Some of America’s most influential African-American leaders staged two days of meetings and protests in Washington, DC on August 25 and 26, focusing on police brutality, police racism, and the drug war.
The events’ organizers included Martin Luther King III, his mother Coretta Scott King, and the Reverend Al Sharpton. It was designed in part to honor Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, which occurred 37 years ago in DC and culminated in the famous “I have a dream” speech.
But while the 1963 marchers demanded voting rights and an end to segregation, this year’s events condemned America’s drug war as a failed policy that enables racist police, politicians, and the criminal justice system to feed a prison-industrial complex run for profit rather than to protect public safety.
Sharpton, King III, and other black leaders met with Attorney General Janet Reno and top aides to President Clinton on August 25, bluntly demanding an end to the practice known as “racial profiling.”
“There’s a new crime in America: driving while black,” Sharpton said, in a fiery speech that rocked the crowd. “Black people, Hispanic people and poor people are a tiny percentage of the population, but in some places, they account for a majority of the people stopped by police on the highway. And this leads to them accounting for a disproportion in our jails and prisons.”
Sharpton, other leaders, and many of the 30,000 who attended a Saturday rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial, decried excessive use of force by police.
Abner Louima, who was viciously assaulted by NYPD officers while in custody last year, said he “thanked god” for allowing him to survive his encounter with police.
The parents of 22-year-old Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man shot 41 times by an anti-drug squad in the Bronx in February, 1999, traveled from Africa to speak at the rally. They noted that the four officers who killed their son were acquitted of all charges stemming from the incident, and were defended by lawyers paid for with taxpayers’ money.
“This is not justice,” Mrs. Diallo said.
Michigan Congressman John Conyers condemned the drug war and announced that he has introduced legislation requiring Justice Department monitoring of police behavior. He harshly criticized US drug czar General Barry McCaffrey.
Conyers and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such as Congresswoman Maxine Waters, have begun to openly call for McCaffrey’s firing or resignation.
Political activist and comedian Dick Gregory pointed out that the state of Texas, run by governor and presidential candidate George W. Bush, relies too heavily on the death penalty, especially at a time when DNA testing and evidence reviews are revealing that some death row inmates may be innocent. He alleged that Texas may have recently executed an innocent man, Gary Graham, who was accused of murdering a drug dealing government informant in 1981.
While many rally leaders professed faith in American democracy and urged the audience to vote and lobby peacefully, some speakers provided a far more radical viewpoint.
Black Panther spokesperson Malik Shabazz, Nation of Islam representative Benjamin Mohammed, and activists affiliated with revolutionary community organizations such as MOVE provided withering critiques of American politicians, police and institutions of power.
And near the end of the rally, the crowd was silenced and held enraptured by the sonorous voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal , a black journalist sent to death row in 1982 after being convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer. The prisoner was heard via a tape recording smuggled from death row.
Abu-Jamal, who could be just months away from execution for a crime that many people believe he did not commit, eloquently urged the crowd to go beyond polite political discourse in seeking to understand and combat racism and injustice.
“Ask questions about the whole society,” he intoned. “Why are there billions of dollars to build prisons instead of schools? Why does the government pay a prison guard more than a college professor? Why do you support politicians who support repression? Why do we call cops who beat, maim and kill us ‘public servants?’ Whom do they serve? How can you truly consider yourself truly free, when you can’t walk down a city street or drive anywhere in America without the threat of a humiliating search, or as the Amadou Diallo case demonstrated, an execution in your own doorway?”
NORML director Keith Stroup said that the rally’s passion, professional approach, and major media coverage should alert the marijuana movement to look for “allies in places that we have not looked before.”
“John Conyers came to the Shadow Convention in Los Angeles,” Stroup said, referring to counterculture protests at the Democratic National Convention. “He did very well. Many leaders are coming around to our point of view, and while many will not publicly say they favor marijuana decriminalization, I hear privately that they recognize that criminalization of groups of people, and the law enforcement tactics that go with that, are wrong for America. The message we need to carry to other minority groups who suffer persecution is that it’s not really racial profiling, it’s cultural profiling. You can get pulled over for driving while black, but you can also get pulled over for driving with long hair, or driving a VW van. From my perspective, marijuana users are one of the most victimized minority groups in America.”