From Selma to Ferguson and NYC: ‘This action now is a movement’

WATCH: Another night of protests brought thousands onto the streets of New York City and other cities across the U.S.. It’s not just the death of Eric Garner, who died in a police chokehold, it’s the death of other black men at the hands of police. Jackson Proskow reports.

The anger over separate incidents of white cops killing two unarmed black men have brought about what appears to be a new movement in the United States.

Eric Garner died on July 17 after being put in a chokehold by New York City Police officer Daniel Pantaleo, Michael Brown was shot dead in a Ferguson, Mo. street on Aug. 9 after an altercation with Officer Darren Warren.

Grand juries decided against indictments in both cases, clearing the officers of responsibility for the deaths of 18-year-old Brown and 43-year-old Garner. Tensions had only begun to simmer following the Ferguson decision, when the New York grand jury reached its conclusion just nine days later.

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The police shooting deaths of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland last week and 34-year-old Rumain Brisbon in Phoenix on Tuesday have also fuelled a nationwide call for an end to police use of excessive force against members of the black community.

While protests following the Ferguson decision led to instances of violence and looting, the demonstrations spreading across the U.S. now have been relatively calm, with protesters lying in city streets in so-called “die-ins.”

READ MORE: #CrimingWhileWhite calls attention to white privilege in wake of Eric Garner decision

This is bigger than just frustration pouring into the streets, said Rev. Dr. Bernard LaFayette.

Since the 1960s he’s been a civil rights leader and he was involved in the organization of what became a landmark moment in the fight for racial equality in the U.S — the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama.

The March 1965 marches led to African-Americans getting voting rights enshrined across the U.S. But the tipping point was when Alabama state troopers and local police attacked about 600 non-violent participants in the first of three attempts at an 87-kilometre walk to the state capital, pushing them back with billy clubs and tear gas before they even made it out of Selma.

It happened on March 7 and became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and it was all seen on television in homes across America.

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The successful third attempt began on March 21. That time, it was sanctioned by the federal government and the protesters protected by the National Guard and FBI agents. When marchers reached Montgomery five days later, there were joined by an estimated 25,000 people.

“You cannot change anything unless you win the support, the sympathy or active involvement of the majority. And the majority in this case, and in the cases of the movement in the 60s, [is] the actual white voting population.”

Nearly five decades later, 74-year-old LaFayette sees parallels between the movement that began in the 60s and what’s happening now. He said he surprised but happy to see it’s not just black protesters in the streets but white demonstrators of all ages joining in.

Bernard LaFayette seen in a 2010 file photo. Gregory Smith/AP Photo

Going beyond protests

“It is one thing to have some protests. It’s another thing to have a movement. This action now is a movement,” LaFayette told Global News in a phone interview from Tuskegee, Ala.

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He explained that a movement needs leadership and cooperation between labour and church groups, women’s organizations, legal support and especially youth.

“This is the most important thing now, that is for young people to realize that if the change is going to be sustained or continue they have to be aware of what’s going on and they have to be involved as well.”

You also need an achievable goal: “Maybe some legislation that will set a standard for the entire state on what is excessive force,” he suggested.

He said people have begun to connect what happened to Brown and Garner to other events that happen around the country and frustration reaches “a spilling point.

“These things happen all the time, but they don’t get it on tape. So, people don’t see them.”

Brown’s death was not caught on tape, but there were plenty of witnesses and video of the aftermath (not to mention body lying in the street). The events that led to Garner’s death were captured on video.

WATCH: NYPD preparing for another night of protests
“When they see [the videos] that sort of affects the emotions of people and it’s not about that particular incident — it’s about an accumulation of incidents that they have experienced, either personally or in their family,” LaFayette said.
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READ MORE: Some warn Ferguson and Toronto are not so different

Black communities in the U.S. have had a tumultuous relationship with lawmakers and law enforcers, LaFayette said.

“Most of the people who were killed in the [civil rights] movement were not killed by some angry mob, it was elected officials and law enforcement,” he said. “Jimmie Lee Jackson [a voting rights activist whose death inspired the Selma marches] was killed by a state trooper. That’s why we took the march to Montgomery, Alabama, because it was a state offence by the state.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t believe in cooperation with police agencies. In fact, he worked with police departments in Miami-Dade County, Fla. ahead of the verdict on the Rodney King beating, which spawned riots in Los Angeles. He said the training and engagement with the black community in Miami prevented something similar from happening there.

“[T]here has to be a systemic change and the training is one thing, but you can’t train the policemen alone,” he said. “If you’re going to do prevention, you’ve got to change the attitude of the community because their experiences of the past have not been very good.”
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As for the violence that followed the Ferguson decision, LaFayette said he’s against it but he understands why it happened.

“Violence is the language of the inarticulate,” he said. He explained some people who feel oppressed by police see acts like looting or vandalism as their only way of having some power in the situation.

“I want to pass the torch to them but I don’t want them to take the torch and burn something down. Take the torch to light the way to lead others.”

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