A Report and a Reflection on a Weekend of Anti-Racist Action: Boston, Martin Luther King Day Protest, January 2015

‘We Will Shake this System with the Truth of Our Message’

By Joe Ramsey

Jan 23, 2015 – This past Monday in Boston, at least 1,000 people braved the bitter downtown wind to gather, march and rally against a system that strangles Black lives.  Invoking the activist legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—but also other historic figures, from Malcolm X and Fred Hampton to Assata Shakur—protesters took the streets for a “Four Mile March” through downtown, culminating in a spirited rally and speak-out on the Boston Common steps, across from the Massachusetts Statehouse. 

Twice along the way, at major intersections, marchers stopped and dropped to the ground for mass “die-ins,” collectively dramatizing the deaths of Black youth and young men shot and killed by police.  While they lay on the ground, organizers read out the names of victims of police violence, including those killed in Boston—such a Burrell Ramsey-White— as well as in Ferguson, New York City, and across the United States.

Drawing a clear—if gentle—distinction between Monday’s mass action and the controversial blockade that shut down Interstate-93 three days earlier, leading organizer and union member, Brock Satter made very clear from the start: “We’re not here to disrupt anything today.  We’re here for a peaceful march. We will shake this system with the truth of our message. And with the millions that we will mobilize to support us.” 

Throughout the day, Satter emphasized the imperative of organizing “not just thousands or even tens of thousands, but millions,” in order to create  mass movement that can fundamentally change this society.  Several speakers agreed that today was “just the beginning” and that the “real work lay ahead of us.” 

Satter further clarified the importance of insisting on the slogan “Black Lives Matter” not because all lives don’t matter,” he said, “but because, “Until Black lives matter, to say that ‘All Lives Matter’ is a lie.”

Fellow lead-organizer Brandi Artez, of Villa Victoria, kicked off the rally by targeting the resistance of “white moderates,” quoting Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  As King there wrote:

Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

“Who are these white moderates,” Artez asked of the crowd, “to tell me how to go about fighting for my freedom?”

If the protest’s MLK Day timing was symbolic, so was it’s starting place.  Protestors converged by the Old Statehouse, filling sidewalks —and soon the streets— at the site of the 1770 Boston Massacre.  As the leaflet for the demo reminded passerby: “It is here that Crispus Attucks, a black man, became the first casualty of the American Revolution.” As the hand-out further explained:  (Continued)

"Attucks, leading a group of men, came to the defense of a young apprentice who had been attacked by an English soldier policing the streets of Boston. 245 years later we stand on the spot where Crispus Attucks died and we protest the killing of black people by a militarized police force. "

Marching from the Old State House to the modern-day one, the march plan encouraged participants to imagine themselves as part of a new American revolutionary movement, similarly provoked by militarized police violence, but aiming at much more fundamental social change than the “freedom fighters” of 1776.

Several young speakers of color at the post-march rally spoke in distinctly revolutionary terms, underscoring how little has changed fundamentally in US society from the time of slavery to today, and suggesting the parallels between slavery as a system of social control, and the modern mass incarceration system that many liken to “a New Jim Crow.” 

Young organizer, Brenden LaRosa, for instance, received rousing applause when he drove home that the US was a country founded on slavery and genocide, emphasizing how “our real founding fathers are not the slaveowners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but rather the oppressed slaves that this country was founded on due to the production and sale of cotton, tobacco, and sugar.”  Referring to the racialized class exploitation that still characterizes the USA, LaRosa reminded listeners that even to this day “We manufacture the goods—they take it.  We grow the food—they take it.  And even the little money we make—they take it and call it taxes, and distribute among themselves…It is up to us,” he concluded, “to take this country back.”

The thread of the speeches was often radical, in keeping less with the familiar King of “I Have a Dream” than with the views he expressed later, in 1967-68, when he famously condemned the Vietnam War and spoke out against the “evil triplets: of racism, militarism, and materialism.”  In the final years before his assassination, King called for a “fundamental restructuring” of the US society, one that amounted to a “democratic socialism.”

In this vein, speakers indicted not only the police and the judicial system, but the US social and economic system as a whole.  Implicating the mainstream media system as well, LaRosa pointed out after the event: “They were following us through the entire march, but when we started speaking, they left…They didn’t want to get the raw emotion and truth on camera.”

One young speaker explicitly took issue with the standard way that King is invoked in today’s America.  As this speaker pointed out, the mainstream view encourages us to wait for the “Second Coming” of an “MLK” to tell us what to do. “That day,” he went on, “is never going to come.  We need to liberate ourselves.”

Notably, the rally ended with speakers leading the crowd in reciting words not by King, but by Assata Shakur:

It is our duty to fight for freedom

It is our duty to win

We must love and protect each other

We have nothing to lost but our chains

Yet as radical as it was in content, the afternoon of action was very disciplined in form.  Lead organizers, Brock Satter and Brandi Artez outlined a pre-arranged march route, and the speaker lists and chants were tightly managed, while protest marshals in fluorescent orange vests kept marchers together. Printed handouts gave participants a clear outline of the march route, suggested slogans for the day, and invited marchers to the next planning meeting, set for Friday (today, 7pm, near Park Street Station—NOTE: This meeting has been moved to 26 West Street in the SEIU615 building).

The emphasis here was on clarity of message and mass movement building.

At the same time, it was notable that no one from the speaker’s platform in any way overtly criticized the Friday I-93 protest action.  Akunna Eneh, of the International Socialist Organization, pointedly defended the highway activists against their critics, stating that the inconvenience that drivers encountered on Friday morning “paled by comparison with what millions of Black people endure in the United State every day at the hands of a racist police state.”  The crowd responded with loud applause. 

But making the unassailable point that Black people’s lives are regularly disrupted by police brutality and racism, and expressing solidarity with I-93 activists who are under attack, was not quite the same thing as suggesting that mass disruption of highway commuters is the most effective way to build the movement in the present moment.

Thus, as the movement heads into a Friday 7pm open meeting to sum up the MLK weekend, and to plan future steps, the question of how to fight for freedom—of how to make sure that black lives will matter—remains an open and contested one.  The way forward is by no means clear.  And despite the powerful unity of Monday’s march, there are clearly competing views in circulation as how to proceed.  Talk about “diversity of tactics” notwithstanding, the mass march on Monday and the I-93 shut down suggest not just alternative tactical approaches, but competing strategic and long-term political outlooks on how to best build the fight for freedom.  A challenge for the movement in the coming period will be how to discuss and debate these different ways forward in a real way, while maintaining unity and growing its ranks.

As LaRosa pointed out reflecting on the weekend, “Revolution is a very long road.  No one knows how long it will take as it has never been successfully done here in America.”  

It is to the credit of Monday’s organizers that they have openly welcomed all who marched to participate in collective discussion of the weekend’s events, as they begin planning for what comes after MLK Day.  Which way forward? This writer hopes that those reading this article will contribute to the process of forging this revolutionary road.