Get Your Knee Off Our Necks– 2020 March on Washington

“We march (y’all mad).”

(the tee shirt read)

“We sit down (y’all mad).”

“We speak up (y’all mad).”

“We die (y’all silent).”

Two months before the 1963 March on Washington, Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was assassinated in his front yard by white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith who shot him in the back. Five days before the 2020 March on Washington, an unarmed Jacob Blake was shot and paralyzed during an arrest by Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey who fired seven shots into his back. Then, as now, Black participation in elections was actively hindered by legislative hijinks and political propaganda. Then, as now, Black lives, to large swaths of the population, did not seem (have not seemed) to matter. The historic parallels were not lost on the tens of thousands who gathered in Washington on the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

The tens of thousands who gathered at the 2020 Get Your Knee Off Our Necks Commitment March on Washington were interracial, intergenerational, masked and peaceful but there was a palpable sense of anger and weariness at the blurry procession of unarmed Black citizens killed by the police and White civilians. 

Even the street vendors—whose wide variety of Black-themed merch at these events is legendary—couldn’t keep up. “Black Lives Matter!” was ubiquitous. Breonna Taylor was there on tee shirts and posters (“Say her name!”) but Jacob Blake’s assault was too fresh to have made the list.

Five years ago at another march in Washington organized by the National Action Network to address the issue of police violence, the Who’s Who reached back to Amadou Diallo (NYC— mistaken identity) and included Eric Garner (Staten Island— choked to death for selling cigarettes), Michael Brown (Ferguson, MO— hands up), Tamir Rice (Cleveland— 12, toy gun) and  Trayvon Martin (Florida—looked suspicious to a security guard). Then there was Walter Scott (South Carolina— shot in the back), Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge—officer fired for violating use of force guidelines), Philando Castile (St. Paul— “Sir, I have to tell you I have a (legal) firearm on me.”); Stephon Clark (Sacramento— shot dead in grandmother’s back yard). 

2020? Let’s see…. Ahmaud Arbery (Georgia— jogging while black); (the shooting took place in February though the arrests were made in June);  Breonna Taylor in March (Louisville— sleeping while black); George Floyd in May (Minneapolis— 8:46 execution); Rayshard Brooks in June (Atlanta—shot in the back) and, of course, Jacob Blake in August (Kenosha, Wisconsin— shot in the back seven times at close range).

Martin Luther King III remarked at the end of the program, as did many others in small conversational clusters throughout the day, that he kept learning of new names and victims as the day went on. The nationally-recognized names are only the tip of a very dirty iceberg.

Woodstock ’94 was billed as “two more days of peace and love” but was destined to fall short of reclaiming the magic of the muddy days and great music of 1969. To be sure there was something of that in Washington. Martin Luther King, Jr’s son was a co-organizer and speaker; his 12-year old granddaughter Yolanda was allowed a few minutes to address the crowd. Cellphone technology allowed anyone so inclined—and that seemed like everyone— to document their presence at the event in selfie stills and videos. What made the march more than a tribute event, however, was the linkage to concrete legislative and electoral goals. 

Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech has been allowed to outshine the objectives of the ’63 march itself. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was not just a poetic expression of hope and longing but a political tactic designed to apply pressure for the passage of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Whereas press coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement has focussed on the anger of protesters, the 2020 March on Washington was a massive civics lesson focussed not just on what was referred to as the “the gross inequities that continue to persist in our society due to structural racism,” but, more importantly, on “vigorous engage[ment] in the democratic process through the ballot box and census as a mechanism to [achieve] transformation.” Nothing about throwing bricks and burning down cities.

The crowd was urged to pressure their elected officials to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would revive the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was gutted by the Supreme Court, and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which, among other things would ban chokeholds and restrict immunity for police officers convicted of brutality.

Furthermore—in the face of the kneecapping of the US Census and US Postal Service by the Trump administration and the efforts in Republican-led state governments to purge voter rolls, require photo IDs, eliminate polling places, restrict early voting and otherwise discourage, depress and suppress voter participation—marchers were exhorted to fill out census forms and—“if you have to crawl over broken glass”—vote. By any means necessary.

History, it is said, doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. Governors Ross Barnett (Mississippi), Orval Faubus (Arkansas) and George Wallace (Alabama) were the poster boys for state-sanctioned white supremacy in the 60s. They lost. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the high-water mark of 20th century America.

  The current threat to American decency is the white supremacist in the Oval Office, President Donald J. Trump. The question for 21st century America is whether we continue to climb toward a just society or fall back down the ladder. 

Voters will decide…if they get the chance.

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