Civil Rights Organizers Ask: Where Do We Go From Here?

The young activists behind "Millions March NYC" gathered at NYPD Headquarters in Manhattan on December 13th, 2014, Manhattan to protest police brutality. (photo by Tess Owen)

The young activists behind “Millions March NYC” gathered at NYPD Headquarters in Manhattan on December 13th, 2014, Manhattan to protest police brutality. (photo by Tess Owen)

As the cold January wind blew through Manhattan last Friday, some of New York’s activist heavyweights assembled at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side to strategize ways to sustain the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The location bore a special significance—not only because of its reputation for progressive politics—but also because its lecterns have welcomed the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, Jesse Jackson, and Nelson Mandela, to name just a few.

The conference, “The Gathering”, was an opportunity for activists, young and old, to discuss their ideas for how to drive a successful social movement. Here are some scenes from the proceedings.

***

It’d been a long day. The conference began at 2 p.m. and would go on until 10. Seasoned activists conducted workshops such as such as “Independent Media for the Movement” and “Organizing Youth to Dismantle Oppression.” The sessions were effectively “teach-ins,” echoing some of the organizing strategies that were used in the spirit of Sixties post-war radicalism.

In the late afternoon, a “Direct Action and Civil Disobedience” training took place in Riverside’s Assembly Hall. Protesters of all ages snaked around the room, through rows of chairs, in procession, chanting some of the same words that rang through the streets of New York at the end of last year: “No justice! No peace! No racist police!”

Then, volunteers assuming the role of the NYPD moved through, droning: “Step onnnnnn to the sidewalk.” Someone laughed. “This is too real.”

The idea of this exercise was to get a sense of police strategy and how to maneuver around it. Here, the name of the game was to avoid being “kettled” —a tactic used by the NYPD to contain protesters by surrounding them.

Then everybody took their seats.

A blue-haired girl and a young activist in a paperboy cap and loose-fitting shirt, known as Ash, sat on the stage at the front of the room to debrief the participants and talk about what to do if you are stopped by a police officer.

“Remember” Ash told the rapt audience, “These are magic words. Language is very important. The first thing you ask is, “Am I free to go?””

Ash had the audience repeat the words back to him, before continuing,

“If the answer is anything but “yes”, you ask, “Am I being detained?”

Then, if the answer is “yes,”you ask, “Why am I being detained?” Then, you say, “I am going to remain silent.”

The only time that silence constitutes consent, explained Ash, is if the officers ask you to empty your pockets or try to search inside your clothing. “At this point you say, loudly and clearly, ‘I do not consent to this search.’”

“I do not consent to this search,” the audience chanted in unison.

***

The evening programming consisted of a “plenary,” an inter-generational discussion held between five women of color. The women’s ages ranged from 20 to 75. They sat between the gothic pillars and the high red drapery of the Assembly Hall.

In the sea of radicals, dreamers, organizers, academics, punks, aging hippies, conspiracy theorists, and progressives sat Jose LaSalle, under a black NY Yankees cap. LaSalle is the man behind one of the busiest and most renowned “CopWatch” units around—documenting NYPD activity across the city.

Flitting around the periphery of the room were Synead Nichols and Umaara Elliott, the two ballerinas —ages 23 and 19 respectively— responsible for calling for and organizing the “Millions March” that took place in New York City on December 13th. They were among the volunteers ushering the evening’s event, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Eric Garner’s final words: “I can’t breathe.”

Johanna Fernández, a professor of American history at Baruch College, moderated the discussion. She presented some of the problems of 21st century America: the militarization of some local police forces, the myth that we inhabit a “post-racial society,” and mass incarceration.

Before introducing the speakers, Fernández paused and quoted author Zora Neale Hurston: “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” “It is the moral imperative,” Fernández continued, “of this generation to make these the years that answer.”

The first speaker was Danette Chavis, who blames police for failing to get her 19-year old son, Gregory Chavis, to a hospital after he was shot on the street (records show police did call an ambulance, it should be noted, and her lawsuit was later dismissed). Chavis said she had always been an activist, but the death of her son fueled her determination.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Chavis told the audience sitting before her, “We can no longer go on as business as usual. If the law fails to bring justice, then We simply. Have. To do. Something. Else.” The hall sat silently considering, until an “Amen” escaped from somebody’s lips. Then applause.

Next up was Asha Rose, a tiny 20-year old sparkplug, and an undergrad at Columbia University. Rose
is the leader of the New York chapter of the Black Youth Project 100. She talked about the importance of “the radical imagination.” As she put it, racism is embedded in this country’s infrastructure, so you have to dare to dream about a society that is completely different than the one we live in now. “I’m 20 years old, which means I’m an idealist,” she said, laughing a little.

Rose spoke passionately about the ways that her generation can learn from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, a key organizing group in the civil rights movement. She thinks that the colder winter months can be used to “get people plugged in to the movement,” establishing its structure and principal goals, in preparation for demonstrations later in the year, in the spirit of Mississippi’s 1964 “Freedom Summer.”

Then, Thenjiwe McHarris, 28, the campaign director of ‘Human Rights at Home, spoke. McHarris heads the “Ferguson to Geneva Project”— which seeks to bring alleged human rights violations committed by Ferguson law enforcement before the UN.

She suggested that their use of tear gas is evidence of such a violation. The name “tear gas” doesn’t do justice to its effects, McHarris said. “You may as well say, ‘I’m going to fuck up your respiratory system, indefinitely.’”

The Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical warfare, which includes tear gas, in international conflicts. However, it’s legal for riot police to use within a country’s borders.

The young activists behind "Millions March NYC" gathered at NYPD Headquarters in Manhattan on December 13th, 2014, Manhattan to protest police brutality. (photo by Tess Owen)

The young activists behind "Millions March NYC" gathered at NYPD Headquarters in Manhattan on December 13th, 2014, Manhattan to protest police brutality. (photo by Tess Owen)

The final speaker, Colia Clark, was welcomed to the lectern with fight-the-power fists in the air. Clark, 75, is a veteran of the civil rights movement—elected Executive Secretary of SNCC—and continues be politically active to this day. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Clark asked, ““Where do we go from here?””

She paused. “Well, we go from here under the leadership that came into being after 50 long, hard, dreary, bloody, drug-ridden, police-killing, low-wage years.”

Clark then turned to and thanked “the goddesses”—the women on the panel and in the audience, who have committed themselves to radical organization

“I submit to your leadership,” Clark said.

A man sitting in front of me muttered “thank you, sisters.”

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