"Not Taking No For An Answer"
Voices from the MYM
Revolutionary Worker #976, October 4, 1998
I've lived in Los Angeles my entire life and am used to everything about L.A.--the women selling oranges at freeway off ramps, the day laborers I ride the bus with who pull their Mexican hats over their eyes while they sleep, children pushing other children in shopping carts along wide supermarket aisles.
I know a lot about L.A. and the conditions and struggle of the people. But I've never been on the East Coast--that is, not until I was asked to go to New York City to help cover the Million Youth March in Harlem on September 5. I was eager to see New York and the East Coast but I was even more excited about getting the chance to go to the march and talk with people 3,000 miles away from my home about how they live, what they have to deal with day-to-day and how they struggle against their oppression.
The minute I stepped into New York I found the differences between L.A. and New York striking. Everything is tall, crowded, loud, or fast. The subway in New York is like funky horizontal lightning that travels under and above ground. But there were also similarities--the people of New York are from every part of the world and a multitude of languages can be heard on the subway and on every inch of the street.
As I walked through the streets of Harlem trying to find the heart of the Million Youth March I saw groups of young girls jumping rope, mothers and babies searching for a shady place to sit down, men crowded around a folding table playing cards or dominos. I looked around and realized I was in the largest Black ghetto anywhere. Harlem and its people is the place Langston Hughes' poetry was inspired by.
Everyone--the people coming out from Church, the man at the grocery store, the street vendors--was talking about the Million Youth March. Heated conversations spread throughout the streets. Many people mentioned how proud they felt that the youth labeled "lost" were making such a powerful statement.
On my arrival at Revolution Books in New York, people had filled me in on the controversy surrounding the Million Youth March and how city administrators had done everything possible to prevent this gathering. I had read in the RW about Giuliani's reputation for brutality against squeegee men, taxi drivers, vendors, artists and the homeless. So I wasn't too surprised to hear that the Mayor of New York had attacked the march and called it a "hate" march. Giuliani was pointing the finger at the anti-semitic rants of Khallid Muhammad, but a lot of people thought that the New York power structure just didn't want thousands of angry Black youth in the streets of Harlem.
I had never seen Khallid Mumhammad speak but comrades had told me that his so-called militance had a negative anti-Jewish flavor; and I knew that anyone who blamed the problems of Black people on Jewish people couldn't be serious about making revolution. Anyway, if I wanted to hear the rally speakers I could have stayed home and watched CSPAN--but my mission was to find out about the youth who had come to protest. And coming into the streets on that day proved to be a challenge.
A maze of winding, criss-crossing, and zig-zagging steel police barricades prevented people from moving with any kind of freedom. Even the inhabitants of the apartments along Malcolm X Blvd. had difficulty entering their own apartments. Some residents showed the police their I.D. with their name and address and they had a hard time getting through the blockade.
I followed groups of people trying to find the entrance of the rally through what seemed an infinite number of lefts and rights. We walked along the street for almost an hour with our frustration rising by the minute. We would be told that there was an entrance a couple of blocks ahead. We walked ahead only to be told that the entrance had been closed and we had to walk back. People struggled with the police to let us through. The police refused and said we had to "obey the rules of the event." Everywhere I turned people talked about their hatred for the way the police disrespect them.
There were about 250 police assigned to the six-block area where the Million Youth March was taking place. The police were an occupying army with police vans, riot gear, and a huge water tank and hose ready to spray people if anything jumped off. I found myself in the middle of a crowd of angry people who were determined to be a part of the event despite all the obstacles set up to prevent it.
About an hour into the event people were boiling with frustration at the police and all the barricades preventing them from reaching the stage.
"We are being corralled in our own community," yelled a man from behind the barricades.
People shouted out, "We are tired of this bullshit. Let us through! Let us through!" and rocked the steel barricades back and forth and threw their fists up in the air.
It was hot. I'd been walking all day long and needed a couple minutes to cool off. A group of young women sat on a curb a couple of blocks from the main stage, I sat with them and asked about the reasons they attended the march.
"This is important to the African American community. We are the ones who are the most in jail. They are always trying to give us a very bad reputation," said one of the young women. The people in their high school were talking about the Million Youth March and they wanted to be a part of it.
Her sisters jumped in and put in their two cents about Mayor Giuliani, the thousands of police, and the lack of respect for the youth. "People like Giuliani just want to give themselves a raise and not send us to school. Our schools are falling apart and he isn't helping. We are suffering with old books, trying to keep them together and put tape all over them. Our schools are overcrowded and more and more people are coming in and he would rather build more jails than schools."
As she points to the police helicopters flying overhead, the police on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, the nearby businesses with police on guard inside the stores, and then to the four corners where we were sitting, the youngest member of the group says, "Look at this, I can't stand this, what is the reason to block off this whole area right here. If this was a KKK rally they wouldn't have all this."
"They would be protecting the Klan." Her older sister covers her face from the glare of the sun with the pile of leaflets and newspapers she's picked up throughout the event. "Look, they are all up on the buildings and there are all these helicopters circulating up there. That don't make no sense. It is just so disrespectful. They think we are criminals because we are young and because we are Black. We are here to unite together like a family and fight. This march is for all minorities."
They say that nothing will stop them from taking a stand against all the abuse people of color are subjected to. "It's like hunting season. There was a kid who got shot 17 times because he had a water gun. They said it looked like a pistol. They should know the difference. He was only 17 years old and him being shot 17 times does not make any sense.
"Look at all they did to try to stop us with these barricades. But we are still here. We are here because of all that and a lot of other things that everybody needs to know. They need to know why we are here and that we are here to say that we will not take `no' for an answer any more."
There were all different kinds of youth in Harlem that day, there were those who have been in different struggles against national oppression for a while and some who are new to the struggle. A Puerto Rican youth told me, "We are here to support anything progressive against the U.S. system. The youth in New York City and Latinos want struggle. And we are here to support. All the police here is just a way for Giuliani to flex his muscles. He's trying to make a statement that he wants to control us."
For other youth this was one of the first political events they had attended. I heard later that there were folks in the crowd who applauded Khallid Muhammad's anti-Jewish remarks. But none of the people I talked to said anything about Jewish people.
Two young women in their mid-teens who were at the event with their mother said, "This is not like they are portraying it to be. It's not often that we get together, all different kinds of races. We just want equality. We wanted to get together with other youth. They say this is racially hateful, but we are just trying to get everyone together so that they can make a difference in their communities."
A young woman from Queens took the subway out to Harlem to attend the Million Youth March. She was at the Million Youth March for many of the reasons other youth attended, but also to take a firm stand against police brutality.
"A white cop shot my brother in his leg because they thought the Three Musketeers candy he was holding was a gun. He was holding a candy bar and he was walking and the police was on a stake-out looking for some other n**ga that had done something back in '82. Back in '82 my brother was 2 years old, so the person they was looking for had to be way older. The police told my brother to freeze. By the time he turned around and was holding the candy bar in his hand the police had already shot him in the leg. While he was lying on the floor handcuffed, they gave him a Dunkin' Donuts napkin to clean his bullet wound. They just shot him for no reason and ain't no justice come out of it!"
She looked above and saw the police helicopters taunting the crowd as they flew at rooftop level, "Look at this!" She then points to the crowd. "Look at where we [as youth] are going. Who knows where we'll stop. People are taking a stand against this bullshit. But ain't nothing gonna happen until we come together. We are all here because we want to do something with our life."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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