Human rights movements are different from the rest. Unlike revolutions, which come together in order to overturn empires, or labor unions, which exist to boost wage increases from capitalists’ pockets, human rights movements tend to coagulate over the egregious spilling of human blood, preferably that of an Innocent. They are vampiric in that way, feeding off the sainted veins of martyrs, sacrificial lambs, and causes célèbres. For this reason human rights activists often come off as ambulance chasers, morgue cruisers, demagogic ghouls prowling the autopsy room in search of an appropriate victim-myth whose body tag they can snatch, raise up high, and fly like a righteous banner.
Unlike vampires, these activists aren’t seeking eternal life but temporary means of moral persuasion against the State. Human rights movements also, ironically enough, require monsters, devils, archenemies who would as soon shoot the people as look at them. Enter Bull Connor, enter Pik Botha, enter Rudolph Giuliani, though we all know it’s actually been exit Rudolph Giuliani from any future hopes in politics ever since Diallo’s mother fainted at the death scene. Her and her husband’s regal bearing and regalia revealed that the deceased was not the “immigrant peddler” of the Daily News‘s incessant description, but a product of centuries-deep familial roots. Surveying the joyous multitudes at last Thursday’s March Against Police Brutality, photographer Jules Allen opined that this grand movement-building event probably wouldn’t have ever happened if Giuliani had “just said ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘It was an accident,’ something. But to just leave it at ‘Fuck you’? Was that crazy or what?”
In spite of City Hall’s imperious grand wizard, last Thursday’s march across the Brooklyn Bridge Cadman Plaza to Federal Plaza felt more like a victory dance than a protest rally— a voodoo-against-racism frolic so full of good cheer you’d think the order of the day was heigh-ho, the king was already dead, Viva la revolución, Rome is once again free, and all known fascists are now on the run.
Human rights rallies aren’t by necessity humorless, but as soon as this reporter came out of the High Street subway station, he knew that this rally had jokes for your ass. Firstly in the form of the young Hispanic cop who told the bewildered gentleman out just before me scouring the empty streets for signs of activity that he’d hardly seen anyone that day. This said as, not so far off in the distance, the bridge was visibly swarming with bodies. Once I got to the rally at the Plaza proper (where it became clear that the march was backed up all the way from Manhattan into the streets of Brooklyn) and caught sight of a costumed Grim Reaper accessorized as a policeman, a sickle-, badge-, and billy-club-laden avatar of doom on loan from the extras crew of Maniac Cop 3, I got wind that comedy would be fueling this day of the dead as much as rage.
Don’t get me wrong: folk were soberly chanting down Babylon as required, dropping all the familiar science— No Justice No Peace The People United Can Never Be Defeated— but they were also giddily returning cheers and power salutes from supporters and well-wishers in vehicles crossing the bridge headed into Brooklyn on the roadway to the appropriate left of the march.
The first thing my mate asked when I got home that night was, “Were there enough white people there?”— meaning enough to make the media and the police not dismiss the gathering as another yawn-provoking, overtime-paying display of Angry Negro Syndrome. But yes there were, dear, so you had Black Panthers walking arm in arm with Gray Panthers and Pink Panthers, and hosts of representatives voicing other diverse concerns as well. There was so much interracial, interfaith, cross-gender coalition and alliance building going down on that bridge you had to wonder whether you were on the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate, coming straight out of Crooklyn or straight out of Berkeley.
Say what? Coalition politics were supposedly as dead or withering on the vine in New York as industrial labor elsewhere in globalized America, but this Diallo thing was not only providing Black and Hispanic leadership a reason to powwow but for your Socialist Workers and your Revolutionary Communist Party people and your well-represented Local 371 Social Service Employees members to commune with the sister passing out flyers promoting her call-in show about healing the rift between Africans and African Americans. There was even love for the fringe character who came up asking for money to feed the homeless but whose literature spoke of wanting to police homeless folks’ dating practices and make AIDS testing mandatory for them.
The temper of the day was best declared, though, by the variety of vendors on the make, the brother offering not-for-free chew sticks at the foot of the bridge, the whistle man whose neck was his vending table, the Giuliani-as-Dracula button hawker, the cat passing out flyers to this year’s run of the Universal Soul Circus, and perhaps most of all by my man with the “FUCK Giuliani” T-shirts who claimed to have sold 200 or so at $8 a pop, six to an NYPD officer who gave him his car keys and asked that the vendor clandestinely load them into his vehicle. “FUCK Giuliani” is cool, but some marchers thought more clever would be mo’ betta and threw up signs of Arrest Giuliani and Impound Giuliani. From the book of Funkadelic came Rude-Off Fool-i-ani; from the book of Saturday Night Live, according to my man Marc Ribot, we got Giuliani and Milosevic, Separated at Birth.
As much as human rights movements need their Diallos and their Draculas they also need their archangels, and without question the handling of the Diallo case on the streets and in the media has been our right Reverend Al Sharpton’s finest hour, his statesmanship graduation ceremony, and for all those who must recall and cannot forgive his baby-curl days as a boy preacher, James Brown fan-club booster, police snitch, FBI informant, televangelist for Tawana Brawley, December 12 movement coalition splitter, all must also remember as I pointed out in these pages some years ago that Sharpton is not a man but a messenger, in the tradition of the Yoruba trickster deity Esu-Elegba, who like Sharpton is fabled to swim in waters murky, dirty, and crystalline, an agent of chaos who must be feted and fed before any momentous journey is undertaken or any road can be safely traveled.
Hence the gaiety that prevailed on the Yellow Brick Bridge last Thursday as the masses blithely waltzed into the Emerald City to the mellifluous strains of The People United Can Never Be Defeated, a slogan for once more fact than fable. Certainly it seemed that way from the sheepish, hangdog looks on the faces of the NYPD footsoldiers and mounted police (and one imagines the helicopter pilots and boat patrols as well). You got the impression they were loitering at the rally rather than policing the darn thing, some finding their only moment of levity when a brother began shouting Live Here! Work Here! at them in reference to the residency requirements the movement is pressing for. Not in a million years, said the guffaws. Speaking of call and response, however, I must also report that the event’s most bloodcurdling moment occurred when a movement exhorter got us going on a cry of “Amadou! What did he do?” Then he got us counting shots: 1! 2! 3! 4! 5! 6! 7! 8! 9! 10! 11! 12! 13! 14! 15! 16! 17! 18! 19! 20! 21! 22! 23! 24! 25! 26! 27! 28! 29! 30! 31! 32! 33! 34! 35! 36! 37! 38! 39! 40! 41!
In this digital age where only perfectly structured sets of zeros and ones are supposed to get anyone excited, the bullet-count was a reminder of what humanity loses when a brown body mysteriously morphs into a carnival game or a pinball target behind the alphanumeric eyes of four type-A porcine specimens. Four pigs to be precise, more detached and hardwired than Schwarznegger’s Terminator, capable of using a dead man’s feet for target practice, secure in the long-standing American belief that a black man has no rights a white man should feel compelled to respect, safe in the conviction that no white policeman has ever been convicted for killing a black man in this country and that as Ice Cube once observed, the mission is to serve, protect, and break a nigger’s neck.
One new slogan I heard thrown into the mix that day was also directed at cops: If We’re Not Safe, You’re Not Safe. Thankfully the festive atmosphere was counterbalanced by a little madman theory just to keep things in dialectical perspective, as seen to by the Parliament-Funkadelic refugees handing out flyers promoting the formation of a People’s Militia and quoting Gandhi to the effect that violence becomes necessary whenever there is no possibility of punishing the wicked. Call it a cautionary device— a way of saying to the powers that be that if a Simi Valley jury shows up for these four elite white cops, last Thursday’s partydown Rainbow Warriors just might start acting a tad more belligerent. Rodney King 2 in Gotham City? After last Thursday? Are they crazy?