Sharpton's Silent March Gets Loud

Categories: In the Streets

(The NYPD has been looking for a supposedly armed "fourth man" who allegedly fled the scene of the Sean Bell shooting. Survivors of the shooting have said there was no such person. Photograph by Fred Askew)

A protest organized as a silent march shook the streets of New York Saturday as thousands refused to keep quiet. Instead, they counted out loud the 50 shots undercover police fired at Sean Bell and his friends last month.

Led by Rev. Al Sharpton, a river of protesters gathered at 59th Street to carry a message of outrage from the black working-class neighborhoods to the affluent 5th Avenue shopping strip. Tourists stared, some scared, some laughing, and many taking souvenir photos of the march.

The carefully cultivated peace was nearly broken when a fight between a protester and a cop on 59th Street almost exploded into a riot. Police circled the grim-faced protester as people shouted support. "Breathe, brother," a woman shouted. “Don't let them get you!”

The momentum was too great to stop, with mainstream black activists sharing the streets with hard-left groups like Worker's World, International Socialist Organization and League Revolutionary Party. The messages on the signs they carried ranged from hope to rage. "Improve police and community relations now," urged one, while another read, "Stop the racist NYPD." The mixed messages seemed to fuse into one emotion, exhausted rage at the police.

The reflection of the black marchers could be seen in the display windows of the up-scale 5th Avenue stores. "We need to stop spending in these stores," Patricia Hudson, a New York sanitation worker said. “Blacks and Latinos are big spenders and our boycott would cripple this city.” When asked if she knew about the 50-day boycott called for by Councilman Charles Barron, Hudson sounded surprised. "No I didn’t," she said.

The march turned onto 34th Street and ended at 7th Avenue. People waved their flags as police guided them out of the barricades and back to the sidewalks. While waiting for the line to thin, a Blood and a Crip sat on a barricade together. "There's people in his hood who killed mine," Frenchie, a 21-year-old Crip from South Jamaica Queens said. "And people in my hood who killed his." The pair said the rival gangs were making peace and uniting against a common enemy. "When we saw each other"—he pointed to C-Loc, the 20-year-old Blood sitting next to him, also from Queens—"I saw the tension in his eye, but we hugged and squashed that beef."

Nearby, Black Panthers burned an American flag as people circled them with cameras. When an older black woman scolded them, Panther member Nat Turner yelled at her, "If this is a silent march, then don't speak to me." She shook her head and stepped away as they stomped the flag against the pavement.

A knot of Black Nationalists pumped fists in the air and held a bag of bullets high above our heads. Police eyed them warily, and finally the crowds rushing to Christmas shop wore down the last of the marchers. A cop held up a bull horn. "Thank you for marching for justice," the officer said. "Now please go home."

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