People gathering at Lincoln Memorial during the speeches.
Thousands of people marched on Friday in Washington DC, demanding racial justice and equality, in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The event called “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” was organized by National Action Network, led by Rev. Al Sharpton. The event took place during the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the main goals were to advocate for police accountability, demand the right to equal justice under the law, invite participants to complete the 2020 census, and increase voter registration and the number of poll volunteers for the upcoming elections.
Large groups of young people attended the protest and whole families with children gathered around the Lincoln Memorial, while organizers scanned attendees for fever and reminded them to engage in social distancing and wear a mask in order to follow Covid-19 safety and health guidelines.
Kids and young adults protesting at the National Mall.
Some of the main speakers were Martin Luther King III, George Floyd’s family, Breonna Taylor’s mother, Jacob Blake’s family, and more relatives of African-Americans injured or killed by the police.
"My brother cannot be a voice today.
We have to be the voice. We have to be the change."
George Floyd's sister, Bridget Floyd.
In order to explore the meaning of these massive gatherings in the past and present, we talked with Amnesty International USA’s Chief Movement Building Officer, Roger-Mark De Souza, and Animal Outlook’s President, Erica Meier, both of whom attended the Commitment March last Friday representing grassroots activists and environmentalists.
Thousands of people attended the Commitment March in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Why do you think that is important for people to march? What is the power of protests?
Roger-Mark De Souza: Activism works. Public pressure works. Protests work. Black Lives Matter activists and protesters have achieved meaningful change in recent months: the officers involved in George Floyd’s death have been charged; the majority of Minneapolis city council members pledged to disband the city’s police department and implement a novel community-led safety model; in cities across the country, monuments memorializing racist history have been removed; new laws at the state and local levels addressing police reform are being passed, and police use of force standards are being modified and reevaluated by police departments.
The House of Representatives took an important step by passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act with bipartisan support back in June, but the Senate refused to take up the bill, only offering a watered-down counter-proposal in return. The role of public outrage and protest in these important steps toward a rights-respecting future cannot be ignored. We cannot let meaningful police reform stall. We must continue to call on our elected officials to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of all people, including through virtual or in-person protests.
Roger-Mark De Souza, Stacey Staniak, and other Amnesty International USA members.
As the Chief Movement Building Officer, Roger-Mark De Souza oversees research and programs designed to document human rights abuses and directs Amnesty International USA’s work to grow, diversify, train, and deepen the engagement of its membership base in order to leverage the organization’s grassroots activism from the local to the global level. For the last 25 years, De Souza has held leadership positions in the non-profit sector including Sister Cities International, the Woodrow Wilson Center, Population Action International, the Sierra Club, Population Reference Bureau, and the World Resources Institute. Over his career, he has built social, economic, health, and environmental programs, teams, and movements across the world to encourage local buy-in and empowerment.
Why is it important for you, as an individual, to participate in the Commitment March in Washington DC?
Erica Meier: As an activist, standing in solidarity against all forms of oppression means showing up rather than sitting on the sidelines, and living in the DC area makes it accessible for me to show up in person for the events such as the Commitment March on Washington. There’s a collective energy of mass demonstrations that creates a feeling of urgency, unity, and empowerment to stand up for equality, fight for justice, and build a better world for all of us.
How are inequality, racism, environmental issues, and politics interconnected?
Erica Meier: The personal is political, and because we live in a country that was built by and for white supremacy, racism and inequality are weaved into literally everything we do in the United States. That means that not only are Black Americans targeted by police, they are also those most affected by other racist systems, including the response to Covid-19 and even the environmental destruction caused by factory farming.
As a result, those who spend their lives fighting for non-human animals cannot stand idly by while the same oppressive system is murdering Black folks with impunity. That’s why we’re getting together with other vegan groups to show up for what we know is right and just.
Animal Outlook, DC Vegan Catering, Cleveland Vegan Catering and Wilma Bakes Cakes providing free vegan meals to the attendees of the protest in Washington.
During the current coronavirus pandemic, Amnesty International USA is organizing virtual protests for human rights and other issues such as free speech and gun violence. What is the impact and the challenge of meeting and protesting remotely?
Roger-Mark De Souza: We have adjusted the ways in which we conduct our work in many ways during the current pandemic; we shifted our annual activist conference to a virtual space, providing access for people all over the country to virtual panels, trainings, and meetings. In June, we engaged in a virtual week of action to end gun violence in solidarity with Hadiya’s Promise during Wear Orange. We have launched new Virtual Action Teams, which build on our tradition of activists working where they are through local, student, and affinity groups to protect human rights for all people. We have moved learning summits previously held in-person, such as our State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator Institute and our Youth Collective Retreat, to virtual spaces.
“COVID-19 has exposed and heightened the existing
inequalities and rights abuses present in our society.”
Roger-Mark De Souza, Chief Movement
Building Officer - Amnesty International
The opportunities and challenges presented by this shift stem from the same realities: COVID-19 has exposed and heightened the existing inequalities and rights abuses present in our society. People are motivated to take action and create a positive change in their communities, and, through virtual spaces, activists who might not otherwise have been able to work together are able to share their skills and experiences with each other. At the same time, activists are fighting multiple overlapping crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, gun violence, racially discriminatory policing, among others, all of which disproportionately impact Black and brown people in the United States. Competing challenges related to health, work, childcare, care for older people all vie for our time. It is more important than ever, in order to build a sustainable human rights movement, for us to proactively equip activists with the resources they need to address fatigue and secondary trauma.
Amnesty International’s upcoming remote events:
Animal Outlook collaborated with DC Vegan Catering, Cleveland Vegan Catering and Wilma Bakes Cakes to provide vegan meals during the march. How did this collaboration originate?
Erica Meier: DC Vegan Catering and Cleveland Vegan Catering teamed up earlier this year to provide free plant-based meals for Black Lives Matter protestors in DC as a way to provide support and nourishment. Animal Outlook and Wilma Bakes Cakes volunteered to help prep those meals, and when the opportunity arose to show support during the Commitment March, all four of us jumped at the chance to collaborate again -- with COVID-19 safety precautions in place, of course.
It’s a heartful experience to be able to share free vegan meals with protestors standing united against oppression. Providing healthy food is a nourishing way to show solidarity and empower our fellow social justice activists. And there’s an abundance of appreciation for the food - from vegans and pre-vegans alike!
Are there particular tools and information that you would like to share?
Roger-Mark De Souza: Amnesty International USA recently published original research documenting the startling lack of progress in law and policy governing the use of lethal force by police in the United States since its 2015 report on the same subject. This original research also documents violations of the right to protest by law enforcement officers in the United States, including through a mapping project of violence by law enforcement officers policing demonstrations and through detailed analysis from over 50 interviews with protesters, journalists, street medics, and legal observers.
After the speeches, people marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Would you like to add something?
Erica Meier: There are many ways to stand united in our support for justice and compassion for all. Sharing free vegan meals with protestors is one of them. And given the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, support doesn’t have to be in person -- we can show up from a distance, whether it’s financial funding, messages of support via email or social media, signing petitions or joining campaigns. You can find more great ideas for socially-distanced activism here.
And remember, activism can look different every day. Showing up for other movements doesn’t mean you’re not fighting for animals, and fighting for animals is chipping away at the same system that oppresses humans. It truly is all connected, and we can--and must--change the world together.
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