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On Friday (Aug. 28), Al Sharpton’s National Action Network organized the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks Commitment March in our nation’s capital. The event, which was attended by tens of thousands of masked people from all over the country, was in commemoration of the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famed “I Have A Dream” speech.
In the sweltering August of D.C., we gathered together to form the largest political gathering since the pandemic hit. Along the walk leading up to the rally site, vendors manned makeshift booths with BLM-emblazoned shirts and masks, a religious zealot on a megaphone appealed to us to save our souls, and firemen sprayed water from their truck at children to cool them off — further solidifying their popularity over police officers.
The crowd poured out of the Lincoln Memorial, down the steps and flanked the entire length of the reflecting pool. The scene was a sea of screen prints honoring MLK, Rosa Parks and John Lewis, with some groups in coordinating outfits. There were signs about peace and education, quotes from Desmond Tutu, the names of those slain by the police; and “I can’t breathe,” “hands up, don’t shoot” and other battles cries of the movement. Atop a cement block stood a man with a noose hanging loosely around his neck. And scattered throughout, the assembly children sat on their parent’s shoulders.
In attendance were the young and the old — students, healthcare workers, activists and educators — many proudly wearing some garment or accessory signifying the professional sector they represent. While the congregants were certainly multicultural, it was very much a moment for Black fellowship. On my red-eye flight from Seattle to D.C., a group of young white protesters bonded loudly over their excitement for the rally, making me curious about what the demographics would be. And, as I believe Black people being vastly overrepresented at an event of this nature is more than appropriate, I was relieved by the turnout.
While the general mood of the event was uplifting, I found myself looking at the makeup of the crowd, the sentiments expressed on the signs, the purpose for communing that day, all of which resembled that which it was intended to commemorate, and wondering in dismay how it was possibly that we’re still in this place? Over half a century after Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed that one hundred years after the emancipation that the Negro is not free — “one hundred years later the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” — we are also still shackled by oppression.
The systemic racism, which manifests itself in all ways from political to economic, has lessened in most aspects since the original March on Washington. But, many would say that it’s worsened in the last 10, perhaps 20 years, and continues to mount in ways that serve as a reminder to all of us that progress is not linear; it swings like a pendulum.
As a child of the 90s, learning about the monumental victories of the Civil Rights Movement, I would have never guessed that I’d be watching the normalization of overt white nationalism being expressed and demonstrated on the streets, online, behind podiums, and on our television screens.
Additionally, although it stands to reason, I was struck by the stark contrast in energy between the Commitment March and the anti-police brutality protests of the last seven years, particularly those in these past three months — both protests that I’ve personally attended and the ones we’ve all seen dominating media coverage.
This gathering felt much more traditional than radical — like a very long, massive church service — before the crowd march to the MLK memorial. Pastors and reverends gave sermon-like speeches about love and legislation. Gospel giant BeBe Winans sang an original song dedicated to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Martin Luther King III and his 12-year-old daughter Yolanda Renee King both spoke, with the latter calling for “genuine equality.”
This was a moment for reflection and symbolism, not revolution or even civil disobedience. There was no threat of violence looming over us — no real chance of confrontation with the police at all at this permitted, authorized rally. While this observation shouldn’t be viewed as a criticism, I do believe that the regulated tranquil nature of the event is ultimately what made it easy for those not in attendance to ignore, outside of some streets being shut down.
Although no orations came close to approaching the emotional impact of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it was undeniably moving to hear, in person, the words of the loved ones of those we’ve spent the summer marching for. The parents of George Floyd and Jacob Blake, the sister of Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin’s mother all spoke to a moved crowd.
A somewhat controversial moment came when Jacob Blake’s sister expressed that she held Black people accountable for fighting the system with self-love — which, again, is a departure from typical attitudes expressed at the anti-police brutality protests where there seems to be a clear understanding that we can’t love ourselves out from under the heel of oppression.
Unfortunately, this was one of the few moments that gained real traction on Twitter and Instagram. For an event of that size, I expected more conversation on social media, more coverage on the news — no one was glued to a screen monitoring how the scene was unfolding. Just down the road, only a few questions about the march were lobbed at Trump during a press conference, which he easily ignored.
Overall, I believe the moment served its intended purpose to unify and inspire, and I imagine the organizers and most people who were present would say that it was a success. It was a time for peace, and healing, and humanity. Realistically, however, it’ll likely be unmemorable. I was ultimately left feeling that these types of demonstrations will fail to move any needles or force anything, including discourse. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” I don’t see how we can conceivably bring about substantial change without some confrontation and agitation — without metaphorically grabbing those in power by the collar and demanding our concerns be addressed.