WASHINGTON — They came to the nation’s capital on buses and planes and minivans and trains, from Florida, Detroit and Staten Island, led as much by the families, friends and supporters of African-American men and boys killed at the hands of the police as by civil rights leaders.
Thousands of people marched along the National Mall to protest the deaths. It was one of numerous protests held around the nation on Saturday, including hikes in canyons in the West and marches down the streets of the nation’s urban centers. The demonstrators here — many of them wearing T-shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” and chanting “I can’t breathe” — filed in from the blocks along Pennsylvania Avenue, evoking memories of civil rights marches of past decades as they moved toward the Capitol.
“It’s a matter of honoring the lives we’ve lost,” said Jackeline Stewart, 30, of the District of Columbia, who came out in the chill to march. “It’s a double-edged sword. I’m proud that we are coming together, but on the other hand, I’m sad that we are here, marching for the right to breathe.” She added, “This is not a localized issue; this is our country’s issue.”
Here and around the nation, from California to Kentucky to New York and to Boston, activists came together for what was billed as a National Day of Resistance.
Video Feature | Voices From the ProtestsWith demonstrations planned nationwide this weekend to protest the deaths of black men at the hands of the police, four protesters in New York City outlined their goals and motivations.
Tens of thousands of marchers on Saturday coursed through Manhattan while chanting “hands up, don’t shoot” and “justice now” in the largest demonstration New York City has seen since a grand jury on Staten Island decided on Dec. 3 not to indict the police officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold. In Boston, where protests were mostly peaceful, the police said they had arrested more than 20 people who had tried to block a highway.
The Washington march — known for years as the National March Against Police Violence — was led by the National Action Network, the organization run by the Rev. Al Sharpton, and was attended by the families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice, all killed by police officers while unarmed.
This march led by Mr. Sharpton — who has engaged in perpetual protest over several decades — did not have some of the spontaneity of the social media-driven “die-ins” that have erupted around the country. Some here also complained of a commercial element.
“I didn’t like the fact that people were profiting off T-shirts, flags and hats,” said Jay Bad Heart Bull, 36, who runs a nonprofit in Minneapolis. “I even saw a dog with a shirt that said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I respect the hustle, but I want it to be for a purpose. How does that help our community?”
The police would not estimate how many marched in Washington, but at midday a plaza that could hold 5,000 people overflowed with demonstrators. As the march moved toward the Capitol, thousands more poured in to form a mobile mass of puffy coats, strollers, posters and spontaneous prayer groups.
Family members of some of those who have been killed were in attendance.
“My son was 12, just a baby,” said Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, who was shot to death in Cleveland after the police saw him with what turned out to be a toy gun that fired plastic pellets. “He is here with me right now, and this is what he would want me to do,” she added. “He had a promising future. All the families, we share the same pain.”
“I’m marching for everyone’s sons and daughters,” said Esaw Garner, the widow of Mr. Garner.
The march follows protests around the country over recent grand jury decisions not to indict the officer who shot Mr. Brown in Ferguson, Mo., or the one who placed Mr. Garner in a fatal hold on Staten Island. Scores of protesters on Saturday came from Ferguson.
On Friday, the death of Tamir Rice was formally ruled a homicide, according to a county autopsy report; he died in November when an officer shot him within seconds of arriving on the scene.
Protesters in recent weeks have occupied parks, city streets, train stations and retail stores to draw attention to the use of force by the police. In New York, thousands of people have tried to close major roads, bridges and tunnels, disrupting the rhythms of the city. In Berkeley, Calif., an Amtrak train was forced to stop, a central freeway was closed for hours and regional commuter trains were halted.
“For me to come out from my comfortable cocoon in this stage of my existence is something,” said Cynthia Pace, a consultant from Baltimore who was marching here on Saturday. “We have enough money, our children are highly educated, all of these things. But I can’t imagine how we in the American public can see something on TV and 12 people see it differently. There is something wrong with this picture.”
The National Park Service said sponsors of Saturday’s march in Washington, which this year was called Justice for All, had sought a permit for 5,000 protesters, but the crowd appeared quite a bit larger. Many protesters were organized by the American Civil Liberties Union, branches of the N.A.A.C.P. and various labor, civil rights and religious groups. Just steps from the end of the protest, senators worked to complete a budget bill and vote on other measures.
“I’m surprised to see so many ethnicities here today. It’s not just black people, like I thought it would be. Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, everyone cares about this,” said Peyton Hawkins, 18, a high school senior from Voorhees, N.J., who joined the Washington march. “We are making history.”
Mr. Sharpton followed several other speakers, invoking the history of the civil rights movement while calling on lawmakers to change how police shootings are investigated and adjudicated.
“We are here today because we must have this nation deal with the fact that, just like 50 years ago, the states have taken a position to rob the human rights and civil rights of citizens,” he said. “You can castigate the leaders; you can try and divide us by generation,” he said. “You may bury us, but you didn’t know you were burying seeds. We’ll grow stronger and last longer.”
Mr. Sharpton said that the Justice Department needed special funds and that special prosecutors must be appointed when civilians are killed by the police.
Isabel Martes, 42, a receptionist, drove to Washington from Harlem, N.Y., on Saturday morning with her sister. “I have three sons, and I have a husband,” she said. “Their lives matter. I’ve never been to a protest before, but things are getting out of control for our people, so I needed to come. After today, I’ll be at more protests. I’m hopeful now; I’m hopeful. I’m happy to see so much unity.”
An earlier version of this article misidentified, on second reference, the person who was shot in Ferguson, Mo. It was Michael Brown, not Darren Wilson. An earlier version of this article also referred incorrectly to the shooting of Trayvon Martin. He was killed by a civilian, not by a police officer. In addition, an earlier version of this correction misspelled Trayvon Martin’s given name as Travyon.
Dan Glaun and Colin Moynihan contributed reporting from New York.
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