Sr. would now put these miscreants in their place.
And then the nearly miraculous!
When the emcee turned her back to the podium briefly, local activist, Erica Totten, saw her opportunity. Erica has been on the ground in Ferguson and witnessed the plural realities of what is happening as against how what is happening is portrayed in the media. She has also been in the thick of shutting down roads, interstates and business as usual in Washington. It’s all a matter of timing.
Erica saw an opening and took it. She walked to the stage and took the microphone. “We love you, sister, but the youth are here from Ferguson. They’ve travelled a long way to attend this demonstration and they have a right to speak.”
Despite the resources, despite the planning, despite the concerted effort to keep the ‘rabble rousers’ sidelined, the jig was up. The sheer determination of those at the heart of the uprising born in Ferguson prevailed yet again. Call it doggedness. Call it passion. Call it creative engagement. Whatever its name, at the end of the day it is the humanity of the Ferguson uprising that trumps all comers.
It is the affront to common decency of leaving a shattered body uncovered in the street for four and a half hours. It is the police-gang murder by suffocation of a man begging to be allowed to breathe. It is the odious misuse of the grand jury process by jurisdictions nationwide that no amount of choreography can disguise. Al Sharpton cannot manufacture that. He cannot deliver that. The White House (how apt its name) would do well to take note.
In a recent Washington Post cum Roots article entitled: “Sharpton Responds to Criticism That His Movement Excludes Younger Activists”, Sharpton said: “This was not a revolutionary march, and I don’t apologize for that.” He added that he had not yet arrived at the rally when a group of protesters, whom he did not know, stormed the stage and demanded to speak. He said that when he arrived on the scene later, he granted the activists speaking time after they assured him that they were not going to call for violence or promote inflammatory rhetoric against nonblacks….This was not promoted as a town hall meeting.” Erika Totten responded to Sharpton, “The youth in Ferguson have been protesting in the streets for 128 days and they deserve to be heard.”
Sharpton’s assertion that the people from Ferguson would be violent is more consistent with the position of the police than with the people of Ferguson. It is precisely this assumption that black people are violent that is getting blacks folks all over the country killed.