Last night, well over 1,000 Washington, DC activists gathered at Malcolm X Park to attend a peaceful vigil and moment of silence as part of the nationwide National Moment of Silence 2014 (NMOS14) organized by Twitter-famous Feminista Jones. The event was organized by young people in the DC area including our own former intern Yemisi Miller-Tonnet! – and I joined her, with other FMF folks, to be part of this historic and important event.
The event began just past 7 PM, first with the organizers leading the crowd in chants, then with reading the names of those lost. Hearing those names, of course, was emotional, but the ages and circumstances surrounding their deaths were even more devastating: Tarika Wilson, 26, was shot to death in her own home by police, and her infant son was shot and wounded; Renisha McBride, 19, was fatally shot for seeking help at a nearby residence following a car crash; Rekia Boyd, 22, was an innocent bystander shot to death by police in a public park; Jordan Davis, 17, was shot and killed in a convenience store parking lot for playing his music too loudly; and, of course, college-bound Michael Brown was shot and killed last Saturday in his hometown of Ferguson, Missouri.
These names do not begin to scratch the surface of those lost, and that was recognized by organizers, who provided a space and time for the crowd the shout the names of their dead. One young woman near me shouted the name “Oscar” over and over as tears streamed down her face. It was emotional, it was somber, it was a time to mourn: this was reiterated by the three young organizers over and over in effort to quell the comments of those who attended only to disrupt.
Like any social justice space, there were those present as dissenters. This small group of people shouted loudly through the 7:20 PM minute of silence. A few shouted bible verses, other shouted opposition to the shooting being a “race issue.” Though visibly irritated, the organizers were able to move past the incident and turn the event into an open forum, allowing others to come up and take the megaphone. The first speaker, a former member of the Black Panthers, said something that really resonated: “Racism isn’t people, it’s a system.”
When the sun set and the park closed, the fired-up crowd dispersed but the action didn’t end. An impromptu march through the streets of downtown DC began, uniting people at the vigil with people in the exterior community. Still wearing my work clothes, I broke into an all-out run to catch up with the throng of people – of all ages and colors – chanting and holding homemade signs emblazoned with their support.
We marched from Columbia Heights, down U Street, through the Shaw/Howard neighborhood, past Chinatown, and ultimately assembled on the steps of the Smithsonian Institute of American Art. We chanted the whole way, mainly the ubiquitous “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” My arms ache from being raised for so long; it is an ache in the best kind of way.Above: The route the marchers took, hitting all the major commercial areas of downtown Washington, D.C. In all, we walked just over two miles.
I never planned on being a professional organizer. Truthfully, I didn’t know such a job existed. Working in DC’s nonprofit sector, I hear constant buzzwords like “organize,” “mobilize,” and “build power.” I’ve been working for Feminist Campus since mid-June but it wasn’t until last night that all the buzzwords finally clicked and I understood. More than 1,000 people gathered on the Smithsonian’s steps and in the street outside the Verizon Center, and one young man began to address the crowd through a megaphone. I’ll need to paraphrase, because at this point my phone – and therefore my ability to record the event – was long dead, but essentially he said that when we get organized, we don’t obey the power. We ARE the power. And he was right.
I finally understood. There, in the heart of DC, surrounded by a thousand people who were angry and fed up and devastated and united, I had witnessed and participated in what it means to organize. We shut down DC’s major commercial corridor. We stopped traffic. We literally took it to the streets, and the streets shut down for us. People dining at sidewalk cafes, peering down through their apartment windows, sitting in the backseats of stopped taxis, and honking their car horns from the drivers’ seats had no choice but to stop, see us, and hear our message. Many of those we passed raised their arms in solidarity.
We ARE the power. Our anger for the people of Ferguson, for the death of Michael Brown, and for the far too many deaths of our young people of color hit a fever pitch across the country last night, and I am tingling even now as I type this. I was a part of it. I understand now what it means to organize and to build power.
I will close with this chant from last night: It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win.