A mass of people came together in Washington, D.C., Saturday for a national march against police violence. The crowd gathered in front of the White House and marched toward the U.S. Capitol, stopping on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the families of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and other young men recently killed by American police spoke about their heartbreak and their hopes for some meaning to come from the death of their loved ones.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, whose nonprofit National Action Network organized today's "Justice For All March", presided over the event. I showed up near the Capitol just in time to catch to Sharpton and the family members speaking. The crowd was much larger than I'd imagined, stretching down several blocks and fanning out thick in all directions around the stage and screens reflecting it. I have no idea how many people were there—Sharpton says 50,000, which seems dubious; most coverage so far is just saying "thousands". Regardless, there were a lot of people—buses had been organized from around the north and south east—many holding signs or wearing t-shirts printed with "Black Lives Matter", "Hands Up, Don't Shoot", and "I Can't Breathe".
Sharpton took the stage, calling for a spate of uninspiring reforms that mostly seemed to revolve around shifting more power from states to the federal government; he was better spouting the kind of rhetoric that may not really translate directly to politics but makes people feel like they are a part of something that has momentum and potential. Whatever you feel about Sharpton, the man can rally a crowd.
"This is not a black march, or a white march, but an American march for the rights of American people," said Sharpton. Bad cops and their allies "thought it would be kept quiet. You thought you'd sweep it under the rug. You thought there'd be no limelight. But we're going to keep the light on Michael Brown, on Eric Garner, on Tamir Rice, on all of these victims because the only way—I come out of the hood—the only way you make roaches run is you got to cut the light on."
Sharpton brought the families of Brown, Garner, and others up on stage, and they took turns speaking. Some of their stories are well-known, some not; some led the crowd in short chants; many thanked the crowd for being there; most spoke of justice.
"My husband was a quiet man", said Garner's wife, Esaw, after thanking the crowd. "But he's making a lot of noise right now." One of Garner's daughters spoke about what a good father and family man he was.
Samaria Rice, the mom of 12-year-old Tamir Rice—fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer for holding a toy gun—announced the newly-released results of her son's autopsy: it was ruled a homicide. In November, Tamir was shot by Officer Timothy Loehman within two seconds of the police car pulling up beside him in the park after receiving a 911 call from someone who reported a "probably fake" gun.
The father of 22-year-old John Crawford, shot by Ohio police in WalMart for carrying around a pellet rifle he picked up there and planned to buy, said he was there so everyone would remember his son's name. "Please stay focused," he urged, stressing that his son hadn't been gunned down by cops "on the streets" but at America's number one retailer. Not only did the family not "get one condolence" from WalMart, the company refused to release the footage from store cameras of Crawford's death.
The brother of Cary Ball Jr., shot 25 times by St. Louis police officers in 2013, spoke and urged audience members to remember his brother's name alongside more recent, high-profile victims of police violence.
Levar Jones, the man shot by a South Carolina state trooper as he was reaching for his license at the officer's request, spoke at the rally alongside his wife. The incident was caught on a widely-circulated dashcam video ("Sir, why was I shot?" Jones asks as he's lying on the ground). In this case the officer, Sean Groubert, was actually arrested and is facing a felony charge of aggravated assault and battery. Jones urged those in the crowd to connect with one another and others in their individual communities to keep an appetite for reform alive.
Though most of the family members ended with hopeful remarks about obtaining justice or change, Kadiatou Diallo—mother of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed 23-year-old shot down by four white New York Police Department officers in 1999 (all were aquitted)—offered a sobering reminder that momentum can be meaningless, or at least painstakingly slow to build into any actual change. Diallo held up a 2000 issue of Time magazine and noted that her son's story had made it on the cover; the crowd cheered. She read the cover blurb: Cops, Brutality & Race. "And today," said Diallo, "16 years later we are standing still and debating the same thing." If a palpable awkward silence can descend on a crowd of thousands, it did.
Diallo spoke also of Sean Bell, the New York man gunned down along with two friends by NYPD on the day before his wedding in 2006. The men had been at a strip club where police were investigating prostitution, and apparently rubbed cops the wrong way—they used 50 bullets between the three young men. Diallo went to see them in the hospital. Bell was handcuffed to the hospital bed.
In all of these cases we have to ask the same question: "Why (do) our sons look suspicious?" said Diallo. "Time and time again, we are going through the same history, and reliving the tragedy every time, … Our sons died so that we could come here and review what is happening," have a conversation, make reforms, and then heal. "We want to heal," Diallo added, with all the doubt and wariness but cautious optimism of someone who's been fighting this particular battle for more than a decade. "We need healing America."