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After Ferguson, national rights groups unite against police violence

For social justice groups across the country, Michael Brown’s death represents a deeper crisis

The Ferguson grand jury decision this week not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, which prompted protests across the United States, has united an array of civil rights groups in a movement to combat police violence.

Demonstrations over the grand jury decision have not only spread to over 170 cities across U.S. They have united social justice movements in New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle, where thousands of protesters marched this week.

Alliance for a Just Society, a national network of racial and economic justice organizations, has brought together 14 grassroots social justice groups that partook in Ferguson-related protests.

"Though we cover a lot of bread and butter issues, we're also committed to racial justice ... and for us Michael Brown's killing represents a deeper crisis in the country around policing, prisons and criminal justice," said Libero Della Piana, senior organizer at Alliance for a Just Society.

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Activists have launched websites promoting rights groups’ planned actions. They are also increasingly sharing their own experiences with police brutality.

“You could say the coalition building was already happening, but now there’s more of an impetus,” said Gregory Lewis, a Seattle activist, who said he was pulled off a bus by local police and accused of stealing. "When I looked at the cop’s badge, he told me, ‘If your eyes are wandering, I’ll get you a third one in your forehead.’”

Brown’s death not only sparked nationwide protests, activists say, but local discussions on race and discriminatory law enforcement tactics. In various protests across the country, demonstrators held banners referring to perceived injustice in their own communities.

In New York, for example, protesters carried posters of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a police officer in the stairwell of his East New York building as he came home with his girlfriend.

In Oakland, after the Ferguson grand jury decision was announced, protestors gathered spontaneously at a symbolic meeting point: Oscar Grant Plaza. The site is named after the 22-year unarmed man who was killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer 2009, according to Mollie Costello, director of the Alan Blueford Center for Justice, named after another unarmed black teen killed by police in 2012. 

Costello disagreed with the media’s portrayal of “outraged” Ferguson protesters. Many minority communities have been outraged for years or even generations, she said, but are only now rising up.

“That’s what’s happening, and it’s not scary like the media says — it’s beautiful, it’s powerful, it’s real and it’s happening,” Costello said.

Activists say Americans can no longer deny that the U.S. justice system is skewed in certain communities. And some of them compared perceived injustices in the U.S. to alleged abuses in foreign countries. Maria Guillen, a San Francisco Bay Area activist, pointed to the ongoing protests in Guerrero State in Mexico, where 43 student teachers were disappeared in September after police opened fire on a protest.

“The situation in Guerrero stemmed from an escalation of police, military and state repression,” Guillen said, adding that Ferguson was experiencing similar repression. In the U.S., she said, "it’s an active occupation of black and brown communities.”

Still, some are not convinced that police brutality is the core issue facing minority communities. Munir Bahar, a Baltimore activist who founded the 300 Men March last year to combat street violence, says “black-on-black” crime is a bigger problem.

“There was a 3-year-old girl murdered in a drive-by [shooting] here in Baltimore, and there were no protests, no marching,” said Bahar.

Despite Bahar’s views, for activists mobilizing in the aftermath of Brown’s death, the country’s police and justice system need to be reexamined — a feeling that has found new urgency after Ferguson.

“We need a system that’s fair to everyone and treats the lives of young black and brown men and all races equally and with respect,” Della Piana said. “That’s an issue that resonates far beyond black communities — across all races, for citizens and non citizens, for black and white and Latino and American Indian and everyone else.”

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