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The story of the September 6 "Million Youth March" in Brooklyn does not begin and end with low turnout and a lack of violence. Aside from the usual trappings of fiery rhetoric, Pan-African flags, and black power salutes, there was a determined spirit that has eluded past events as speakers took on everything from education, black-on-black crime, and police brutality to rap music and Russell Simmons.
In a festive, block-party atmosphere, a crowd estimated at anywhere from 300 to 1,000 braved the blazing sun to hear leaders exhort the youth to learn more about their cultural foundations, stress that higher education is not for suckers and squares, and heap criticism upon the "gangsta" mentality permeating inner-city communities. March convener and New Black Panther Party (NBPP) head Malik Zulu Shabazz said gangs should protect their communities, not destroy them, while others, decrying youth violence, highlighted the Bloods' and Crips' revolutionary roots.
"There's young leadership that needs a voice to come forward," said Shabazz. "I mean, we had gangbangers, Delta Sigma Theta [sorority members], rappers, poets. No one really seems to be giving young people a chance and trying to work with young people, so we see that as our duty right now."
An important component of the march's agenda was a revolutionary reclamation of Hiphop culture. In light of rap superstar 50 Cent's recent "pimp and ho" MTV Video Music Award performance, a spectacle many progressives see as regressive, some of the sharpest rhetorical barbs were directed at the rap industry. Several people cited the MTV incident or ridiculed the rapper's lyrics. "The movement must be developed for real artists who are not controlled by the five major [music] conglomerates that are controlled by our enemy," Shabazz told the Voice.
The sharpest contrast to previous marches, thoughparticularly the first, convened by the late Black Nationalist leader Khalid Abdul Muhammad in 1998was the absence of an oppressive police presence. Organizers say this was testimony to the level of their cooperation with police. "Brother Malik came in and sat with different grassroots organizations such as [the late Abubadika Sonny Carson's] Committee to Honor Black Heroes," says Naquan Muhammad, a march organizer and Heroes Committee member. "We were able to help [Shabazz] with making sure he had an open communication with local law enforcement so that the problems that took place in Harlem wouldn't take place in Brooklyn."
The program began with a procession down Fulton Street to the rally site. There were young speakers, albeit visibly inexperienced ones. "Some of the criticism of the prior marches was that there were too many adults and not enough youth," said host City Councilman Charles Barron. "There was a real attempt to make it a more youthful march." Others speaking were Pam Africa of MOVE; members of the National Action Network; former political prisoner Fred Hampton Jr.; and Minister Kevin Muhammad, a Farrakhan representative.
"It's clear that the leadership [at the event] represents the leadership of the black power movement in this city," said Shabazz. "Reverend Herbert Daughtry, Barron, Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Dr. James McIntosh. You put that leadership together with the rappers and others and you have the base for a true movement that will begin to defend and develop the interests of our people."
What is unclear is whether or not this effort will include Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN). Shabazz took swipes at the mogul-activist, charging that Simmons and Reverend Al Sharpton had repudiated him and the march. Although the accusation against Sharpton proved untrue, Shabazz maintains his charge against Simmons.
"When we see [Simmons] in person he says he supports the march and supports us, [and] he will help us. We honestly and earnestly believed he was sincere," said Shabazz. "But [calls] just went unreturned and then we hear on the day of the march that he has repudiated us. Lied and said that he didn't support us, and that has to be the last straw."
"He said that we repudiated him and that's not true," said Minister Benjamin Muhammad, president of HSAN. Muhammad says that the lack of a HSAN presence was no indication of opposition. "A lot of people drop Russell's name for different motives," said Muhammad, but he added nothing has changed the HSAN's position on Shabazz. "We wish them well. We have no beef with Malik or the NBPP."
When asked about resolving their differences, Shabazz said, "We believe in black unity and we would prefer to have a good relationship with Simmons." Later he remarked, "I'm not begging and bootlicking Russell Simmons for anything."
"I think that Russell Simmons, Al Sharpton, Ben Chavis, all of us, we're all going to come to the table eventually because we have to," said Barron. "There may be some differences now, but we will resolve them for the sake of our youth." Follow-up activities in the works include after-school and weekend programs, an anti-violence and police-brutality initiative, and a progressive rap compilation CD.