It wouldn’t be surprising if you didn’t hear about the most significant rally in New York City so far this year. You could have missed it because it was called only two weeks in advance, or because, despite bringing thousands out for a powerful rally and series of marches, the Million Hoodies March was barely mentioned in the media. Perhaps this media silence was because there were no violent arrests, but it seems more likely to be because a majority-black march decrying the racist murder of a black teenager doesn’t fit within certain media narratives about our ‘post-racial’ society.
The Million Hoodies rally and march was in solidarity with the family of Trayvon Martin, a seventeen year old boy murdered in cold blood in Sanford, Florida on February 26. The murderer, George Zimmerman, was a neighborhood watch member, and claimed “self-defense” as an explanation for the killing. Despite having his claims that Martin was ‘acting suspiciously’ refuted by 911 tapes and witness testimony, he has not been charged with a crime. In the sort of absurd horror that all too often accompanies these cases, Martin had just been walking back to his father’s house from the store with a bag of skittles and an ice tea for his cousin. For Zimerman, apparently, wearing a hoodie and walking while black was justification enough to kill.
The Million Hoodies rally began at 6 PM in Union Square on Wednesday with speeches by councilmember Jumanee Williams and Martin’s attorney, while the crowd swelled from hundreds to thousands. Martin’s parents, who had flown up from Florida for the event, gave a moving and emotional speech calling for justice and solidarity. By 7 o’clock, the crowd had grown to at least 5000 supporters, most in hoodies and many carrying bags of skittles and cans of ice tea, who took off from Union Square, marching down 14th street to the West, filling the streets and marching up to 23rd, before doubling back to Union Square again.
There, the crowd split, although it was so large that many didn’t notice at the time, and I joined about 2-3000 people who took off headed south, marching down Broadway. (Later I would find out about 1-2,000 had stayed at the park then marched north to Times Square). The march filled the streets, and for well over an hour we spent our energy chanting, talking and moving together. The numbers were so big that at one point the main body of the march split, and we took both Broadway and Lafayette, and marched down the two parallel avenues for blocks.
The NYPD, who’ve used wanton violence against Occupy Wall Street protesters in the last week, attempted to block us occasionally but were for the most part outnumbered and unwilling to engage, and only showed up in large numbers when we arrived at one police plaza, at which point the march had dissipated somewhat. The few times I saw cops attempt to divert or control the crowd, they were met with resistance or dismissal and they had to back down. The march was an inspiring show of strength and solidarity, and if the cops had attempted the sort of violence they’ve been using to control dissent in this city lately, the feeling on the ground was that things would have gone rather badly for them.
The march was suffused with that rare feeling of shared anger expressed freely: though certainly not “joy”, as it was impossible to be happy while focused on the tragedy of Trayvon’s death, there is an aspect of joyousness to the recognition of solidarity and strength. Through our anger we came together, through our togetherness we recognized our power, and through our power we experienced, briefly, the freedom that such solidarity can bring. As they usually do, the chants told the tale of the march. By far the most common chant was “We are/Trayvon Martin”, although “No justice/No peace” (about half the time with the addendum “take to the streets and fuck the police”) was a close second. Hapilly for me, I didn’t hear anyone chanting the insipid, class and race obfuscating “We are the 99%”, although others reported that that nonsense was taking place elsewhere in the march.
All of which leads to another reason this march was so monumental: it was explicitly not an Occupy Wall Street march. Which isn’t to say that occupiers weren’t there, they were, but unlike most of the major marches in the last six months in the city, this was not called by OWS, nor were the majority of the marchers occupiers. Occupy Wall Street, instead, acted as a force multiplier, taking on an auxillary role of support. As long as Occupy Wall Street, in its current configuration, is the biggest game in town, it could well lead to less of the inspiring strength and creativity that OWS displays at its best moments and more of the arrogance and lack of class and race analaysis that it displays at its worst.
New York is a minority-majority city, and yet communities of color face major levels of daily violence and oppression at the hands of the NYPD. From the criminalizing of entire communities by stop-and-frisk, to the murder of young men like Ramarley Graham, it’s not only crazy Floridians who use white supremacy and violence to oppress poor communities of color. The only thing extraordinary about the violence that the NYPD uses against occupiers is that police violence is getting any media coverage at all.
The Million Hoodies March excited me for the year ahead of us, because what I saw and felt was solidarity: a situation where Occupy Wall Street fought against racism and state violence alongside these communities. However, as many people felt the way that Elon James White did, that occupiers were rude and attempting to coopt the march, my hope may be misplaced. It’s unfair to the people of color, as well as the LGBTQI, homeless, impoverished and other oppressed members of the movement to describe Occupy Wall Street as impossibly privileged, and since marches rarely go how they’re supposed to, the opinion of march organizers should be taken with a grain of salt (the organizers of the October 1 Brooklyn Bridge march, for example, were screaming for people not to go on the roadway, and would go on to argue, abusrdly, that the police had tricked us on to the bridge). Still, much of what White describes is completely abhorent, and there’s a lot of truth to what he says about the defensiveness, lack of accountability, arrogance and general unwillingness to change within the movement. It’s very important that this dialogue happen now, that his critique be taken into account and understood and that bridges of solidarity get built, not burnt.
Occupy Wall Street shouldn’t try and turn a march about Trayvon Martin into a march about OWS, but the opposite: more OWS marches should be about Martin, and Ramarley Graham, and Troy Davis. And not to bring more people of color into the movement as it exists, but because the movement needs to change to reflect the centrality of those struggles. Racism and its accompanying violence are the major forces used by this state to divide and destroy us. They shatter communities and build suspicion and hatred in the hearts of everyone. Moreso then government corruption or Wall Street malfeasance, it is the continual, historical violent oppression of minorities (racial, sexual or religious) that reveals and (re)produces the daily injustices of this society. The racist physical violence of the police and the prison system, the racist economic violence of the mortgage lenders and the globalizers, the racist psychological violence of our cultural products and everyday interactions: these are not side issues, these forms of violence define the very contours of hate and oppression in this society and must be stopped at all costs. Until there is an incredibly strong social force capable of overturning these forms of oppression, there will continue to be more Trayvon Martins.
For now, however, all of our thoughts, love and solidarity is with Martin’s family. His death was senseless and awful, but we have the strength to build a world where such brutal, mad injustices cannot occur. I felt a glimmer of that strength on the Million Hoodies March, and that strength will continue to grow if we can understand, unify and march together.