Thousands marched on Friday starting at the Lincoln Memorial, aiming to recall the 1963 March on Washington.
WASHINGTON — Hours after President Trump commanded the South Lawn of the White House to rail against what he called agitators bent on destroying “the American way of life,” thousands of Americans streamed on Friday morning to the Lincoln Memorial, not a mile away, for what frequently seemed a forceful reply.
The Commitment March, as its organizers are calling it, was devised in part to build on the passion for racial justice that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. summoned when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” address on that same spot 57 years ago. Early speeches from the podium at the base of the memorial, by union leaders, civil rights advocates and Black ministers, cast Mr. Trump as the prime obstacle to their goal, and voting to remove him as the first step toward a solution.
“November is coming and we have work to do,” said Kyra Stephenson-Valley, a policy adviser at the National Action Network, a civil rights group founded by one organizer of the march, the Rev. Al Sharpton. She asked attendees to scan their tickets to check their voter-registration status.
Frank Nitty was one of a group of Black civil rights advocates who marched 750 miles from Milwaukee to be at Friday’s demonstration. “My grandson isn’t going to be marching for the same thing my granddaddy marched for,” he told the crowd. “We’ve got to vote Trump out of office, right?”
That call and others drew cheers from the crowd, which gathered in shady spots in socially distanced clumps, clad in masks to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.
“It’s good against evil at this point,” said Ruby Williams, 67, a retired corrections officer from Frederick, Md., who said she was voting for Mr. Trump’s opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., in November.
Dr. King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom drew an audience of a quarter-million. The Friday protest, called the Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks, appeared to attract a fraction of that number, in part because the city is requiring quarantines for visitors from 27 states. Attendees were screened for fever, and hand-sanitizing stations were ubiquitous.
A permit issued by the city on Tuesday indicated that 50,000 people might attend the protest.
The organizers, led by Mr. Sharpton and Dr. King’s oldest son, Martin Luther King III, said it would be a mistake to judge the event’s success by the size of its crowd.
“I’m confident that but for Covid, we would have had a million people,” said Marc Morial, the former New Orleans mayor who is president of the National Urban League, a sponsor of the march. “We will have, however, millions virtually, and millions tuning in on TV, and millions online.”
The march “has to be understood as a moment for which these protests must lead to something,” he added. “So it must lead to significant policy change. Structural racism is not addressed with talk or good will alone.”
On Friday Mr. King cast Mr. Trump as “a president who confuses grandiosity with greatness” and opts for chaos over community.
“We need you to vote as if your lives, our livelihoods, our liberties depend on it. Because they do,” he told the crowd. “There’s a knee upon the neck of democracy, and our nation can only live so long without the oxygen of freedom.”
Mr. Sharpton invoked Jacob Blake, who was shot by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., on Sunday, and the Black shooting victims before him to demand a new national reckoning over hate and bigotry.
“We didn’t come to start trouble,” he said. “We came to stop trouble. You act like it’s no trouble to shoot us in the back. You act like it’s no trouble to put a chokehold on us while we scream ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times.
“Mr. Trump, look right down the block from the White House,” he added. “We’ve come to Washington by the thousands. We’re going to call their name. We’ll never let America forget what you’ve done.”
While the protest commemorated the 1963 march, its larger purpose was to rally African-Americans and others on behalf of concrete goals. Those aims include increasing voter registration and participation in the 2020 census and enacting a new version of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, said Tylik McMillan, the national director of youth and college at the National Action Network, which Mr. Sharpton founded in 1991.
A major goal, he said, is to push for passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, backed by House Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus, which would overhaul law-enforcement training and conduct rules to limit police misconduct and racial bias.
The killing of Mr. Floyd by the Minneapolis police in May, and the national upheaval it provoked, looms large over the march, as does the sense among civil rights leaders that action this year could set the course of American race relations for years, if not decades. “We can’t ignore the moment that we’re in,” said Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which also was sponsoring the protest. “This is a march that is very much needed right now, given the fires that are raging as we deal with police violence, racial violence and voter suppression. It’s created almost a perfect storm.”
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