Protesters march on Washington, demand end to 'blue on black crime'

Angry over the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white officers, protesters stage national 'Day of Resistance'

Thousands of protesters marched down iconic Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Saturday, before making their way to Capitol Hill as part of a national "Day of Resistance" aimed at drawing attention to the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers and calling for legislative action.

The crowd, carrying signs that read "black lives matter," gathered before the march in Freedom Plaza, where protest organizers and family members of victims of police brutality addressed the crowd.

"Let's keep it strong, long and meaningful," Esaw Garner – the widow of Eric Garner, 43, who died after being choked by a New York City police officer in July – told the crowd.

Afterwards, block after block of tightly packed marchers moved through the city. Organizers had predicted 5,000 people would participate in the event, but the crowd appeared to be much larger than that.

As the protesters approached Capitol Hill, where a rally was staged, many chanted slogans including “hands up, don’t shoot” — a reference to the alleged last words of Michael Brown, 18, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August. Other chants included “no justice, no peace” and “can’t stop, won’t stop until killer cops are in cell blocks.”

Speaking at the rally, Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Alliance led the protest, declared "this is not a black march or a white march, this is an American march for the rights of the American people." 

"We don’t come to Washington as shooters and chokers. We come as the shot and the choked to help deal with citizens who can’t breathe in their own communities," he said.

Before dying, Garner repeatedly gasped "I can't breathe" — a statement that has become a rallying cry at nationwide protests against police violence.

Sharpton called on Congress to pass laws that would protect citizens from police brutality and let federal prosecutors take over cases involving alleged police crimes. Local prosecutors who work with police regularly and then must investigate officers face a conflict of interest, he said.

Other speakers included Lesley McSpadden, Brown's mother.

"What a sea of people," she said. "If they don't see this and make a change, then I don't know what we got to do. Thank you for having my back."

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida, also spoke, urging those present to lift their voices beyond the rally.

"Don’t just come to the rally and go home. The numbers look nice. You guys look good out there, but it cannot stop here. This has to be the start," she said. 

Also present were relatives of Tamir Rice, 12, who was shot and killed in November by a Cleveland police officer who said he mistook the boy’s pellet gun for a real weapon.

Protests – some violent – have been staged throughout the United States since grand juries in Missouri and New York declined to indict the officers who killed Brown and Garner.

In response to the growing movement, politicians and others have talked about the need for better police training, body cameras and changes in the grand jury process to restore faith in the legal system.

Protester Terry Baisden, 52, of Baltimore said she is "hopeful change is coming" and that the movement is not part of a fleeting flash of anger.

She said she hasn't protested before but felt compelled to because "changes in action, changes in belief, happen in numbers."

The lack of criminal charges from grand juries in Missouri and New York have galvanized activists across the country.

"We need more than just talk; we need legislative action that will shift things both on the books and in the streets," Sharpton said in a statement ahead of Saturday's event.

While protesters marched in Washington, other events were also planned throughout the U.S. — including San Francisco and New York City, where organizers said thousands of people attended a march that temporarily shut down the Brooklyn Bridge.

New York City police said protesters assaulted two officers when they tried to arrest a man who was attempting to toss a garbage can off the bridge and onto police below. Some marchers then blocked traffic on the bridge for about an hour. Police say there were no arrests in that incident, but a backpack full of hammers and a mask was found.

The events were otherwise peaceful. Starting at 2 p.m., thousands of people marched up 6th Avenue in Manhattan before turning down Broadway at dusk. Like their counterparts in Washington, they expressed their desire to see justice for the victims of police killings.

"We are speaking for the unspoken for," said Khalil Norris, 40.

Many also lambasted what they said was racism in the New York City police department and other forces across the country.

“It’s open season on black people now,” New York march co-organizer Umaara Elliott said in a statement. “So we demand that action be taken at every level of government to ensure that these racist killings by the police cease.”

Al Jazeera and wire services. Wilson Dizard contributed to this report from New York City.

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