Jason Walker | May 2, 2015
I was one of the 147 people arrested by the NYPD at Wednesday night protests demanding justice for Freddie Gray, the black man killed in Baltimore while in police custody.
Not only were the actions of the NYPD wrong and unjust, but Mayor de Blasio’s remarks at last week’s press conference were a revisionist history of acts of civil disobedience — acts that have won improvements for so many in this country in the face of horrible conditions and oppressive tactics.
Official accounts of Wednesday’s protest are wrong. We were not offered an option to obey or disobey the law. We were told to move off the streets onto the sidewalk, and before we had a chance to do it, many of us were arrested, some of us brutally — tackled, pinned and cuffed, hit with batons and more.
But this should not even be the debate. The reality is, we have a duty to march — and ignore our mayor’s remarks that “when the cops tell you what to do, you do it.” In fact, if those who came before us did not ignore such commands, the lives of black, brown, LGBTQ, women and workers would be worse today.
Only a few weeks ago, thousands, along with President Obama, gathered in Selma, Ala., to make a historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama police told people not to march and brutalized those who did.
Those who marched did so to make a statement about the conditions of the black community and the brutality often applied by law enforcement to stop people from opposing those conditions. While I would in no way compare the level of police violence Wednesday to what was experienced then, the point is the same: We marched against the deaths of so many unarmed black and brown people at the hands of cops, as well as against crushingly high unemployment, poverty and incarceration rates.
And, like then, we were told by law enforcement not to march, and were arrested and sometimes brutalized for supposedly ignoring those illegitimate demands.
Mr. Mayor, let me school you for a second: Civil disobedience has been around much longer than the phrase itself. When people feel the laws are unjust and the system does not work for them, they ignore those laws and demand systemic change.
And when they commit those acts, the system that perpetuates this unjust system inevitably overreacts, exposing itself for what it is. Dr. Martin Luther King himself organized acts of civil disobedience knowing that people would be brutalized, but knowing also that exposing that brutality was necessary for change to happen.
Even de Blasio, then a mayoral candidate, engaged in these tactics when protesting the closing of a hospital. He now suggests that his situation was different, because he coordinated his actions with police beforehand. But while that may be true, it misses the point: He still knowingly and willfully refused to move when ordered to do so. He disobeyed because his cause was just and his demands were urgent.
Can the same not be said for the violence against black bodies like mine?
De Blasio should not become yet another voice in the same old cycle of politicians telling those rightfully demanding justice to, in the words of Nina Simone, “go slow.” We have heard that tired line all too many times before.
We elected you, Mr. Mayor, because we believed in what you told us. But the actions of the NYPD on Wednesday, your support for those actions — and your convoluted insistence that we be subservient to a police department that has been proven in the court of public opinion and the court of law to treat people with black and brown skin differently, sometimes brutally, that is not what we elected you to do.
Walker is a community organizer with VOCAL-NY.