Revolution #181, November 1, 2009

Fighting Back: A Reporter's Notebook on October 22nd

It's the night of October 22 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Community Center in lower Manhattan. A middle-aged Black poet named "Saint" has just kicked off a visceral and inspired poem about the continued onslaught of police violence against the people. "Remember Rodney King?" Saint asks, rhetorically. "Not guilty!" Then he practically screams, "They tried to beat him to death!"

Saint pauses for a moment, and explains to his audience that reading this poem is an emotional experience for him. He adds he is very moved to see everyone who has turned out for "Voices Against Police Brutality," an evening of hip hop, reggae, poetry, spoken word, and other forms of art exposing and denouncing the crimes of the police.

Then Saint continues: "How long must we deny our eyeballs? Our hearts?"

Well put, indeed. Because those who still wish to dispute that the police in this society systematically harass, brutalize, and kill the masses—especially Black and Latino men— have been left with very little recourse other than to deny their eyeballs, their hearts, their ears, their brains, and any sense of humanity they might have left. Just look at what happened in the roughly three months leading up to October 22: July 4, East Orange New Jersey—Jahqui Graham, a 21-year-old Black man, is celebrating "Independence Day" when the pigs arrest him, take him to jail, and beat him to death; August 14, New York City—the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) issues a press release reporting that the NYPD stopped-and-frisked more than 273,000 innocent people in the first six months of 2009 alone, the overwhelming majority of them Black and Latino; August 24, Rockford Illinois—Mark Barmore, a 23-year-old Black man, is executed by police in a daycare center, in front of several terrorized children; September 11, Chicago, Illinois—Corey Harris, a 17-year-old Black youth, is running to escape the scene of a shooting when cops shoot him in the back, killing him.

Once white robes and ropes, now blue uniforms and bullets. The result is the same: Black and Latino blood. And yet, a system that threatens "no excuses" for Black men now that Obama is in office will offer any excuse to justify police murder. You should have pulled your pants up, Black man. You shouldn't have run. In fact, you shouldn't have flinched a finger. You shouldn't have acted funny. You shouldn't have scared that cop. You shouldn't have asked questions. You shouldn't have talked so loudly. You shouldn't have talked back. In fact, you shouldn't have talked at all. Then maybe you would have lived—maybe.

And how eager far too many people in our society are to accept these excuses rather than confront the ugly reality in front of their faces. "Stop breaking the law, and there won't be police brutality," advises a 30-year-old white lawyer, after watching the October 22nd march against police brutality pass by the NYU library.

"Generally, if you behave, you stay out of trouble," a 23-year-old white student agrees a few minutes later.

 Both of them defend the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices—even after the statistics from the NYCLU report are quoted to them—on the grounds that if people have nothing to hide, they shouldn't mind being questioned and searched.

Well, FUCK THAT! On October 22, as part of a National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation, roughly 150 to 200 people of diverse ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds take to the streets, and/or the LGBT performance space, to deliver a statement: Police brutality has gone on for far, far too long, cannot be justified, should not be accepted, and must be stopped.

A Diverse Show of Defiance

Around 3:30, a crew of revolutionaries arrive at Union Square with a banner and copies of issue #179 of Revolution newspaper, whose centerfold screams "NO MORE STOLEN LIVES!" and includes images of people resisting police brutality all over the country. As two of the revolutionaries begin agitating, a rotating crowd of about 15 people gravitate closer to hear, while others in the park listen from where they are sitting. Many people get copies of Revolution. One young Black woman in the crowd holds up the newspaper and then relates the experience of her brother, who was harassed by cops on his birthday. She connects this experience to the whole "set-up" of society, in which—despite the end of literal slavery—people are nonetheless forced to "slave away," and in which some people experience police brutality and harassment every day while others are not even aware of it. She ends up marching with the revolutionaries down to Washington Square Park, site of the day's main demonstration, as does at least one other person—a Black man who appears to be in his 40s.

As the feeder march proceeds towards NYU, it grows considerably in size, thanks in part to a large contingent from the New Jersey-based People's Organization for Progress (POP), which had mobilized in particular around the Jahqui Graham murder. Upon arriving at the NYU campus, and before heading to Washington Square Park, the crew marches along the edges of the park, sometimes stopping by key campus buildings, as they chant, "Join us! Join us! Stop police brutality!"

 At the park, a crowd of about 125 people—a group that includes African-Americans, Latinos, whites, Asians, revolutionaries, relatives of police victims, activists, anarchists, students, youth, and the elderly—gather for a rally, many of them dressed in black.

Interviews with several protestors illustrate the diversity of people and circumstances that have coalesced on this afternoon. Steve, a middle-aged Black man from Brooklyn, says that he had simply been walking in the park when he saw the gathering, and wasn't sure what was happening at first. When he learned the content of the rally, he was inspired to join in.

"I found it interesting," Steve says. "The police have a history of being brutal and abusing their so-called power and authority."

A minute later, he adds, "We have to ask ourselves a question: Why is this? Why is this continuing?"

When Revolution asks Steve how he would answer his own question, Steve replies that police have internalized the idea that they have authority, and that a "culture of brutality" has developed among police. But when we explain the perspective of Revolution newspaper —that police brutalize and harass people because they are enforcing a system of imperialism that systematically subjugates entire groups of people, particularly Blacks and Latinos—Steve agrees.

"It's true," Steve says. "That's been the case from day one. America was founded through imperialism. Imperialism was at the root and imperialism is still at the root, no matter who they put up front to appease the people."

Yes, Steve says, when asked for clarification—the "no matter who they put up front" remark is a reference to Barack Obama.

As with Steve, there is an element of chance in the circumstances that lead Brandon, a white freshman at Pace University, to attend the demonstration: Brandon had found a leaflet for the National Day of Protest on the ground, and thought to himself, "Why not show my support around here?"

Brandon says police brutality is an issue he has researched extensively. He points out that this brutality is given a stamp of approval by the courts.

"I feel that they have the legal system behind them," Brandon says, "so that even if we do catch the people who commit these atrocities, they still walk."

Brandon says that he feels this is the main factor behind the epidemic of police brutality in this country. As was the case with Steve, though, when Revolution asks Brandon for his thoughts on the perspective of revolutionaries—that police act the way they do because they are enforcing a system of imperialism—Brandon, too, concurs, drawing parallels between what police do to people in this country and what the U.S. military does on an even larger scale around the world.

We also ask Brandon what it is like to hear from parents of victims police brutality at the rally, and to be among such a racially-diverse group of protestors. "It's eye-opening," he says. "You hear about it [police brutality] on the news, but when you get out and hear the people's stories, you feel connected to them."

Chanelle, a 27-year-old Black NYU graduate student, says that hearing Sean Bell's widow Nicole speak on campus a few days earlier, together with getting an email about the October 22nd rally, had propelled her to Washington Square Park. Chanelle says that while recent high-profile cases of police brutality like the Sean Bell and Oscar Grant murders have given the impression that there is a recent resurgence of police brutality, in fact this brutality has been going on "for a very long time." When Revolution asks if Chanelle has personally been the victim of police harassment or violence, she replies, "I have actually been blessed to never have a negative experience." But she adds that she has friends in the LGBT community who have been harassed.

"It's systemic," Chanelle says of police brutality. "You can't just say all these different cases are isolated cases." She refers to the Stolen Lives book featured at the demonstration, which documents thousands of cases of police murder since the 1990s.

As our conversation with Chanelle winds down, Carl Dix—a representative of the Revolutionary Communist Party—is addressing the crowd. Dix mentions the enormous rates of NYPD stop-and-frisks.

"This is illegal," Dix says. "It is unacceptable. It is outrageous. And it must stop."

Dix drives home that it will take a revolution to finally end police brutality and harassment and get to a society where security forces would sooner risk their own lives than steal others, and he ends his speech by urging—to applause from many protestors—both youth and those who are "more experienced" to work for revolution.

As the rally finishes, the crowd of protestors—by this time numbering between 150 and 200—assembles, marches out through a park that is quite busy on this early autumn evening, and heads for the LGBT Community Center for "Voices Against Police Brutality."

"The Day Will Come"…

Among a group of three students sitting by the fountain and watching the protest depart, there are divergent viewpoints. David, a senior, complains that the protestors had earlier disturbed him while he was studying at the library, and he suggests that NYU is not the best location for the demonstration; he wonders aloud if the demonstrators are "faux liberals" who are just trying to make a spectacle. But Sarah, a sophomore, disagrees, chiming in that college campuses are the right place to "get things going." As Revolution speaks to the three students, she reads a flyer for October 22nd, which she describes as "powerful."

 Brian, also a sophomore, says that while he doesn't think people should have a "vendetta" against cops, they also shouldn't "absolve" police when they step over the line. Brian says NYU students tend to be socially conscious, and agrees with Sarah that it made sense to hold the demonstration on campus.

The march up to the LGBT center is loud and defiant. Chants include "Fuck the police!" and "We don't have to live this way/stop police brutality! We don't have to live this way/we need a revolution!"

As the march approaches the LGBT center, it attracts the attention of a young Black man standing outside. "It was really loud coming down the street," he says. "I just thought it looked pretty intense."

Outside the center, participants in the march reflect on the day of action and the factors that had compelled them to take part.

A woman of color who gives her name as "War Cry," said that she is a friend of Brad Will, an American journalist and activist murdered in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 while filming a protest against the government; while a man named Juan Manuel Martinez Merino is in prison for the murder, many people—including Will's family—strongly suspect that Mexican police forces murdered Will and covered it up. Will, who War Cry says was himself a fighter against police brutality, captured his own murder on video.

"It's just such an incredibly important issue," War Cry says, "and people have to overcome their fear and confront the horror of police brutality."

Sarah, a 27-year-old white woman, expresses similar sentiments. She describes being brutalized by police during an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. on October 5, and also says she witnessed several friends being beaten—some to the point of being hospitalized—during the G-20 protests in Pittsburgh last month. The fact that many of these protestors were committed to non-violence and non-destruction, Sarah says, had not spared them from abuse. She describes the scene in Pittsburgh as a "police riot," and adds she is still shaken up by images of tear gas and the sound of deafening cannons police used on protestors.

"I guess I'm looking forward to the day when enough people wake up and take action in the street," Sarah says. "And the day will come. It's just a question of when and how."

Sarah's words mesh well with the spirit of angry and exuberant defiance that characterizes the "Voices Against Police Brutality" event inside the community center. As young poets of color read poems about refusing to back down in the face of horrific police brutality, the packed room—which consists of many youth of color—cheers uproariously.

The Mahina Movement, a folk trio, sing a song memorializing Sean Bell, which includes the lines: "Justice does not live in America," and "The system that we have in place is a disgrace."

Margarita Rosario, the mother of Anthony Rosario—whose life, along with his cousin Hilton Vega's, was stolen in 1995 when NYPD cops shot him in the back as he lay face down—chokes up as she describes her tireless quest for justice in the face of constant threats and intimidation by the NYPD, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and others. Rosario recalls watching a news report with her son a few weeks before Anthony Rosario was killed, about the police murder of Anthony Baez. "If I was related to that young man," Margarita recalls her son saying, "I would take it all the way."

A few days later, Margarita was forced to endure the horrible site of her own son in a coffin, and had the same thought: "I'm going to take it all the way."

Rosario receives a standing ovation from nearly the entire audience.

One of the most stirring moments of the entire day comes when the family of Jahqui Graham takes the microphone, demonstrating tremendous courage as they recount the sickening police beating of Graham back in July—a murder that has received essentially no coverage in the mainstream news. Jahqui's mother, Tawanna, describes how Jahqui had been enjoying this past 4th of July, and how—like so many other people on that day of the year—he had had a few drinks. Jahqui was laughing and playfully ringing the door bell of his home in East Orange, New Jersey. Police came and arrested him, and took him to jail—where they proceeded to beat him to death.

"He yelled and screamed for nine hours for them to take him to the hospital," Tawanna Graham tells a horrified audience.

Graham says that her son's body was scarred from head to toe, and that it has been hidden for several weeks to cover up the crime. She says there was still blood in the jail cell where her son was killed, and that police show that cell to others whom they arrest, in order to terrorize them.

"It's not just East Orange, New Jersey," Graham says. "It's all over. And it's sad that our mothers have to go through this over and over again."

Sunsara Taylor, a writer for Revolution newspaper, tells the audience that Tawanna Graham could be a mother in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Pakistan. "This is America," Taylor says. "And it's not just a few bad apples."

And just as people have been lied to about America and about this system of imperialism, Taylor says, they have been lied to about the history of communism and revolution. Referencing the Revolutionary Communist Party's statement "The Revolution We Need… The Leadership We Have," Taylor tells the audience: "The wretched of the earth have made revolution before."

Taylor invites people to Raymond Lotta's speech at NYU on October 26, "Everything You've Been Told About Communism is Wrong."

She then unleashes an energetic call and response chant that could be a theme not only for the evening performance, but for the entire National Day of Protest: "We don't have to live this way/another world is possible!/we don't have to live this way/we need a revolution!"

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