On what traditionally has been considered a day of service – or, for many, just a day off work – Martin Luther King Jr. Day is, for many, a day of protest.
Marches, sit-ins and other forms of direct-action were staged in more than a dozen cities, and organizers say that hundreds – perhaps thousands – of combined participants were expected to gather under the banner of the Black Lives Protests that have in recent months diverted traffic, stormed city halls and police stations, and sent chants for justice into the air in as many as three dozen American cities.
“We are very aware of history, and we build on it,” said Charlene Carruthers, national coordinator of the Black Youth Project 100. “Today is about reclaiming what MLK Day means. His work and his image has been sanitized by people who are interested in maintaining the current system of oppression.”
Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day protests against police shootings and other perceived inequalities in the justice system have ignited a renewed and intense national conversation about race and law enforcement, and forced city officials and police departments to confront angry young protesters who have at times shut down highways and major intersections to demand increased transparency in the handling of shootings by officers.
The events began last week, with dozens picketing Thursday in Philadelphia, where Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was appearing with city leaders at a forum on community policing. On Friday, a handful of protesters in Boston shut down Interstate Hwy. 93 during morning rush hour by sitting in the road with their arms linked in concrete barrels.
Later that day, protesters stormed BART subway stations in San Francisco, blocking train entrances and banging metal spoons against train cars – effectively shutting down several transit stations.
The young organizers hope the protests counter what they say is a sanitized perception of King. Uniting under the banner “Reclaim MLK,” they insist that the slain civil rights leader is best honored by direct actions of protest and disruption – not necessarily by volunteerism and community service that have come to define the holiday in his honor. That memory of King, protest leaders insist, is a farce.
“MLK was a radical, very strategic and uncompromising in his strive for justice,” said Dante Berry, director of the Million Hoodies Movement, who is based in New York where protesters were marching from Harlem to the United Nations on Monday. “It’s reclaiming our own history in a way that is truthful. . . . What makes people uncomfortable is that we’re challenging people to think about what it looks like — what education, what the justice system, what society — looks like when black lives matter.”
The effort, which leaders insist is a new civil rights movement, began in August, when residents in Ferguson, Mo., poured into the streets in pain and outrage after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, after a confrontation with white police officer Darren Wilson. Then they sparked again in late November, when Wilson was not indicted in the shooting.
In the intervening months, momentum began to build in other cities where young men of color were killed by police officers – including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Oakland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Then, in December, a New York grand jury declined to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner, who was choked to death by officers during an emotional arrest captured on camera. Thousands filled the streets, rallying around Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe.”
Since the beginning, critics have demanded that protesters appoint a leader and have suggested that the protest movement’s goals are not clear. But leaders in several cities insist that they are. They want body cameras on officers, special prosecutors to investigate police shootings, accountability for officers who commit shootings, and an end to the use of racial profiling in policing, they said.
Meanwhile, protest leaders insist that efforts to stop the street protests around which they have built their voice and influence are meant to undermine their ability to attain results.
“Protest is fundamentally community building,” said DeRay Mckesson, a key organizer of many of the demonstrations in Ferguson and elsewhere. “There is literally a new community that exists because of these protests and that is what cities across America need to do, to build community.”