The march, convened by Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and Martin Luther King III brought together parents and relatives of victims of police-involved murders and vigilantes, a wide cross-section of social justice activists, representatives of civil society and the Civil Rights movements, congressmen and women, members of the clergy and people just tired of the relentless attacks on African Americans by state-sanctioned agents.
“Demonstration without legislation will not lead to change,” Sharpton told the crowd. “We didn’t come out and stand in this heat because we didn’t have nothing to do. We come to let you know if we will come out by these numbers in the heat and stand in the heat, that we will stand in the polls all day long. What we need is change, and we’re at a point where we can get that change. But we have to stand together. We have to vote.”
Rev. Sharpton announced the march shortly after Minneapolis cops handcuffed George Floyd, a total of four officers held him down and one cop kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, killing him. Floyd’s death precipitated multi-racial protests in cities and towns all over the United States. Demonstrators have been demanding justice, an end to systemic racism, and that cops be help accountable for murdering primarily unarmed people. Others have called for the defunding of police departments and abolition of the criminal justice system.
African Americans and their allies are angry, frustrated and exhausted from the constant assaults, steeped in racism and discrimination. And as police officers continue to kill Black people, marches proliferate. Those at the march were also honoring Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by officers in her Louisville home while she slept. The cops broke down the door. Taylor’s boyfriend, thinking they were burglars, fired a shot. The plainclothes officers shot and killed Taylor.
Elijah McClain of Aurora, Colorado, died after a clerk called the police saying he looked suspicious. Several police tackled him, put him in a chokehold and he suffered a heart attack. Authorities say first responders injected McClain with the sedative, ketomine, which may also have contributed to his death.
More recently, widespread protests erupted again after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake seven times in front of his three children as he opened his car door. Blake survived the shooting, but is paralyzed.
Relatives of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Blake and several others were on hand.
“There are two systems of justice in the United States,” an emotional Jacob Blake, Sr., said. “There’s a White system and a Black system. The Black system ain’t doing so well.”
Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, exhorted the crowd to remain firm and committed in the march toward justice.
“Even though we’re going through a crisis, even though it looks dark, I want to tell you to be encouraged,” she said. “Don’t stop saying ‘Black lives matter.’ Don’t stop peaceful protesting,” she said. “Stand up. We were built for this.”
March organizers said there were so many families of victims present that there wasn’t time for all of them to speak.
Participants in the event (called the ‘Get Your Knee Off Our Necks’ Commitment March on Washington) offered speeches on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and then the throng marched to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Marchers on the National Mall wore t-shirts and masks emblazoned with ‘8:46.’ Family members and others carried signs with ‘Say Her Name’ recognizing Taylor and large placards with photos of Martin, Taylor, Tamir Rice, McClain, and countless others killed at the hands of police or White vigilantes.
The youngest speaker, Yolanda Renee King, the 12-year-old granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged young people to continue taking a stand. “My generation has already taken to the streets, peacefully and with masks and social distancing, to protest racism,” she said. “And I want to ask the young people here to join me in pledging that we have only just begun to fight, and that we will be the generation that moves from ‘me’ to ‘we.’”
The presence of coronavirus, the global pandemic of which the United States is the epicenter, affected the number of people who were on the Mall. Many people in other parts of the country who planned to be in Washington erred on the side of caution and stayed home. NAN volunteers handed out gloves, masks and hand sanitizer with the majority of demonstrators wearing masks and they exercising social distancing to comply with requirements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The march occurred against the backdrop of COVID-19, which has so far infected more than six million Americans and resulted in the deaths of more than 183,000 people. This public health crisis is accompanied by an economic meltdown and recession caused by the pandemic; more than 56 million unemployed Americans; and anywhere from 10-30 million people who are on the verge of being evicted from their apartments and houses.
According to published reports following the marches and speeches, smaller groups of protesters took the demonstrators to other parts of Washington. Some groups blocked traffic, yelled and taunted police and chanted for social justice. Others went at the Wharf in Southwest D.C. and blocked traffic, as did about 200 protesters who briefly blocked a ramp that led onto Interstate 395 before departing.
Sixteen activists dressed in orange jumpsuits, bags over their heads and handcuff around their wrists, marched in single file to the White House. They were protesting on behalf of incarcerated men who have been placed solitary confinement. Led by members of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) in D.C., the activists stood in silent protest in front of the White House, with one protestor holding a sign which read: ‘End Prison Slavery.’
Meanwhile, a crowd of several hundred people marched to the Department of Justice. Led by the groups, ‘Every Case Matters’ and ‘Mass Action Against Police Brutality,’ the protestors insisted that Justice Department officials reopen every cases of police brutality and prosecute the officers responsible.
Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, spoke to the gathering via video. She said that Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and the rest of those who organized the March on Washington in 1963 would be disenchanted and saddened that more than 50 years later, African Americans are still demanding justice and equality under the law.
“I have to believe that if they were with us today, they would share in our anger and frustration as we continue to see Black men and women slain in our streets, and left behind in our economy and justice system that has too often denied Black folks our dignity and rights,” she said.
Sharpton emphasized the importance of voting in November to get rid of Donald Trump, spoke of the need to commit to pursuing a new agenda that prioritizes equity, justice, and opportunity for all and said it’s time for a different type of national conversation.
“The conversation: Well, we’ve had the conversation for decades,” he said. “It’s time to have a conversation with America. We need to have a conversation about your racism, about your bigotry, about your hate, about how you would put your knee on our neck while we cry for our lives. We need a new conversation.”