WASHINGTON — Thousands of marchers gathered on the National Mall Friday to demand racial justice and mourn George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans killed by law enforcement. The march was held on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and took place at the Lincoln Memorial, the same spot where King spoke 57 years ago.
The event also marked the 65th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, and comes just four days after Jacob Blake was shot by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police seven times as he walked to his car, leaving him paralyzed, according to his family.
Blake’s sister, Letetra Widman, along with many other family members of Black people hurt or killed by police, as well as civil rights leaders, addressed the crowd before the group marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.
“We will not be a footstool to oppression,” Widman said as she addressed the massive crowd that assembled Friday. “Black America, I hold you accountable. You must stand. You must fight, but not with violence and chaos.”
Many attendees at the march, organized by civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, said Blake’s shooting has added new energy to Black Lives Matter protests that have been happening across the country since early this summer, something they said they found saddening and frustrating.
As Sharpton spoke, one young boy, 12-year-old Messiah, walked alone into the Reflecting Pool that stretches toward the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial and raised a fist in the air.
He told BuzzFeed News he had come to the march because “it’s not fair that because of the color of our skin we have to get treated differently.”
Peter Van Der Mey flew from Los Angeles to attend the event with his 20-year-old son. He expressed amazement at the size and energy of the gathering.
"It's sad that it takes people getting shot for this to come together. But I'm amazed, and happy that it happened,” he said. "I was just saying to my son this feels completely different. There's something about the energy today and the focus."
Bahlya Yansane, who said he has been protesting almost every day in New York City, said the energy at a rally he attended in Times Square earlier this week was different than others in recent weeks.
“I was saying to a lot of people how I noticed that you felt that anger come back that was in June,” he said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “It had that same energy, the anger, the unity, everyone being together. I was just kind of saddened that it took someone, a Black man, getting hurt that badly for us to come together like that.”
Instead, Yansane asked, he wants people to unite against injustice just for the sake of it, not only after shootings like Blake’s.
Another attendee, Jaron Nash, who traveled from California to be at the march, said he’s been protesting throughout the summer and has seen “increased frustration.”
“Every death is another one,” he said. “This is another one to … reenergize people. [People] are really at the forefront, keeping it at the forefront.”
Mike Supplice, who traveled from Florida for the event and attended with Nash, said Friday that he has been protesting as often as he’s able this summer. He had seen the protests in the past start to have a “flattened curve,” he said, but he’s seen consistent action this year — even in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everyone saw George Floyd’s murder, and everyone is more proactive,” he said. “The thing I appreciate is it’s more diverse compared than previous times. [In the past], it’s like Black people marching, but now you see everybody from every demographic, age range standing up for a good cause.”
Liz Casey, a white high school teacher, came to DC from Philadelphia early Friday morning for the march, and brought along her two daughters, Maddie and Tori Casey, and one of her daughter’s roommates, Ashley Feliz. The group said they had been consistently protesting in California, where Liz and Maddie live, and in Philadelphia, where Tori and Feliz go to school.
“I feel like it died down,” Tori said of the protests they’ve attended, before adding, “I don’t want to say ‘died down,’ I feel like that’s a bad word. It’s been a constant thing, and we’ve been planning to come down here for a month or so [to be] part of the movement.”
Sharpton announced Friday’s march, called the “Get Your Knees Off Our Necks” march, in June, and it attracted attendees from across the country. The group, with most people wearing masks, took to the Mall to hear speeches from the family members of Floyd, Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and Eric Garner, as well as Sharpton, members of Congress, and Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of Martin Luther King Jr., among others.
“In so many ways we stand together day in the symbolic shadow of history, but we are making history together right now,” King said. “We are marching with the largest and most active multigenerational, multiracial movement for civil rights since the 1960s. From high school students to senior citizens, Black as well as white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islanders. Americans are marching together, many for the first time, and we're demanding real, lasting, structural change.”
King’s 12-year-old daughter, Yolanda Renee King, also spoke at the event, telling the crowd, “We are going to be the generation that dismantles systemic racism once and for all, now and forever.”
Other speakers called for continued protests in the streets to raise awareness about the deaths of Black Americans by police and pushed for people to vote in the upcoming election. “My brother cannot be a voice today,” Bridget Floyd, George Floyd’s sister, said. “We have to be the voice. We have to be the change.”
The attendees overwhelmingly wore masks during the event. Jonathan Paul said he was touched that so many people showed up despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “These people didn’t have to come in the middle of a pandemic, people’s lives are still in danger,” he said. “I heard of people hopping on planes from across the country to come here. That’s pretty profound, you know?”
Correction: Emmett Till's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.