National days of action were held from Jan. 15, the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Jan. 19, the national holiday commemorating him. Activists with the People’s Power Assembly, the Black Lives Matter movement and many others joined forces to reclaim King’s anti-racist legacy and demand an end to police brutality and murder. Events were held in dozens of cities in the U.S. and Canada.
Because of the force of the movement unfurled by the racist cop killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown last year, the corporate-owned press gave some media coverage to many of the MLK actions. The Jan. 19 New York Times admitted, “Even in small towns, the events of recent years affected the celebrations.”
Below are accounts from several cities based on reports by Workers World Party activists.
A “Strike Against Racism” march and rally tied up traffic in the Harbor East shopping area of downtown Baltimore on the evening of Jan. 15. Some 400 people voiced their opposition to brutal police tactics, including the arrest of a young organizer just a few hours before the rally.
The King Day rally was called by the People’s Power Assembly, Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) and the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There was good representation from unions, including UNITE HERE Local 7 and 32BJ of the Service Employees. Other contingents included the youth group FIST and Workers World Party.
The rally’s designated emcee, Sara Benjamin, was picked up by police in front of the college where she was registering for classes. In a deliberate tactic to obstruct and intimidate that day’s demonstration, the 23-year-old was arrested and held on a year-old warrant for a misdemeanor.
Benjamin, who is African-American, had traveled to Ferguson, Mo., with her five-year-old daughter to support the movement for justice after the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. She came back to Baltimore determined to help build the movement against racism in this highly segregated city.
PPA organizer Sharon Black stated, “We will be planning protests at the women’s jail every day until Benjamin is released. We consider her arrest and jailing racist and egregious.”
The next morning, march organizer Andre Powell announced a press conference in front of police headquarters to demand Benjamin’s release and “take up our strenuous objections to the growing repression by the Baltimore Police Department against our protests.”
Benjamin was bailed out Jan. 16 and released a strong statement about her outrageous treatment by police.
Those attending Mayor Martin Walsh’s “State of the City” address on Jan. 13 were greeted by picketing community activists, students, union members, homeless people made refugees by the closing of Long Island Shelter and Homeless Services, and Boston Black Lives Matter. The protesters withstood 17-degree temperatures to send a message about the real state of the city.
Black Lives Matter activists demanded an end to police brutality and all forms of discrimination, and full recognition of human rights. Others demanded full employment, decent housing, quality education, and an end to the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex.
Activists with the Boston School Bus Drivers, United Steelworkers Local 8751, demanded that the city dump the Veolia Corp. (now called Transdev), which has been trying to bust their union, and rehire four fired union leaders. They called on the mayor to use his authority to reach a just contract settlement with the drivers and to drop frame-up charges against Steve Kirschbaum, the chair of the union’s grievance committee.
Two days later, on Jan. 15, activists who described themselves as “a diverse group of LGBTQA, white, pan-Asian and Latin@ people acting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter” blocked traffic on Interstate 93 during the morning rush hour. In a press release, they said they would “place our bodies in the street for … the same amount of time Mike Brown lay dying in the streets” in order to “disrupt a capitalist structure that has been built on the physical and economic exploitation of Black bodies.” Twenty-nine of them were arrested.
On Jan. 15, Chicago activists and community members, led by youth of color, held a march and rally of about 200 aimed at reclaiming Dr. King’s legacy. The intergenerational coalition included grade and high school students, young adults and longtime activists. Marchers rallied near the University of Illinois at Chicago and then marched to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.
On Jan. 15, the People’s Power Assembly and Occu-Evolve organized a “Strike Against Racism” in New York City in honor of Dr. King’s legacy of resistance. Activists gathered at the African Burial Grounds in lower Manhattan to pay homage to enslaved Africans. Protesters marched to Wall Street and then held a short rally at the Manhattan Correctional Center to show solidarity with prisoners. A die-in was held at the entrance to the Staten Island Ferry to symbolize the July 17 chokehold death of Eric Garner by police in Staten Island, followed by another rally at City Hall. The day’s event culminated with another die-in at Grand Central Station.
About 700 people gathered in Union Square on Jan. 19 to commemorate King’s life and to demand an end to police killing of Black and Brown people. Black Lives Matter, the Peoples Power Assembly, Ocu-Evolve, the Coalition Against Police Violence and the Green Party all had contingents in the ensuing march to Foley Square. Another mass march was held in Harlem.
Despite a massive ice storm that made travel mostly impossible, more than 80 people attended Woodstock‘s 25th Annual Birthday Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 18. Speakers included Pam Africa, of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal; Suzanne Ross, of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition (NYC); and Woodstock Town Supervisor Jeremy Wilbur.
Activists in Buffalo held a “March and Rally for Justice” on Jan. 19 called by the Buffalo Anti-Racism Coalition. Speakers demanded “economic justice [and] an end to mass incarceration, … the school-to-prison pipeline, and to systemic racism and militarism that murders poor, black, and brown people across the planet for the sake of profit.”
Some 10,000 people took to the Philadelphia streets in what participants and organizers are calling the biggest Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in the city’s history. Billed as the “MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment,” two rallies and a march through Center City raised three general demands: an end to stop-and-frisk police tactics and the creation of an empowered police review board; a citywide minimum wage of $15 per hour and the right to a union; and a fully funded, community-controlled school system.
Speakers included Tanya Brown and Abbus Sabor — whose family members were brutalized by Philadelphia police — student activists, and faith and labor leaders. Civil rights attorney Michael Coard discussed the brutal treatment of Black people by Philadelphia cops and courts. Anti-gentrification organizer and professor of African Studies Dr. Tony Monteiro spoke about Dr. King’s relevance to the ongoing struggle against institutional racism.
By all accounts, the stated purpose to “reclaim MLK Day” in the name of militant direct action was a resounding success.
Ellie Dorritie, G. Dunkel, René Imperato, Monica Moorehead, Matty Starrdust and J. White contributed to this report.
WW photos: G. Dunkel / Greg Butterfield / Ellie Dorritie / J. White / Cheryl LaBash