WASHINGTON — Demonstrators outside the Justice Department on Nov. 16 and at a concert the next day protested the Bush administration’s refusal to crack down on hate crimes and racist police brutality sweeping the nation.
The March for Justice was sponsored by the National Action Network and other civil rights organizations. The families of Sean Bell, shot to death by New York police, and Mychal Bell, now serving an 18-month prison term in Louisiana, attended the protest. Mychal Bell, 17, is the first of the Jena Six tried, by an all-white jury. He is back in jail even though a Louisiana appeals court overturned his conviction on aggravated battery charges stemming from a fistfight last Dec. 4.
A thousand protesters gathered in the Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument Nov. 17 for a “Stop Hate Crimes and Police Brutality” concert sponsored by the Hip Hop Caucus. “This is our lunch-counter moment for the 21st century” quipped the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., Hip Hop Caucus president, referring to the lunch counter sit-in movement that led to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Many speakers and performers protested the death of Khiel Coppin, a mentally ill youth who died in a fusillade of 20 bullets fired by five New York police officers Nov. 12. Coppin, 18, was holding a hairbrush that police claim they mistook for a gun. Last year, NYPD officers fired 50 shots at three unarmed Black men in a car, killing Sean Bell on his wedding day.
The crowd fell silent as three parents of African American youth shot to death by New York police officers demanded action to halt the plague of police shootings. A report, “Stolen Lives,” available at the concert, identifies more than 2,000 people, mostly African Americans, shot to death by police in the decade of the 1990s.
Nicholas Heyward Sr. told the crowd his son, Nicholas Heyward Jr., was shot to death by New York police on Sept. 27, 1994. He was a B+ student who wanted to be a doctor or professional basketball player. “I’m trying to get the case reopened,” Heyward said. “I would like to see the youth organize themselves. I should not have had to bury my son. He was 13 years old, playing with other children when the police gunned him down. We need to organize.”
Heyward told the World the police shooting of Khiel Coppin in Brooklyn proves “Mayor Blooomberg is not doing anything to address the problem of police mishandling of mentally ill people. They should have talked to him, not shot him.”
Heyward said he sent a letter to the Justice Department demanding an investigation of the police shooting of his son. “They sent me a six-line letter in reply. They said the U.S. attorney for New York reviewed the case and found the police officers’ action justifiable. Five other parents in New York got the same identical letter, word for word, about the police shooting of their children. I would describe this as an epidemic of police violence sweeping this country and the Justice Department is doing nothing to investigate it.”
Juanita Young told the crowd her son Malcolm Ferguson, 23, was shot to death by a police officer in the Bronx, March 1, 2000. “I took the case to court and the cop admitted he killed my son for nothing,” Young told the World. A jury awarded her $10.5 million, which the NYPD is appealing.
“The Justice Department only protects the higher-ups. It doesn’t protect people in the South Bronx or down in Louisiana,” she told the World. “I was down in Jena for that Sept. 20 march to free the Jena Six. Why are they going after those six boys? With all these noose hangings, the Justice Department is just letting it get out of control. We pay our taxes for the police to protect us, not murder our children. They think they are above the law.”
A day earlier, National Action Network’s board chairman, Dr. Frank Richardson, told the crowd at the Justice Department, “Jena is wherever there is injustice. Jena is our reality.” But Jena, he added, is also “wherever people are standing up for justice,” an allusion to the 50,000 people who demonstrated in Jena Sept. 20 on behalf of the six Jena teenagers.
The Rev. Frederick Haynes of Dallas drew laughter when he told the crowd, “We have to make noise until we are no longer bushwhacked by a son of a Bush in the White House.”
Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) denounced the hanging of a noose on a tree at the University of Maryland, part of a wave of such incidents since nooses were hung on a “white tree” at Jena High School after Black students had dared to sit there a year ago.
The Rev. Marshall Hatch of Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago assailed Chicago police for using a taser gun on an 82-year-old grandmother and also for shooting a Black student claiming they mistook his cell phone for a gun.
Martin Luther King III said, “It is tragic in 2007 that equal justice under the law does not exist.”