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Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously laid out a vision for harmony between white and Black people 57 years ago, his son issued a sobering reminder about the persistence of police brutality and racist violence targeting Black Americans.
“We must never forget the American nightmare of racist violence exemplified when Emmett Till was murdered on this day in 1955, and the criminal justice system failed to convict his killers,” said Martin Luther King III, speaking to thousands who gathered Friday to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“Sixty-five years later (after Till’s murder), we still struggle for justice — demilitarizing the police, dismantling mass incarceration, and declaring as determinately as we can that Black lives matter,” King said.
Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many felt compelled to join civil rights advocates in Washington to highlight a scourge of police and vigilante violence that gave way to what many feel is an overdue reckoning on racial injustice. Some stood in sweltering temperatures in lines that stretched for several blocks, as organizers took temperatures as part of coronavirus protocols. Organizers reminded attendees to practice social distancing and wear masks throughout the program, although distancing was hardly maintained as the gathering grew in size.
They gathered following another shooting by a white police officer of a Black man — this time, 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last Sunday — sparking demonstrations and violence that left two dead. As peaceful protests turned to arson and theft, naysayers of the Black Lives Matter movement issued calls for “law and order.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, whose civil rights organization, the National Action Network, planned Friday’s commemoration, had a message for naysayers.
“Some say to me, ‘Rev. Al, y’all ought to denounce those that get violent, those that are looting,’” Sharpton said. “All of the families (of victims of police and vigilante violence) have denounced looting. What we haven’t heard is you denounce shooting.”
Sharpton asked, “We will speak against the looting, but when will you speak against wrong police shooting?”
Sharpton and King stood with relatives of an ever-expanding roll call of victims: Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, among others.
Arbery and Martin both were killed by men who pursued them with guns and whose arrests were delayed until residents protested.
“There are two systems of justice in the United States,” said Jacob Blake Sr., the father of the man whose shooting by police in Kenosha left him paralyzed from the waist down. “There’s a white system and a black system — the black system ain’t doing so well.”
“No justice, no peace!” he proclaimed.
Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, stared out at the massive march audience and said he wished his brother was there to see it.
Friday’s march shaped up to be the largest political gathering in Washington since the pandemic began. Many attendees wore T-shirts of the late Rep. John Lewis who, until his death last month, was the last living speaker at the original March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That march went on to become one of the most famous political rallies in U.S. history, and one of the largest gatherings with over 200,000 people in attendance.
Organizers said they intended to show the urgency for federal policing reforms, to decry racial violence, and to demand voting rights protections ahead of the November general election. A handful of satellite marches were held in South Carolina, Florida, Nevada, Utah and Colorado.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, in a video, said the original conveners would be disappointed that Black Americans are still marching for justice and equality under the law.
“I have to believe that if they were with us today, they would share in our anger and frustration as we continue to see Black men and women slain in our streets, and left behind in our economy and justice system that has too often denied Black folks our dignity and rights,” she said.
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