The call by Reverend Al Sharpton to assemble in the nation’s capital next Saturday for a march to bring attention to police violence is in keeping with a time honored tradition of seeking redress from our federal government for grievances. Large scale mobilizations like the 1963 March on Washington, still referred to as the “Great March,” and the Million Man March in 1995 are embedded in the national psyche as critical benchmarks for consciousness raising and group solidarity. In fact, these ‘national’ marches have become so ingrained in our advocacy toolkit that they remain resilient despite no recent evidence that they effectively shift the political landscape.
Which brings me to Saturday’s announced march in Washington DC to protest police violence. For me it is misplaced energy and focus as the march will take place when Congress is not in session and many Members will be out of town. It’s like showing up at a football stadium knowing the two teams will be nowhere to be found. At some point we have to become strategic in our advocacy and engage the game on the playing field. A better use of the time that will be expended Saturday on what will essentially be a field trip would be to plan a legislative day visiting every single member of Congress and their staff. It would not require stressing over generating a crowd that would be considered significant; and in terms of the political narrative that would be in excess of 100,000 marchers. Instead, a more effective approach might be to bring 4,000 well versed and prepared activists from all parts of the country, with legislative agenda in hand, to Capitol Hill and descend on every legislative office while Congress is in session. There are Black organizations and institutions in the nation’s capital that are quite capable of organizing and managing such a day.
This is not to say that marches are not effective when occurring in local settings or when aligned with a well-defined campaign. What has been occurring in cities and towns, high schools and on college campuses across the nation in reaction to the injustice of grand jury proceedings in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths is breathtaking. The level and intensity of demonstrations is unlike anything we have witnessed in decades in the United States. It became apparent that we broke new ground when protesters in New York City blocked traffic to the Lincoln Tunnel, one of three major vehicular thoroughfares across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Despite many incidents that have incited public outrage in the nation’s largest metropolis, there has never been an occasion that I can recall when protests led to tying up one of the city’s major transportation arteries. This level of intensity is also seen in the many demonstrations taking place around the world in solidarity with the Ferguson community and the aggrieved in Staten Island. Local demonstrations serve as an appropriate outlet for public anger and a focal point for grassroots organizing.
In many ways marches on Washington have become performances with no clear purpose except to serve as a platform to raise the profile of speakers on the platform. With each successive march on the nation’s capital we seem to move further away from the substance and critical organizing that marked the 1963 march. The March on Washington is now romanticized, idolized to the point of the event seducing generations of leaders since to define success as standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and basking in the glow of King’s shadow. What we end up with are poor facsimiles that never hold the value of the original. Such was the case with the 50th anniversary march that tried too hard and ended up like a neighborhood version of the Miss America pageant.
If we must march or assemble, keep it local. Occupy Ferguson or Staten Island or any of the places where police violence has reared its ugly head. Bringing a quarter of a million people to DC would be defined as a success but bringing the same number to Staten Island would set a new benchmark. At the same time bringing 100 people to the office of every member of the House and Senate would set an entirely different tone and send a message that we will use the systems not established for our benefit to force change and bring about justice for us. If we are going to demand change, then let’s engage on a level that those we seek to influence will understand.
One final thought is the irony of descending on Washington once again. In 1963 there were but a handful of Black members serving in Congress and the federal bureaucracy was unmistakably white. Today, there are over 40 Black members of Congress, a Black President, a Black Attorney General and a fair representation of Blacks in the administration of federal agencies. At some point our ‘leaders’ sitting in the very institutions we trek to DC to influence must make justice a priority. And while it is true that it is difficult to do so absent a social movement, it is also true that social movements don’t come out of marches, they precede them. What has been lost is that the success of the 1963 March on Washington was due to the hundreds of local campaigns taking place in the south and the activity of many organizations, labor unions and churches on the ground. In other words, a civil rights movement had been brewing since the Brown decision in 1954.
Rather than march on Washington, let’s plan and organize. And while we are at it, make sure we redefine leadership because new approaches are desperately needed if we are to alter the landscape of this nation.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.