I arrived at the Mall around 11:30am, thinking I’d missed the march itself. Actually, it hadn’t started. Speakers were still speaking, folks were still gathering.
I noticed the youth first. They seemed ubiquitous, some in marching bands, others rhythmically shouting “Free DC!” as they made their way through the crowd. Black youth. I had to struggle to find whitefolks--one of the radio personalities cracked a joke about that from the stage a little later on.
One group wore red shirts that said, “District of Columbia--the 51st State.” I asked a young sista if I could get a picture of the back of her shirt. She shyly nodded approval, deeply contrasting all the activity around us.
Just as suddenly, more youth appeared, this time bearing two large pennants inscribed with Chinese characters--one red and gold, one black and gold. The flags waved above a dragon dancing to traditional drums I heard but couldn’t see.
I filed in behind some folks holding “I Demand the Vote” signs, noting the event stage to the left and the Washington Monument to the right. On the monument side, folks from The People’s Organization for Progress held up various large print, black and white signs, reflecting the intersections of the issues we face.
We Need Affordable Housing
Stop Police Brutality
Register & Vote
We definitely get it.
We know the politicians are playing games.
We know our lives are at stake.
Anyone who thinks we don’t get it has never been to an event like this. Just because we can’t take a day off to sleep in a tent doesn’t mean we won’t represent for something that has great meaning for us.
Nearer the stage, folks sat, stood, held signs and worked cameras. Children and elders wore the same union t-shirts: SEIU royal purple, AFSCME green, UAW wheels. Teachers, laborers, state and city workers stood as one. Our sororities and fraternities represented, from elders who might have come to DC with Dr. King in 1963, to those still proudly sporting pledge jackets.
Stereotypes of laziness, shiftless negroes, and the ludicrous diagnosis of drapetomania were drowned out by the obvious industry of my people. I thought of my mother and father--a teacher and law enforcement professional, respectively. How my maternal grandmother and her sister and brothers worked at the same insurance company for years with no worry. How my great aunt eventually settled at Social Security--a place where coworkers often became extended family, at least in Baltimore.
We work. We’ve always worked. Hard.
I wondered how many carpenters, craftsmen, metal workers, and stonemasons were in the crowd. How many were out of work, and for how long? How many lost pensions or health insurance in the financial meltdown of ‘08?
What mattered, though, was that they showed up today. “Several thousand” of us, even: some local, some bussed in from other east coast locations and elsewhere.
I found a spot and tuned in to the stage. Many of the speakers were serious, some humorous, all on point. We were collectively addressed as “Brothers and Sisters” by speakers who, thankfully, resembled the crowd. For anyone who’s been feeling left out of the “Occupy” movement, this was definitely our march.
The message was clear and consistent across the board, buoyed by a spirit of unity and solidarity I don’t think I’ve seen since the Millions More Movement march in 2005. But even then, the vision wasn’t as laser-focused.
DC mayor Vincent Gray called for statehood alongside other activists, noting America’s willingness to export democracy all over the world--often in questionable and harmful ways--yet “we don’t have democracy right in our nation’s capitol”. He cited the indignity of having to submit DC’s budget to Congress for approval--a unique, infuriating distinction. While race was not explicitly mentioned as the reason for DC’s political status, the “Free DC!” chants certainly implied it, reverberating like an Underground Railroad code.
As usual, Rev. Al Sharpton delivered the quotables. “This ain’t about Obama, it’s about my Mama,” he declared, referring to political attacks on Social Security and other social safety net programs. Then the powerful realization that “we got a new address”--no longer beholden to gathering at the Lincoln Memorial, now we can march over to Dr. King. Speaking just before him, the National Action Network’s Executive Director invoked the names of our female freedom fighters.
When folks spoke of Dr. King, it was in celebration of the fired up, justice-loving leader, an image often downplayed in mainstream remembrances. Martin Luther King, III explicitly said that linking the systems of American oppression and repression were likely what got his father killed. Earlier in the program, Dr. King’s focus on economic justice--including standing up for AFSCME workers in Memphis--was noted among his last political acts.
Then, we walked--after a short, spontaneous two-step to the band that played the speakers offstage and into the front line...
The most vocal group of non-Black folks were a core group of “Occupy DC” activists. They, along with the labor contingents, chanted most of the way to the monument and back. A refrain of “We Are the 99%!” was often punctuated by drumbeats and tambourines.
A minister’s organization sang old time gospel songs:
“Brother ___ is a soldier in the army / got his hand on the Master’s plow / and when he couldn’t hold up the bloodstained banner / he fought on anyhow...”
“Our President’s in trouble, Lord...heal our land...”
There were no theatrics, no puppets (well, one...), no well-placed social satire or fake billionaires asking for handouts.
But we raised Black Power salutes and spirit fingers. We shouted “Yeah!” “Hallelujah!” and declared that we needed jobs and justice “yesterday” instead of “now”.
Things quieted down as we approached the MLK Memorial.
They have positioned him beautifully.
At first you only see two large granite boulders framing the Potomac River’s tidal basin, mimicking a doorway. I thought of the water-facing memorials on the west coast of Africa, the spaces marking our ancestors’ the last glimpses of home before being forced into the Americas.
As you walk into the space, you eventually glimpse Dr. King’s figure as it emerges from another massive piece of granite. Just over his head, the Washington Monument shoots up into the sky. It seems ironic until you consider that the obelisk--or tekhen--was first an ancient Kemetic symbol. Some say it’s a depiction of a solidified sun-ray, a tangible reminder of the enduring power of the life-force.
Once you’re in front of the statue itself, surrounded by inscriptions of Dr. King’s words and awed by the immensity of the sculpture, you realize he’s looking straight out into the Potomac in such a way that Thomas Jefferson’s memorial must be, at minimum, in his peripheral vision. Now this is irony: one lover of liberty and justice pushing America to make her ideals a reality for all, forever challenging another liberty-lover hamstringed by the racist rhetoric of his time and his own shortcomings. Yet another founding father trumped by a descendant of those he enslaved.
There wasn’t a unified walk back. Folks seemed to make their own way, reuniting with colleagues, taking pictures, sharing older memories, heading back to buses.
Personally, I had to run to a store to grab a journal so I could write a (very) rough draft of this.
What did the day leave me with?
When we gather, I am always amazed at how seamlessly we represent our past, present and future. We do not forget, yet we innovate. There are times when we can appear stagnant or set in our ways, still, our words are prophetic. We understand that our old ways are new again. We keep the cycles going.
I hope this gets reported widely and well. I hope we had good numbers yesterday and continue to draw larger crowds in the future.
I hope folks push to get a real jobs bill passed. I hope folks vote in 2012.
I hope these kids doing all this “occupying”--with or without us--learn something from what they saw today in DC.
I hope the change is really coming.