MANHATTAN (CN) — If any one slogan animates the Black Lives Matter protests across the nation, it is the command: “Say his name,” a reminder that the parade of victims killed by police had identities, families and people who love them.
It is the reason the entire globe has been moved to the streets by the late George Floyd, who died late last month gasping for air as a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Taking a roughly two-mile pilgrimage across the Brooklyn Bridge on Tuesday afternoon, thousands of New Yorkers paid a visit to New York City Hall to repeat scores of names spoken by the mothers of the dead, including Guinean immigrant Hawa Bah, whose son Mohamed Bah died from eight police bullets fired at him inside his house; Kadiatou Diallo, whose son Amadou Diallo had 41 shots fired at him by police; and Constance Malcolm, the mother of slain 18-year-old Ramarley Graham.
“They shot my son eight times in his own house,” shouted Bah, standing between City Hall and Manhattan federal courthouse where she won a $2.2 million jury verdict for her son’s wrongful death in 2012.
These names may not have the same global recognition as Floyd’s, but they are known to New Yorkers.
“I’ve marched for Diallo,” Sukari Mtume, a 30-year-old working in theater production, recalled.
“I’ve marched for Sean Bell,” she added, referring to the Queens resident shot 50 times in Queens in 2006. “And I’m here for George and everyone else today.”
Her handmade placard listed those names and others and though a familiar ritual for her, the march stirred an emotional response for Mtume, who said she was crying as protesters took control of the Manhattan-bound road across the Brooklyn Bridge.
“Because it’s so many people,” Mtume said. “There’s white people. There’s black people. I think that really touched me, you know. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But I think to see everyone in such unity and. It’s so peaceful. And it really just touched my soul, really deeply.”
Spotted among the thousands of placards were Warholian images of George Floyd, painted by an artist collective Artists for George and distributed to demonstrators. Carrying one of the portraits was Greg, an accountant and first-time protester who declined to give his full name.
Asked what brought him to the gathering, Greg replied simply: “Social injustice.”
“My grandparents marched on Washington, so I have to do my part,” he added.
In two short weeks, the protests have triggered seismic reforms — some quite radical, systemic and struggled over for years. Minneapolis dismantled its police department and will replace it anew, an experiment attempted successfully in Camden, New Jersey, in 2013. Los Angeles defunded its police by up to $150 million, which it intends to reinvest in communities of color. The New York State on Tuesday announced a suite of reforms designed to make police more transparent and accountable by opening their disciplinary records to public scrutiny.
Alysha Siddiqui, a line cook carrying a sign with the phrase “The Revolution Will Be Televised,” wondered why New York could not emulate Los Angeles in reducing the police department’s budget, currently at a cool $6 billion.
“After ours is the LAPD, and it’s like a fraction of what we have,” Siddiqui noted. “So defunding for me means putting that money in places that more immediately affects the people it’s meant to go to, people it’s meant to protect.”
Like many mainstream politicians, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has chafed at the pace of rapid change, facing pressure from a police union that has attacked his daughter and internal dissent from his own Civil Rights Commission, which protested against him.
Hours before the march at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, the highest-ranking black official in New York City turned up the pressure on de Blasio, demanding significant structural change and urging the thousands of pedestrians to take over the Manhattan-bound vehicle lane of the iconic bridge.
“Mr. Mayor, the world is watching, you claim to be a progressive, you claim to be a change, we ain’t seen it yet, you’ve got 18 months and we’re going to make it hot until then,” said Jumaane Williams who, as New York City Public Advocate, is first in line to succeed a mayor who is removed before the end of their term.
Williams, who delivered a strong eulogy during a memorial event for Floyd last week where de Blasio was booed by a crowd of thousands, said the mayor has failed to provide any leadership regarding the civil disobedience and protests across the city over the past two weeks.
“I’ve been waiting and waiting, and after 10, 11 days of unrest that was righteous and needed and angry and painful, he put out four weak ass points to respond to all of the pain that’s going on across the city and across this nation,” Williams said. “That’s unacceptable.”
De Blasio, the incumbent mayor, is unable to run for a third term in 2021 due to term limits.
Williams told the crowd their fight for justice was nowhere close to being over. “We have to remember George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, but they’re not the only ones,” he said, naming three black people killed by police this year alone. “We have to remember that as the mayor is talking about Minnesota and getting ready to put names of black lives on the street, thank you but that’s not what we need right now.”
De Blasio announced Tuesday that the city will paint “Black Lives Matter” on one street in each borough, as Washington, D.C., has done outside the White House.
De Blasio also expressed broad support for several policing bills being discussed Tuesday afternoon at a City Council hearing. These bills include criminalization of police chokeholds, affirming the right to record interactions with police, and a rule that officers’ shield numbers and rank designations must be visible to the public. De Blasio previously threatened to veto a chokehold ban.
Standing atop the steps of the 172-year-old Brooklyn Borough Hall building, Williams called on the mayor to fire the police officers involved in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, along with the NYPD officer who shot and killed 37-year-old Delrawn Small on July 4, 2016, in East New York, Brooklyn.
“We need you to support a full repeal of 50-A. We need you to cut a billion dollars from the budget of the police,“ Williams said “And that’s just the start. Stop giving us platitudes, man!”
“We need real change, we need structural change for everybody,” Williams said in closing remarks. “Nobody is going to be left off this equity and justice train as long as we have a say in it,” he added.
The same day, the New York state Senate passed, 40–22, a repeal of 50-A, a controversial section of New York’s civil rights law that shielded police officers’ personnel records from the public. Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he will sign it.
Between speakers at the rally, Williams led the mixed-race crowd in Brooklyn in a call-and-response of the chorus from James Brown’s 1968 revolutionary funk anthem “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”
The night after he spoke at the George Floyd memorial event, Williams joined New York City Council Member Brad Lander in the streets of the Fort Greene and Clinton Hill sections of Brooklyn during the hours after the city’s 8 p.m. curfew, attempting to deescalate NYPD officers from kettling and arresting peaceful marchers.
Speaking at the rally Tuesday, Lander, who is white, applauded members of the Minneapolis City Council for advocating “deep and transformative” changes to the infrastructure of that city’s police department.
Lander pledged to support a city budget that similarly defunds the New York City Police Department. “The time for small incremental reforms has passed,” he said.
“We are going to fight to find $1 billion that we can remove out of policing and in to the kind of youth services and healthcare services and mental health services that the people of our city need and you have my word, I will not vote for a budget that does not make deep and significant cuts to the NYPD,” Lander said Tuesday.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Pastor Louis Straker also spoke at the event Tuesday.
Following the rally, marchers filed toward the Brooklyn Bridge to the sound of Bob Marley over the P.A., singing the 1973 Wailers song “Get Up, Stand Up.”
Williams led hundreds of peaceful marchers into Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge joined by Black Lives Matter protesters and members of New York City’s religious community.