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The protests began in Ferguson, exploding after the prosecutor announced that the policeman who killed Michael Brown would not be brought to trial. They spread across the country after the Staten Island grand jury refused to charge the policeman who strangled Eric Garner, killing him on camera. Now, as others –Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Akai Gurley – are added to the list of casualties, the marches keep on building.
Professional and college athletes don shirts saying, “We can’t breathe.” Congressional aides go on strike to stand on the steps of the House, calling “hands up, don’t shoot.” From Boston to Denver to Miami, die-ins and protests tie up major intersections in big cities. Non-violent protestors chain themselves to a Bart car, declaring they want to stop the line for four and one-half hours, the time Michael Brown was left on the street in Ferguson. This weekend, tens of thousands marched in Washington, Boston, New York and elsewhere.
Why march? Marching is a public protest, a witness demanding attention be paid. Marching is a public classroom, teaching millions about what has long been true about police violence and racial injustice, but too seldom acknowledged. Marching forges community, an evolving community of ordinary heroes who put their bodies on the line to call the powerful to account. Marching involves moving from spectator to participant in history, going from being on the sidelines to being on the field. It is exhilarating and frustrating at the same time.
These marches are spreading, in part because many share Eric Garner’s final plea, “I can’t breathe.” African American outrage is clear. We experience police abuse as a daily reality. African American males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white males. To even out the disparity over the last three years, according to Propublica, police would have to shoot an additional white male a week — for three years. But this isn’t just a black male problem. According to Propublica, 44% of those shot and killed by police are white. And even this data is incomplete, since many police departments do not file fatal police shooting reports at all.
These marches reflect the reality that many can’t breathe in this current arrangement. The unjust judicial system reflects an unjust economic order. The day after the first Garner demonstrations that shut down much of New York City, low wage workers walked off their jobs in over 190 cities. They came from McDonalds and Wal-Mart, Dollar Stores and discount chains. They too can’t breathe in jobs that offer low wages, few benefits and less security.
The protests have now gained national attention. The White House has promised reforms in sentencing, in police practices and in police equipment, with millions promised for new cameras. Even conservatives have joined in speaking out against police abuse.
This is all good, but merely a first, baby step. We need fundamental reform not simply of police practices but of economic and educational policies if we are to meet the challenge exposed by Ferguson and Florida and New York and more.
And all of our history teaches that real reform comes only if the people are in the street demanding it. Those who are comfortable with the current arrangement will not lead the change. Those who can’t breathe must lead the change. And now, they are.
Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.