On Thursday January 15th, the 86th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, activists organized under People’s Power Assemblies and Occupy Wall Street walked out of their workplaces, schools, and homes in a day of action against police brutality in New York. Each borough hosted marches and rallies with the protests converging at the African Burial Ground monument in Lower Manhattan.
The rally, relegated to the sidewalk by a significant police presence, listened to speakers relate the struggles of Africans during the Middle Passage to today’s struggles against police brutality, gentrification, and the prison system. For approximately two hours, activists reflected on the anti-slavery movement and Dr. King’s legacy from the Civil Rights Movement as different speakers shared their personal stories via megaphone.
After assessing the situation, the crowd decided to march south toward Battery Park. Though briefly taking the street, the police escort quickly forced protestors to the sidewalk announcing directives through a mobile LRAD. The presence of the device concerned a number of activists who questioned the intentions of the police in handling what seemed like a peaceful, obedient demonstration.
Activists let out cheers of democracy and cried “Black Lives Matter!” as the march moved past Zuccotti Park. Protestors called out black officers for siding with the police and urged them to ditch their jobs and join the movement.
The march eventually found its way to the Staten Island Ferry station at the foot of Manhattan. Activists executed a die-in as the police maneuvered to separate the protestors from curious onlookers. One young activist took the megaphone and shouted confrontational slogans at officers to the point that many of the police backed away not knowing how to properly address the situation. After the protestors posed for the media and finished their speeches, the march took off toward the City Hall area.
We congregated around the Metropolitan Correctional Center. One activist informed the crowd that we had gathered her to show solidarity with those currently behind the bars of the jail. She exclaimed that as brothers and sisters on the streets struggled against poverty and injustice, we should never forget those who sacrificed their freedom to assist the cause. After the speech protestors hollered, cheered, and made noise to let the prisoners know that they are still human and are in the protestors thoughts.
The march continued toward City Hall circling the premises before a separate contingent joined them. With these new numbers, the activists decided to take the demonstration to Grand Central. As the protest snaked into the train terminal, they were met with a heavy police presence consisting of state troopers, MTA officers, special riot squads, and a surveillance team. The police forces did not prevent the activists from performing die-ins as well as marching throughout the Dining Hall and Main Concourse.
The activists displayed an interesting assortment of banners with some relating the struggles in New York to movements around the world. Many protestors shared the similarities that America never abolished Jim Crow or slavery instead explaining that these institutions evolved economically. As much as the media, the police and their allies like to paint those within the movement as silly or ignorant, these activists expressed a deep frustration with current state of the country with a complex sociological understanding of how these oppressive systems came about.
As the evening came, a scuffle ensued when an onlooker approached and taunted an older demonstrator prompting a fight. The police immediately intervened letting the instigator walk away but then turning to arrest the protestor. Activists struggled to pull the arrestee back into the crowd but as more and more officers came to assist, the protestors backed off. Furious that one of their own was taken in an obvious case of provocation, a militant chant echoed through the Main Concourse: “Brick by brick, Wall by wall, We will make the system fall!” The tensity subsided as activists turned their backs on police and then gathered on the North side to execute more die-ins.
Despite the MTA and NYPD repeatedly announcing that demonstrations and die-ins were no longer going to be tolerated on Grand Central premises, the police are still handling these protests delicately and have yet to actively enforce these new declarations. The city of New York does seem prepared for more civil unrest judging by the increase in police units assigned to the marches but the tension between activists and police has yet to escalate like the situations in the East Bay and Ferguson. With the indictment verdict over the shooting death of Brooklyn resident Akai Gurley expected in the coming months, we shall see if these confrontations will remain contained.