If the country is to be redeemed, it will depend on those who dissent—those who are now using their bodies to blockade bridges and highways.
Published in the March 2015 edition of New Internationalist.
I have been trying to keep track.
On Wednesday, December 3, a grand jury determined that there would be no criminal trial of the police officer who killed Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American father of six who was placed in a deadly chokehold for the trivial crime of selling loose cigarettes outside a corner store on Staten Island, in New York City.
The grand jury decision launched an extraordinary wave of protests, the breadth of which has been expansive enough to make an exact accounting difficult.
In the days after the announcement, demonstrators poured into the streets in Denver, New Orleans, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami. They rallied in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Salem, Oregon and Lithonia, Georgia.
In Los Angeles, protesters laid down across Hollywood Boulevard. In Philadelphia, hundreds of high school students walked out of morning classes. In Washington, DC, Howard University students clogged the city’s Union Station, while other protesters blocked Pennsylvania Avenue or rallied outside the White House. In Dallas, activists closed one of the southernmost segments of America’s expansive Interstate Highway I-35, while in Minneapolis they blocked one of its northerly stretches.
In New York, protests were varied and persistent. On Thursday, iPhone apps tracking traffic patterns showed Manhattan covered in red alerts. The West Side Highway, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, and Grand Central Station were all shut down.
The next day, signs on the New Jersey turnpike still warned: “Gridlock Alert Today: New York City.” That night die-ins interrupted holiday shopping inside both the flagship Apple Store and the city’s historic Macy’s department store.
All told, one organization reported 170 events in 37 states. This initial tally, however, encompassed just the first 24 hours after the grand jury announcement.
Photos and reports from the mobilization have been marked with distinctive hashtags: #BlackLivesMatter, #ThisEndsToday, #ShutItDown, and Eric Garner’s tragic last words, #ICantBreathe.
Trying to keep track of the protests—angry, insistent, inspiring—is far more heartening than compiling a litany of unarmed black men whom authorities have killed.
At this point, even maintaining a list of the most famous cases grows ever more painful and taxing: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo. And, of course, Michael Brown. The early December protests came after months of mobilization in Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown was killed and his body left to lie in the street for more than four hours.
In the wake of Ferguson, several commentators have drawn parallels between the U.S. and South Africa under apartheid. Among them is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has noted some important facts: that “young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men,” and that “in America, the black-white wealth gap today is greater than it was in South Africa in 1970.”
Such comparisons have a long lineage. During the Cold War, the civil rights movement benefited from the concern of mainstream politicians that lynchings and high-profile displays of racism were damaging the United States’ reputation abroad. None other than Richard Nixon argued that, when it came to America’s standing in the world, “racial and religious prejudice is a gun we point at ourselves.”
Then as now, if the country is to be redeemed, it will depend on those who dissent—those who are now using their bodies to blockade bridges and highways.
Already, the protests have had an impact: President Obama has met with civil rights leaders, young and old, and has proposed some modest reforms, such as equipping police with video cameras, so that any use of force will be recorded.
To address the true extent of American apartheid, we will need to go much deeper. And that will take greater pressure.
Our hope is that acts of personal sacrifice, creativity, and disruption will continue in more ways than we can easily tally.