Taking our protest against racism to the capital

October 10, 2017

Akua Ofori and Mike Stark report on the March for Racial Justice and what it means for further organizing against racism and white supremacy.

AT A time when Donald Trump is openly using racism to divide and distract from his failing, corrupt agenda, a march in Washington, D.C., on September 30 provided a counter-vision of unity and struggle.

The March for Racial Justice drew thousands of people to Lincoln Park, a residential area in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where it was joined by the March for Black Women. The joint demonstrations then took off on a boisterously loud and defiantly multiracial march through the city.

The march concluded at the Martin Luther King Memorial with a vigil—but not before participants listened to a powerful array of speakers at the National Mall, including Valerie Castile, whose son Philando was murdered last summer by Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez last summer; Marissa Alexander, who gained international support when she was jailed for firing a warning shot to protect her family from an abusive husband; and prominent Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour.

As march organizer and co-chair Maurice Cook told Socialist Worker, "The March for Racial Justice was one of the most beautiful expressions of America's multicultural landscape coming together in love demanding institutional change."

A student contingent at the March for Racial Justice
A student contingent at the March for Racial Justice (Mike Stark | SW)

THE MARCH was conceived in June after the acquittal of Yanez in Minnesota. The alarming growth of white supremacist organizations and especially their deadly August attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, added urgency to the call.

The demonstration aimed to harness the unrest and dissatisfaction with inequity, racial injustice and white supremacist violence into a national mobilization fighting for civil and human rights and racial justice.

The March for Black Women was also initiated around the same period and aimed "to denounce the propagation of state violence and the widespread incarceration of Black women and girls, rape and all sexualized violence, the murders and brutalization of trans women and the disappearances of our girls from our streets, our schools and our homes."

The program of speakers at the M4RJ rally reflected the multitude of racial justice issues discussed in the platforms of the two marches: fighting for the rights of Black women, and immigrant, indigenous, LGBTQ and Muslim communities; highlighting local and national campaigns for justice for police brutality victims like Terrence Sterling and Philando Castile; and building the movements to defend young immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, win a $15-an-hour minimum wage and stop the travel ban against people from predominantly Muslim countries.

Among the speakers was United We Dream Field Communications Manager and DACA recipient Sheridan Aguirre, who spoke about the diversity of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., including Muslims, people from the African diaspora and LGBT immigrants.

Johnnie Jae, a march co-chair who is an Indigenous rights activist and board member of Not Your Mascots and LiveIndigenousOK, discussed the racism and violence faced by Native communities and the need to address the use of Indigenous people as costumes and mascots in sports, including the local sports team in Washington:

I am in the midst of a city so steeped in anti-Indigeneity that it is a source of pride and tradition. Where it is not only okay to use a racial slur that denigrates Indigenous people, but it is celebrated.

This is a city where the mockery of our identities, our cultures and everything our ancestors died for occurs on any given Sunday, with no thought to the racism and harm they are perpetuating. This is a city and a nation that missed the irony of Washington Redskins players taking a knee while wearing a jersey that represents the racism and discrimination that we face as Indigenous people.

Valerie Castile brought the crowd to tears when she spoke about how her late son Philando was shot five times by Yanez while still strapped in by his seat belt. Valerie shared with the crowd her son's experience to reveal the systemic nature of the policing of Black people in this country:

My son knew what he needed to do when he got stopped by the police. He started driving when he was 17. In those sparse amount of years, my son had been stopped 50 times. Fifty times my son had been stopped by the police, and he was only 32 years old. You do the math...

And they say there's no racial profiling. That they're not stereotyping. You tell me what it is. These are some things you need to ask yourself. Use your common sense. My son did everything right...[but] he was harassed by the police until they ultimately killed him.

WHAT WAS particularly remarkable about this gathering was that it was an entirely grassroots effort, carried out with very limited resources and funding.

Just as importantly, this was the first mass gathering organized specifically against Trump's racism that we have seen in the nation's capital. There have been national marches for science and against climate devastation, but not against the white supremacy that is both the political core of his presidency and the resistance against it.

The march only took place because community groups took on the responsibility when other larger forces, including mainstream civil rights organizations, failed to take up the call.

One factor in the march's size and passion was the fact that many of the core organizers had been in Charlottesville in August and were rocked by the experience. For them and many others, the very existence of this march was a show of defiance in the face of that racist terror attack.

Also of note was the widespread support shown via T-shirts and placards for Colin Kaepernick, the football player whose silent take-a-knee protests during the national anthem have continued to make waves across the country.

One of the most powerful moments during the march was when hundreds of people participated in a mass kneel-in in front of the Department of Justice in an act of solidarity with the NFL protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality.

Events since Charlottesville such as Trump's racist response to the crisis in Puerto Rico and the FBI's attempt to criminalize Black activism show that more marches like this one are urgently needed, and that a wide audience of people will turn out if marches are organized openly and effectively.

As Valerie Castile stated at the end of her speech, "We have to stand tall, we have to stick together. We have to stay unified. We have to stand in solidarity and we have to march until we can't march anymore."

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