A young African-American girl sat on the winding stair case at Busboys and Poets on K Street Wednesday, peering through the railing at the crowd gathered below. She might have been wondering what all the fuss was about. She might not have realized it was about her.
A concern for the future, for the world children will live in, was implicit in the passionate discussions at the D.C. watering hole, where dozens of activists and citizens gathered to discuss the next steps for the African-American community after the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
“We’re not going to go back to business as usual. We can’t afford to do that anymore,” activist Erika Totten told the crowd. Totten recently returned from Ferguson, where protests erupted after Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. For activist Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Brown’s death hit close to home. “My son has been stopped by police over 30 times,” she told CQ Roll Call. “So it’s an environment where black mothers across this country never know when they’re going to get the same phone call that Michael Brown’s mother got.”
Coleman-Adebayo is part of the No FEAR Coalition, which helped organize a rally at the Department of Justice shortly before the Busboys and Poets meeting.
Roughly 60 people gathered at the DOJ, calling for an end to local police militarization, which shocked Americans watching the Ferguson protests unfold.
Coleman-Adebayo listed removing military equipment from local police as a demand in a letter that she delivered to DOJ spokesman Kevin Lewis, who came out of the building to greet the protesters. She also pledged their support for a proposal by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., that would end the Defense Department program that sends military equipment to police departments.
Rev. Graylan Hagler was one of the other speakers at the rally. Hagler is running for an at-large D.C. City Council seat, and he drew parallels between Ferguson and D.C.
“In Washington, D.C., just like in Ferguson, the majority of the police department does not live or come from the city. They come from outside,” Hagler told the crowd. “The reality is as long as people are not attached to your neighborhood, they are going to be [an] occupying army.”
The police presence during the DOJ rally was fairly minimal, and like other D.C. rallies , the event was peaceful. A handful of security officers blocked the building entrance and five police cars sat in the street.
The Wednesday rally was the first in a series of events this week. On Thursday, demonstrators plan to gather in front of the White House to deliver 900,000 signatures calling for justice in the Brown case. Saturday night, demonstrators say they will march from Union Station to H Street.
But on Wednesday afternoon, the sun beat down on the protesters and after an hour of speeches and chants, they marched down Constitution Avenue, up Sixth Street and over to Fifth Street to Busboys and Poets.
Police officers were stationed along the route, stopping traffic so the crowd could cross the busy city streets. As they marched, the protesters chanted, “Justice for Michael Brown! Racist cops, shut them down!” “No justice, no peace!” and “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
When the crowd arrived at the restaurant, the protesters had food and water, and the tone shifted from shouting frustrations to discussing solutions.
A panel of five African-American leaders discussed the next steps for the community. The panelists included Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights; Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau; Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for Open Society Foundations; Ron Hampton, former executive director for the National Black Police Association, and Jasiri X, a hip hop artist and activist. Keenan Keller, senior counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, was scheduled to attend but did not due to travel complications.
Although a representative from Congress could not attend, much of the discussion on solutions to the problems unearthed in Ferguson centered on Capitol Hill.
“We want to pass a lot of pieces of legislation,” Shelton told the activists. He later told CQ Roll Call that his first priority will be passing the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, sponsored by Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va. The bill would require state and local law enforcement to report deaths of people in custody. It passed the House in December, so he is focused on the Senate.
“There’s no reason the U.S. Senate should not be able to bring it up,” said Shelton. He has been communicating with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s staff and is hopeful the Nevada Democrat will bring the bill to a vote during the upcoming September session.
Shelton said he is also working to pass the End Racial Profiling Act. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to pass a bill that, again, simply collects data and says that everyone has to be held accountable, including my police department,” he said. “So it has to be done.”
But Arwine noted that aside from changing the laws, people must also ensure they have effective lawmakers.
“Every piece of legislation that’s talked about here is meaningless without the right Congress,” Arwine said. She encouraged everyone to get out and vote in November and pointed to the low voter turnout in Ferguson as a factor in the city having a mostly white city council amid a majority-black population.
Arwine also said they must continue the protests and continue supporting the Brown family even after the television cameras leave Ferguson. She noted Brown’s death did not only affect his family, but resonated with the entire African-American community.
“This is not about them,” said Arwine. “It’s about us.”
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