Local organizers channel anger over deaths, swell movement

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by Eric Ginsburg

In the wake of several high-profile cases of police violence, a movement swells in Greensboro fed by outrage and a deep desire for change.

There were so many protest actions, meetings and events that springboarded from the well-publicized case of the choking death of Eric Garner at the hands of police in New York City last week that it was a challenge to keep up with everything in Greensboro. And that’s because a structure to organize and react was already in place.

The same evening that the grand-jury decision came down not to indict any officers involved with Garner’s death — a pattern in recent cases of what many characterize as excessive use of deadly police force, against black men in particular — protesters hit the streets, shutting down the biggest intersection downtown in a coordinated action. Demonstrators supported each other physically and emotionally, linking arms to block traffic on Elm and Market streets and holding each other for support.

It was the second time in recent weeks that people shut down Elm Street, on the heels of a massive demonstration after a grand jury chose not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Hundreds of people marched from the city’s government plaza to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, briefly rallying on the sidewalk outside before moving to block all lanes in both directions.

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At the Christmas tree lighting.

There have been an array of other protests too — a die-in at Bennett College on Dec. 4 that the entire faculty and staff joined, a community meeting to address police accountability later that day, a die-in at the Festival of Lights Christmas tree lighting on Dec. 5, joining the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in the Christmas parade on Dec. 6, taking part in the Winter Walk for AIDS on Dec. 7 and a press conference by religious leaders in front of the museum on Tuesday.

There have been a few similar actions in Winston-Salem, including a protest staged by college students at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Dec. 6, and there is a rally planned on Thursday at 5 p.m. at 550 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Winston-Salem.

More is planned in Greensboro, including a community meeting at the Beloved Community Center this Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. and a panel discussion by Greensboro for Justice at the museum on Saturday at 3 p.m.

On the megaphone and one on one, participants in the slate of actions said the quote by famous Civil Rights Movement leader Fannie Lou Hamer expressed their sentiment well: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” While the deaths of Garner and Brown lent immediacy to the struggle, participants agreed that the injustices are systematic, encompassing not just police violence but white supremacy and a society that does not place value on black lives.

Calls for revolution were met with enthusiastic cheers, and chants of “Revolutionary love, love, love,” were common at a several of the actions. A handful of speakers at various rallies urged people to see the intersectionality, or connectedness, of different struggles against oppression, and to “dig deep” to engage in the struggle for the long haul.

“Eric Garner didn’t have to die, we all know the reason why,” one common chant began, with the whole crowd responding: “The whole system’s guilty! The whole system’s guilty!”

Protesters block traffic on Market Street downtown.
Protesters block traffic on Market Street downtown.

The response to the grand-jury decisions may have been rapid, but they were well orchestrated. As she watched the die-in protest by the Christmas tree, Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said she had been struggling to find the right words to talk about the issues all week. But demonstrators had a deep existing network and a well of experiences to draw on that pushed them into the streets and helped enable them to carry out a series of rapid, successful actions.

Organizations including the Queer People of Color Collective, Beloved Community Center, NAACP and Bennett College Student Government Association planned and facilitated most of the protests. Though leadership from those organizations —particularly April Parker and Irving Allen who have ties to several community groups — was obvious at actions, the people coordinating protests regularly opened up space for anyone to grab the megaphone.

The goal to build power alongside and among participants, most of them young people of color and many of them women, was apparent from the beginning. In a move atypical of most demonstrations in Greensboro, Parker and Allen brought the megaphone down from the stage at the Ferguson rally two weeks ago, eliminating the divide between organizers on stage and the masses on the steps facing them. Instead, attendees became one group as the megaphone passed from one person to the next.

Bennett College students stage a die-in.
Bennett College students stage a die-in.

Participants, both to the entire gatherings and in private reflections afterwards, often expressed their rage as well as a need for catharsis, solidarity and resiliency. There were some specific calls for reform — cameras on all officers, for police to be prosecuted like other citizens, changes in police use of force — but in addition to more sweeping calls for fundamental change to oppressive systems, participants also focused on affirmative messages about affirming black men and building a movement.

That movement is still taking shape, drawing on the power of recent actions as well as a long local history of community organizations and individuals addressing police violence, racism and oppressive systems. It is unclear what pace participants will set with public actions, but with a number of meetings scheduled this week, it is clear that organizers have no intention of letting up.

Want to know more about specific protests over the last week and to see photos? Visit triad-city-beat.com for photo galleries and articles from many of the recent actions, including the die-ins at Bennett College and the Christmas tree lighting or the street blockades downtown. And read Citizen Green on page 16 to learn more about the community meeting on police last week as well.