On the sidewalk of the WABC/Ch.7 offices near Lincoln Center, a crowd of protesters gathered beneath the blue neon signs, against the background of TV screens rolling with footage of the red carpet and backstage scenes in Hollywood. It was Oscar night. But for this group, the point was not the awards but who gets a chance to win them.
With viewers across the country tuned in to watch the annual Academy Awards ceremony, broadcast by ABC this year, a modest but passionate group of protesters chanted in front of the ABC offices: “Include all of us!”, “Blackout the Oscar!”, “No justice no peace!” They took turns speaking through the megaphone, rallying the crowd and passersby, many of whom stopped their cars to take pictures. Some honked to show support.
“We made a creative contribution to this nation, we are not going to allow any institution to roll back the clock and whitewash us out of history,” said Minister Kirsten John Foy, Northeast regional director for the National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by the Reverend Al Sharpton.
Similar protests were also happening in seven other major U.S. cities, in an attempt to spark conversations about the lack of diversity in recent years’ Oscar nominations and the movie industry in the United States. This year, as a list of high-profile celebrities—including Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith—joined the boycott against the Oscars, the movie industry was caught up in controversy in a diverse country that has long struggled to represent and acknowledge its minority and marginalized groups.
Ale Murphy, one of the two Latinos protesting at the rally, said he believed that Hollywood has not included people of color in any visible position of power for generations. “And it’s about time that us, people of color, are included in the Oscars. Because there are a lot of good writers and good producers out there. I’m not just talking about African Americans,” he said. “I’m talking about Latinos. I’m talking about Asians and Native Americans.”
While some protesters were out solely to protest the “whiteness” of the Oscars, others saw deeper significance for their demonstration. Ade Williams, 46, a Harlem resident, spoke emphatically of the need to fight against oppression of any kind: “When there’s people being choked to death in Staten Island, we need to protest in Staten Island. When people are being poisoned in Flint, we need to protest in Flint. And when the Oscars are excluding us, we need to stand up for ourselves because we need to say, ‘Hey, our lives matter’.”
Faced with black communities’ outrage at the Oscars’ failure to nominate a single black actor or director for the second year in a row, some African-American celebrities who attended the ceremony felt the pressure. Chris Rock, the comedian and host of last night’s Oscars, tried to defuse the tension by making a wild joke that African Americans are boycotting the Oscars because they have nothing better to protest. Whereas in the ‘50s and ‘60s, “You know, we’re too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer,” said Rock during his monologue onstage.
James McDougal, Central Brooklyn Chapter president of the National Action network, said he sees Rock’s role as the host of the Oscars as a token measure to divert the African American community demand for more diversity. Dougal offered some practical strategies for boycotting the Oscars: “We know 40 percent of the people who do go to movies are African Americans. We can use that as a strategy and hit them in the pockets,” he said. “We can also talk to some African American actors and actresses to ask them to be on our side.”
The two-hour protest ended with the crowd forming a prayer circle in front of the ABC office. The protesters held hands and prayed. Minister Foy pointed out that the demonstration wasn’t about movie stars. “This really isn’t about them,” he said. “This is bigger than the actors who have not been recognized this year. This is about the children who have the creative spark and genius inside of them.
“We want to make sure that when they produce excellence, they are recognized,” Foy said. “and we are here to affirm their genius and we are here to affirm their opportunities and we are here to ensure that they have the opportunity to have their excellence recognized.”