From a distance, a protest march can look like it’s all about one thing. Up close, finer distinctions become visible. None of the messages are unrelated to one another, and their sheer multitude doesn’t necessarily undermine the collective message, but their multiplicity makes it dangerous to pick one vein of sentiment and use it to characterize a movement.
At Monday’s march through Harlem, some chanted “NYPD, KKK, how many kids did you kill today?” while others carried plain cardboard signs scribbled with quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There was a person in an Anonymous mask with a black sweatshirt that promised, “We Will Kill the System,” not far from a mother holding a graduation photo of a son facing criminal charges related to an assault for which she insists he is not culpable. There was a call to “shut the whole system down.” There was a list of 11 ways to meaningfully improve the system.
Some signs lumped Democrats and Republicans into a racist establishment. But Troy Williams of Jamaica, Queens noted that Democrat Bill de Blasio “is the first mayor who has actually stood up to the police department and said something.”
James Dobbins marched in a sweathshirt listing the names of the city’s public hospitals. On the front it read “Guns Down, Life Up,” the name of a violence intervention program for which he works that uses “credible messengers” to talk kids out of resorting to gunplay and provides alternatives to young people looking for something to do. “More guns need to be down. This is our statement,” Dobbins said. Both cops and criminals need to put weapons away, he said. He was marching, he said, to turn the focus to solutions. “After all this,” he asked, gesturing to the march, “then what?”
Khadija Amon-Ia carried a sign linking American police killings to Boko Haram’s reported slaughter of as many as 2,000 people in Nigeria last week—an atrocity that garnered far less Western media attention than the terrorist attack in Paris. “If we are truly for humanity, we should be for all lives. It seems like black lives don’t matter as much as white lives.” For her, the message of the march was simple, and its target was young people of color: “Their lives have value in this world.”