On April 9, 2012, I was one of 30 persons in attendance at a “Justice for Trayvon Martin” vigil on the library steps at the Rutgers Camden campus. Several professors gave fiery speeches, warning about the growing black rage in the cities and predicting riots if George Zimmerman was found innocent. But when George Zimmerman was found innocent in July 2013, the riots that were predicted failed to materialize in any significant manner. The response was more similar to that of people in mourning than in outrage. On July 14, after the verdict was announced, I traveled to Love Park in Philadelphia, where 800 demonstrators gathered for a protest against the verdict. After the demonstration I took part in a 24-hour vigil that began at midnight. With half-a-dozen others, I remained there until four in the morning. Yes, many people were angry, but no one called for massive “Die-Ins” or “sit-downs” in the streets. People were quiet, sad; disillusioned that once again white America wouldn’t blink twice for a black death. If the death of an unarmed 12-year old black boy couldn’t change America, what could?
The answer came in August 2014, when Ferguson riots broke out after the slaying of Mike Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Similar to previous race riots over the decades, the killing was not out of the ordinary as far as blacks in the cities were concerned, but it happened to be the lighting of the fuse that created a spontaneous reaction. There were only a few Trayvon Martin demonstrations the year before, but now there were Mike Brown demonstrations on a daily basis for weeks. On August 14, I returned to Love Park. Once again there were close to 800 persons, but this time people were ready to act. The minute it began raining, the march launched from Love Park to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Despite the heavy rain, no one dropped out of the march. During the entire one mile march it seemed that no one put their arms down as they chanted “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Once we reached the Museum, drenched by this point, everyone decided to march back to Love Park. There was more determination for justice in the hearts of most people that day. Another innocent verdict was not acceptable this time around.
The Mike Brown incident was universally known. On August 17 I traveled to Princeton University for “A Peaceful March & Rally for the People of Gaza.” Nearly every speaker requested a moment of silence for the people of Gaza and Ferguson. Speakers read letters from nonviolent demonstrators in Gaza, saying they stood with the people of Ferguson in protest against American oppression of people of color. At the weekly medical marijuana picket in Trenton that week I carried a sign that read “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” with a marijuana leaf in the middle. No matter what the demonstration was held for, the dissenters of the world stood with Ferguson.
Then in November, Officer Darren Wilson was found innocent of murdering 18-year old Mike Brown. Burning and looting broke out in Ferguson, with most first-hand accounts blaming police officers for instigating the violence. That same night in cities across the nation, thousands marched in protest against open-season hunting on blacks. Nearly every day for two weeks demonstrations occurred over the verdict. Even the Black Friday boycotts were widespread. No one was able to sit back like they had with Trayvon Martin.
On Wednesday, December 3, gasoline was added to the fire when NYPD officers responsible for killing Eric Garner were found innocent. This announcement came at a time when protests over Mike Brown’s death were still in full force. New York City became the new Ferguson as thousands of demonstrators blocked off train stations, highways and intersections.
That night I attended a “Die-In” at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Organized by In Defense of Black Bodies, it was initiated in protest against the Brown verdict, but quickly became a protest against Eric Garner’s murder as well. The anger reached new heights that night. Only blacks were allowed to participate in the Die-In, but thanks to my suggestion, hundreds of whites, including myself, performed sit-ins beside the die-ins. We conducted the die-ins and sit-ins for four minutes and thirty seconds – representing the four hours and thirty minutes Mike Brown’s dead body remained in the street. After this over 800 people marched out of the station and marched around Philadelphia for over an hour-and-a-half. Hundreds of police officers blocked the ramp to Schuylkill Expressway and Vine Street Expressway when we attempted to march onto the highways. We continued to march around Philadelphia, searching for something to disrupt. We finally found the only meaningful thing to disrupt – the Philadelphia’s Holiday Tree Lighting at City Hall.
Marching into the courtyard of City Hall with 700 demonstrators, we found not even 100 audience members listening to Christmas carols performed on a stage directly across from the giant Christmas tree. The majority of demonstrators linked arms and surrounded the Christmas tree. Every time someone tried to speak on stage they were booed down by protesters. Why the organizers of the Christmas tree lighting were so insistent on trying to continue their performance for their extremely tiny crowd, knowing full well that it only enraged the much larger crowd of demonstrators, is beyond me. However, they did successfully throw doubt upon our crowd when they had a dozen black grade-school students sing Christmas carols, but beyond this single incident we easily booed down each performer.
The occupation of City Hall gained the demonstration even more fame. News reporters present at City Hall prior to our invasion lit up with joy when we entered. Myself and others managed to get on ABC 6 Action News (ABC at Tree Ceremony) that night. The Die-in was also covered by “The Declaration.” On my way home I listened to radio stations covering the demonstration.
Nonviolence prevailed during the die-ins, the march and the occupation of City Hall. Yet the anger of the demonstrators couldn’t be ignored either. I witnessed several black demonstrators’ flip-off police, yell at cameramen for being too close, and angrily chant “Fuck the Police.” But these instances of anger are only a reaction to the violence portrayed by our government through historically racist institutions. As some began to chant “Fuck the Police,” many others of us chanted over this: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe.” America now has the choice to continue to instigate violent reactions or to out-chant violent reactionaries by seeking justice; but one option she doesn’t have is to continue to ignore the voices and anger of the oppressed.