(Bloomberg) — Civil-rights advocates are demonstrating today in Washington to protest the killing of black men by police, the latest in a series of rallies across the U.S. that have drawn thousands to the streets.
The event, organized by Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and an MSNBC television host, seeks to pressure the federal government to address excessive force by local law-enforcement agencies. Buses were set to bring marchers from as far as Connecticut and Florida.
Deadly police encounters have inflamed anger over what activists call inequities in the criminal justice system. Looting and arson followed a Missouri grand jury’s decision Nov. 24 not to indict a white police officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager. Nine days later, another round of demonstrations began after a white policeman avoided indictment after choking a black man to death on New York’s Staten Island. Transportation has been snarled by protesters in sporadic events in major cities since then.
“African-American lives and Latino men’s lives, they mean nothing,” said Marques-Aquil Lewis, 27, a minister and aide to Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who is traveling with about 60 others to Washington. “I want to see an end to violence period, when it comes to police brutality, or black-on-black crime, or the injustice in the legal system.”
The public outcry began after the St. Louis County grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. While Wilson said the shooting was justified because he was under assault, shops were looted and a dozen buildings were set aflame as police cars burned on the street and protesters hurled rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails. Wilson resigned in response to threats to police related to his continued employment.
A New York panel decided Dec. 3 not to charge Daniel Pantaleo with the homicide of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six whose death while being held in a chokehold was recorded on video. The next day, a report by the U.S. Justice Department faulted Cleveland police for a pattern of using excessive force that violated civil-rights law.
Most of the protests since last month’s riots in Ferguson have been peaceful. Demonstrators marching in near-freezing temperatures have taken over automobile lanes of the Lincoln Tunnel, Brooklyn Bridge and West Side Highway in New York as well as Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Marchers stood outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Dec. 8 for a basketball game attended by Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton.
President Barack Obama has convened a panel to address the distrust of police among minorities, and said he would ask Congress to fund a community-policing package that would help supply as many as 50,000 body-worn cameras for officers. The Justice Department is also investigating the incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island.
Among the marchers in Washington today will be family members of Garner and Brown, as well as relatives of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot Nov. 22 by a Cleveland police officer, and of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen who was killed by a neighborhood watchman in 2012, according to organizers.
Sharpton, a New York-based activist, said the lack of prosecutions demonstrates the need for Congress to give federal authorities more power to step in. While the Justice Department can bring charges under civil-rights law, Attorney General Eric Holder said last month that there is a “high legal bar” for such cases.
“You’ve got to be able to move the jurisdictional threshold, which Congress can do,” Sharpton said during a Dec. 7 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Otherwise, we will be back here again.”
Jacky Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Action Network, said organizers weren’t sure how many people would gather in Washington. Sean Conboy, a spokesman for the city’s police department, said the department also had no estimates. A separate rally is also being held in New York.
Phyllis Coley, the publisher of Spectacular Magazine, a Durham, North Carolina, publication targeted at black readers, said she organized buses to bring more than 100 people to Washington. She said the demonstration is needed to keep a focus on race and pressure Congress to act on Obama’s plans.
“There is a race problem and it needs to be discussed,” said Coley, who said her son was frequently pulled over by police as a teenager while driving to visit wealthy white friends on his lacrosse team. “Change has to be made from the top down. We need to send a message to our legislators.”
While racial attitudes have shifted since the civil-rights battles of the 1960s, other gaps remain. In income, economic mobility, housing, education, employment and life expectancy blacks lag behind whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and data compiled by Bloomberg. Young black males were also 21 times more likely than their white counterparts to be fatally shot by police, according to an analysis of federally-collected data on shootings from 2010 to 2012 by ProPublica, the news site.
William Trent, a mall manager from Bowie, Maryland, who was planning to attend the Washington rally with his 27-year-old son, said he’s hopeful that the march may motivate a new generation of civil-rights activists to mobilize.
“What usually happens is the day of the march, everybody is gung ho to do something — then it gets held up, the ball gets dropped, and we tend to forget,” he said. “I’m going in the hope that this march will be different.”
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