Community Justice, Community Safety

By Divad Durant

“The highest patriotism demands the ending of the war and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

During last week’s Community/Labor March, I was a part of an organized group of community based organizations that collectively marched as the NYC Communities Contingent.  Amongst the waves of tens of thousands of people at Foley Square, community organizations like CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, FIERCE, Picture the Homeless, BAYAN, Justice Committee, members and volunteers from People’s Justice for Community Control and Police Accountability, and CUNY student groups gathered at the southeast section of Centre and Worth street to discuss logistics such as: conducting a 101 know your rights training, coordinating our security team of People’s Justice members, and sharing a lawyer’s phone number by writing it on our bodies with a permanent marker, in case any of us got arrested.

We slowly took our first steps towards Liberty Plaza, deliberately ignoring the NYPD’s insistence to walk faster, ensuring that we were able to look out for each other amongst the massive crowd. We marched triumphantly with two loud mega phones in hand, and catchy chants to bop too, especially the one created by FIERCE, in the style of Teach Me How to Dougie by Cali Swag District:

Teach me how to march,
teach me-teach me how to march,
teach me how to march,
teach me-teach me how to march,
erry body marching, erry-erry body marching,
erry body marching, hey wall st are you listening!?!

While walking down Broadway our 100 person contingent doubled to 200 after we were joined by Queers for Economic Justice and Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Still chanting, still proud, still shaming the NYPD and Wall Street, who for years have traumatized our communities in very distinct ways, still actualizing our liberation with our presence and our bodies, we finally made it to Liberty Plaza. Using the “peoples mic” we began to share some closing words. A lot of people in our contingent were young people, parents, students, elders who could not commit to staying late into the evening at Liberty Plaza.  Plus, almost none of us felt comfortable inside the newly erected NYPD cage around the Plaza, surrounded by cops.

We shouted, “It is our duty to win, we must love each other and protect each other, we have nothing to lose but our chains!” As these messages echoed, three people, who appeared to be white (one woman and two men), who no one seemed to know, began to provoke one of the members of our contingent. I’m not sure what exactly was said but it was clear that there was an antagonistic exchange happening.  A member of the security team stepped up and blocked the three newcomers from the NYC Communities contingent, but these newcomers refused to step back, grew louder and yelled “get the fuck off me!” and “turn around and leave!” seemingly provoking us to react.  All the while, most members were still attempting to conclude our march, but at this point these three had garnered the attention of everyone. With suspicion and caution we began to observe and document them. They were infuriated that we were taking pictures, one of the men snatched a cell phone out of the hand of one of our members. For a moment, it seemed as though they would successfully agitate our folks into physical fighting.

During this very tense moment, the security team pushed these aggressive strangers away from the NYC communities contingent, while simultaneously protecting our people. There had been a good distance between them and us, no one around us was confused about what was happening. The strangers walked away and disappeared into the crowd.

Momentarily calmed that this conflict had been averted, I noticed that I began to look at faces in the crowd differently, particularly white people.  As a black man, I could no longer easily share my cordial “right on” smile; it had been replaced by a dead pan stare. But then I meditated on the purpose of this space, and the power of us uniting and realized that particular interaction, without sparking a fight, could have still been a successful set up. Why not exploit tensions around race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and class to divide people?

There is long history of people of color-led movements experiencing violence from the police and backlash from naysayers in moments of substantial popularity and solidarity.

Though it remains unclear if those three were police provocateurs, a reminder of the realities of occupying any street in NYC or just some unpleasant idiots, the real success was the fact that we did have a significant presence and that we were able to help our folks safely participate. It was an experience that taught us more about what we need to be prepared for if we continue to participate. Also, it means that we have to have more internal discussions about if/why/how we participate and what analysis we should bring. Once we do this, we then need to carefully/strategically/compassionately engage OWS  more about our analysis, who we are and what role our folks play within the so-called “99%.”

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