"People need to know black lives and brown lives matter as much as white lives. It's what we still have to aspire to. I said it yesterday. I believe it. This is not just a problem in New York City; it is an American problem, an American challenge. It's an issue that goes back to the founding of this republic that we still haven't solved. Our generation has to resolve it."
– New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who announced on Dec. 4 that 22,000 New York City police officers would be retrained in response to the death of Eric Garner after being put in a chokehold by police
During the same week in which Mayor Buddy Dyer was zip-a-dee-downtowning at his annual address celebrating our shiny new things, like co-working spaces and bike-share programs and whatnot (see cover story, page 11), an ad hoc cadre of activists and citizens gathered at the corner of East Colonial Drive and Magnolia Avenue, just outside of downtown, to draw more attention to dirty old things like police brutality, racism and excessive force.
A group of people gathered at 5 p.m. to "shut it down," as they say, in response to the recent grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in New York and Ferguson, Missouri, who were implicated in the deaths of unarmed black men. In Ferguson (as you've heard, unless you've been willfully ignorant), officer Darren Wilson shot black teen Mike Brown to death, even after the kid ran away from him. The incident, and the grand jury's subsequent decision not to indict on any charges at all, resulted in looting and riots that rocked the small city just outside St. Louis. Just last week, in New York's Staten Island, a grand jury cleared NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who in July tackled a 43-year-old unarmed black man named Eric Garner and placed him in a chokehold with his head pushed down to the ground – the man was clearly subdued and crying out that he could not breathe, mind you – for the alleged crime of peddling loose cigarettes in the park. Garner's death was ruled a homicide, but somehow that didn't matter to the grand jury – it didn't think Pantaleo should be tried for anything.
So across the United States on the evening of Dec. 4, people gathered on street corners and freeways and in downtowns, shouting "hands up, don't shoot" and "we can't breathe," blocking traffic and shutting down roadways. In New York City, CNN reported, they blocked the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, which connects Manhattan with the state of New Jersey. In Boston, people held a sit-in on the Charlestown Bridge and briefly blocked a portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike. In Orlando, about 100 people gathered on the street corners near Colonial and Magnolia, walking into traffic holding signs and marching. According to Alma Hill, an Orlando Weekly contributor who covered the protest, it was a peaceful, respectful demonstration.
"Lots of police were present," she says, "but the protesters were well-organized and pretty well-mannered. ... They marched the four corners of that intersection and even waited for the walk signs to move each time."
That doesn't mean that there wasn't some derision – there always is – aimed at the group. One protester, Kai Porter, says she was approached by people who didn't get why Orlando residents would protest incidents that happened in Missouri and New York – and they certainly didn't get the fact that, yes Virginia, there is an undercurrent of racist culture alive in America in 2014.
"People need to know that this is not the kind of thing we're going to stand for, whether it's in New York or here or anywhere nationwide," Porter says. "This is about more than New York or Ferguson. Yes, you have the police brutality part, but then you also have the other cases that have the element of racial profiling. And you have the narrative where, after someone dies, people publish all this stuff trying to run a smear campaign against a dead person – you know, saying they weren't innocent enough, therefore their death wasn't really a crime, because they were a thug or a gang member."
Indeed, just as hatemongers and conservative commentators (often one and the same, sad to say) spent an inordinate amount of time digging up Trayvon Martin's teenage indiscretions to showcase that he was just begging to get shot by a vigilante neighbor for the crime of walking while black, they've done the same to Mike Brown and Eric Garner in some kind of misguided show of support for police.
It's downright depressing, really – and it's even more depressing when people insist that we live in a postracial society, that race doesn't really matter and that these protests are little more than "white guilt" or "race-baiting," two phrases you hear thrown about by commentators a lot these days.
"I remember once I had a panel discussion at UCF after the Trayvon shooting with some prominent media figures," says Hill, a black woman and a student at UCF, in an email about the recent rally. "One person actually said, 'I thought we were past all this, I mean we have a black president!' Another argued that the fact that Trayvon had marijuana in his system was something that was a major factor when considering why he was killed. FACEPALM."
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