United States Politics and the Economy

Exploding Protest Movement

People are demanding an end to brutal and racist policing

By Steven Rosenfeld and Alyssa Figueroa

December 8, 2014—Late Saturday, hours into a protest march over police brutality in Berkeley, California, police were looking to make arrests and spotted Kyle McCoy. The young Black man, a well-known racial justice activist and University of California-Berkeley alum was arrested on suspicion for felony assault with a deadly weapon. He was taken away and booked, but by Sunday morning he was free on bail. On Monday afternoon, when he was scheduled to be arraigned in court, a bailiff announced the criminal charge had been dropped.

That kind of routine police harassment is partly why protests over police brutality and institutional racism continue nationwide. It is not just because ongoing deaths of unarmed Black men and youths at the hands of police have struck a deep chord across America. The more you talk to protesters the more it becomes clear that this movement’s goals are crystalized by racist policing but do not stop there.

“Everyone out there is saying they can’t breathe for a lot of reasons,” said one protester who came to the courthouse to support McCoy, referring to Eric Garner’s last words before dying from a chokehold during his arrest in New York City. “I know a lot of people who are out there [protesting]. It’s a lot of issues.”

In the Bay Area, today’s protesters are a mix of newcomers and veterans. There have been massive protests in recent years over other police killings of Black men, notably Oscar Grant. There has been the Oakland-centered Occupy movement, protests over urban gentrification, rising higher education costs, and other issues with racial and economic justice underpinnings. But Cynthia Morse, an older white woman and longtime protester who came to the court to support those arrested this weekend, said police brutality was unlike other issues, especially if your family has been victimized.

“This whole issue has got to be a Black people’s movement. It’s theirs. They want it. They don’t need direction from us. They need our support and that’s what most of us are really trying to do,” Morse said. “The institutional racism, the overt racism, the police brutality against young Black men has been very real to us because we are part of Oakland and they have been so many of us [seeking justice] who are Black, and mothers with children who have been killed, and friends—it’s really personal. This is a life and death issue.” 

Morse said she was sickened by the outsiders who used the protests to vandalize local stores. “It’s such a disgusting lack of respect for the people who have died,” Morse said. “It is just the most incredible disrespect to them and their families.”

Protesters demands

Across the country, the core demands of protesters following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, have been to end the institutionalized racism in policing. This means ending racial profiling, changing the police practices and grand jury process that allow officers who use excessive force to evade accountability. It means taking a range of militarized weapons out of police hands in non-emergency contexts, such as at protests.   

But as demonstrations continue, there also are related concerns. In Berkeley, some leaders of the weekend marches said their demands included ending the “new Jim Crow,” the lack of educational and economic opportunities. They want to restore affirmative action on UC campuses and double non-white enrollment, said Yvette Felarca, a leader of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN).

In Detroit, Michigan, Jose Alvarenga, another BAMN organizer, said their top agenda is to “connect the fight against police brutality to what’s going on in Detroit…We have been having marches on every Saturday in the east side of Detroit against police brutality. They definitely have been bigger now after the two [grand jury] decisions.”

“It comes down to the same line of growing inequality across the country,” he said. “In some instances, like with K-12 education and universities, it’s very clear who has more opportunities and resources. You have bitterness and anger in the communities that don’t have those opportunities. If you include violent police brutality and repression, then you will have the responses that Ferguson has had and now Berkeley, rightly so, is having.”    

Coast-to-coast activism

In New York City, protesters have staged a mass die-in at Grand Central Terminal on Sunday. They also disrupted shoppers in Macy’s and H&M, tweeting “no justice, no shopping.” They swarmed Toys ‘R’ Us and held up toy guns in memory of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was shot and killed by a rookie officer in Cleveland. Some protesters went to Penn Station to sing “justice carols.” On Monday, protesters blocked traffic on the Verrazano Bridge during morning rush hour.

In Philadelphia, about 200 protesters held a die-in outside the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium blocking cars from leaving following the game. Some pro-athletes held their own form of protest by writing “I can’t breathe” on their clothing. NBA player Derrick Rose and NFL players Reggie Bush and Johnson Bademosi wore the message on their warm-up shirts. NFL player David Joseph wrote it on his cleats. LeBron James is expected to wear one during Monday’s game in Brooklyn.

The District of Columbia has also seen protesters rising up. On Saturday, dozens staged a die-in at Washington’s Union Station and blocked a bridge in nearby Arlington, Virginia. Elsewhere in the south, more than 200 demonstrators staged a die-in in North Carolina at a holiday event. In Miami, protesters blocked a major freeway and sustained protests for three days. Protesters sang, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest, until it comes.” 

In Chicago, religious leaders from about 100 churches led a rally on Sunday. “The enemy might choke the breath out of our bodies but they cannot choke the breath out of our spirit,” said Reverend Michael Pfleger during a morning service.

In Los Angeles on Saturday, protesters held a “Blackout Hollywood” in which hundreds staged a die-in, shutting down a popular intersection where an allegedly armed Black man was recently killed by police on Friday. Protests also unfolded in Anchorage, Alaska, and in Phoenix where police killed Rumain Brisbon, an unarmed Black man, last week.

The international community also held actions this weekend, with protests in Tokyo, Paris, Melbourne, and Hannover, Germany.

Meanwhile, back in the San Francisco Bay Area, protests spread outward from Berkeley. In Oakland, protesters entered a popular restaurant on Sunday and sang the old pro-labor song, “Which side are you on, friends? Which side are you on?” They then read a list of names of Black people killed by police officers, saying, “Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all. I will fight for freedom until justice is won.”

The caption on a video of their action reads, “We interrupt your regularly scheduled brunch to bring you #Blackbrunch…No business as usual. Shut it down because #Blacklivesmatter.” 

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008).

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet., December 8, 2014