On Saturday, I went to the march in DC. When I arrived at 10:30 and met @mizujada, a crowd had already gathered in Freedom Plaza downtown. It was chilly, but people milled around, talking and greeting each other. Every other person had their smartphone out to document the occasion.
There was about ninety minutes of speeches before the march. I believe the speakers were situated in front of the National Theater but honestly it was difficult to tell. Some people were easier to hear than others, although if you were out towards the street you had no idea who was talking at any given time. Which was okay. There were plenty of people to interact with and chants started up throughout the crowd while we waited.
One of the oddities–and I don’t know if that happened at other protests–was that there were several vendors making their way through the crowd. People selling shirts, hats, buttons, and flags.
There were also organizations distributing signs and literature and offering petitions to sign, but that’s fairly typical of the larger demonstrations I’ve attended.
When we finally got started walking, it was slow at first. People poured in from the side streets and from in front of the theater. It’s an odd sensation to be in the middle of so many people. They estimated about 10,000 people in attendance. Anyone who’s been to a pro sports game or a big commercial concert has been around many more people than that. But there’s something distinct about standing in the street just surrounded by people who are going the same direction you are. At first you feel a little claustrophobic. I’m sure many people don’t progress beyond that, but for others (myself included), there’s this point of relaxation. Maybe surrender? You’re part of the crowd.
We walked and chanted. It’s been said of the DC March that it was much more subdued. That’s probably true overall, but at the time it seemed lively enough. I suppose the other word that comes to mind is solemn. It was definitely a multigenerational affair. A number of the older marchers walked silently. Several younger men carried kids on their shoulders (the kids were great at the call and response, though).
It wasn’t a long march by any means–we walked down Pennsylvania Ave from Freedom Plaza to just in front of the Capitol Building. When we stopped, there was a stage and more speakers. They led us in chants and prayers. At one point, everyone in the crowd held hands. We heard from activists and elected officials and organization leaders and–finally–the families of several victims of police brutality. It seemed most important this last group have a voice, as well as the group of protesters who came from Ferguson to join us. Their expressions of love and grief and their calls to action were certainly the most moving.
There has been some criticism of this march and in particular its organizer, the Rev. Al Sharpton. It’s not really for me to say what should have been done or how the movement should proceed. There was certainly a conscious sense of division (be it problematic or not) in some of the rhetoric on Saturday. “We don’t have to agree on everything to stand together,” more than one speaker emphasized. I think that points to the fact that we (not just this particular community) have reached a shift in how we think about our activism and what we want of society. It’s not a purely generational divide, but that is certainly an influence.
Part of that influences how we regard DC as a place for demonstration. Its historical significance might mean more to some groups than others. Not everyone sees it as a necessary national stage anymore. (For me, mind you, it’s just one of two cities where it’s convenient for me to attend events like this. Most people protest locally and for some of us DC is just that local city.) But others feel differently–they want or need to stand in front of the government buildings with their signs.
But those are just idle musings. It’s different to be at an event as an ally and not an organizer–and it’s essential to recognize that difference. Otherwise you risk usurping the narrative, which is, of course, against the very definition of “ally.” Ultimately, you’re there to follow, to listen, to take the hand of the person next to you, and raise your voice only to amplify the voices of others.