The mood was far from somber at House of the Lord Church on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn where the 78-year-old Reverend Herbert Daughtry briefed a standing room only crowd on the ins and outs of civil disobedience. We will submit to arrest he said. What we want to achieve is immobility. A woman near the front asked how long those arrested would be in jail. “As long as the police keep you there,” a man shouted from the back.
The dimly lit room was lined with banners. Free Mandela. Coalition in solidarity with the people of Darfur. The crowd was older. There were many t-shirts with pictures of Malcom X, MLK, and Elijah Muhammad. One read, “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” Outside a bald man with a bullhorn approached a gentleman selling Sean Bell buttons. He wanted to know where the money was going. “All our heroes are being sold now,” he said. I thought about the question of heroes. Perhaps we have none or they are dead.
Sean Bell is an unlikely hero and he is the reason why the crowd of mostly black men and women has gathered here at House of the Lord Church on the corner of Atlantic and Bond. Nearly two weeks ago, the three police officers who killed Bell and wounded two of his friends as they were leaving a nightclub in Queens were acquitted. The officers fired 50 shots, a number that could be seen on many of the makeshift posters carried by protesters, and that would become a refrain as the crowd marched through downtown Brooklyn. 1, 2, 3…
Reverend Daughtry—after announcing that there would be a meeting tomorrow night to evaluate today’s action—turns the floor over to councilman Charles Barron who represents district 42, which includes parts of East New York, Brownsville, East Flatbush, and Canarsie. Barron says, “I didn’t come to talk. I’m ready to rumble.”
The crowd slowly leaves the church and the sidewalk is already filled with sign carriers, and cameramen, shop owners, and police officers. I’m standing next to a middle aged woman who says she marched when Diallo was shot and when Rodney King was beaten and that she’s out here because this could happen to my son, a phrase I hear again and again. He could have been my son.
Most have left work early to be here. The sun is out and we begin to walk down Atlantic, the crowd taking on its own shape. It is noisy and the chanting never stops. If it does subside, the count to 50 begins again. The occasional driver moving in the opposite direction honks or raises his fist in solidarity. I see far up ahead a police van with flashing lights and realize that we are more or less being led or directed by the NYPD. Even when we’re in the streets, they control them. There are helicopters circling above. Cameras everywhere.
We turn right on Boerum place and pass the New York City College of Technology. We’re downtown now and the streets are crowded. The honking more persistent. We stop not far from the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. Traffic is stopped in both directions and people are getting out of their cars. I’m thankful it’s not yet summer and the breeze is still cool. I think this is where the arrest will take place, as if on a stage, but would prefer if we continued to march.
Then suddenly the organizers shift the direction of the crowd away from the bridge and back onto Tillary and Brooklyn Bridge Blvd. It seems to catch the police officers off guard as the spry pastor and Charles Barron march in lockstep toward the entrance to the BQE. The officers are running now to catch up carrying a bright orange fence and white plastic cuffs. There are marchers weaving in and out of traffic. Mounted police officers take up a flank on the far side and the chanting continues. There are kids playing basketball behind a tall fence who have stopped to watch; a crowd of teenagers outside of George Westinghouse Voc & Tech High School; a young bus driver stalled in traffic honking his horn so emphatically that all of the passengers have risen to their feet. No one seems to mind much that they aren’t going anywhere. School is out and the workday is over. A kind of immobility has been achieved.
We turn near the entrance to the BQE and approach the Manhattan Bridge. Here the Reverend and Charles Barron and others are arrested. It’s nearly impossible to see as a swarm of cameras and reporters have descended upon them. As I walk away toward the train I see a very old black woman with a walker greeting an old acquaintance. They wouldn’t let me be arrested she says.