Crowds in cities across America, including Wichita, are gathering in downtown traffic and at suburban malls to hoist signs and chant in protest against white police officers killing unarmed black men.
There are signs that they are having an impact. They have spawned fresh, high-level looks at racial profiling. State and federal officials are seeking more money for police equipment and training. President Obama has spoken out.
Thousands marched in Washington, D.C., New York and elsewhere Saturday on a National Day of Resistance.
“This feels big to me. I don’t know that I’ve seen this kind of passion recently,” Peter Levine, director of the Medford, Mass.-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, said last week.
The protest rallies have been underway for weeks after grand juries decided not to indict police involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City.
Experts on the history of U.S. social protest, however, are hard-pressed to figure how long they will last and where the demands for change will lead.
“Is this a movement or a moment?” said Marshall Ganz, a Harvard University lecturer whose perspective was shaped by participation in the 1964 Freedom Summer civil rights drive in Mississippi and then by 16 years working to organize migrant farm workers.
In Wichita, about 100 protesters marched down Douglas Avenue downtown on Thursday night, chanting and carrying signs to vent frustration.
The march came a day after a meeting at Century II between community leaders and residents that was intended to gather public input and provide an update about progress toward improving police-community relations. It was the second such meeting held in Wichita in the wake of the shooting death of Brown on Aug. 9.
The two community meetings and several street protests have helped the push for body cameras to be worn by Wichita police officers. The Wichita Police Department is adding 450 cameras to the 60 it already has by the end of 2015.
Those efforts also have led to discussions about more crisis intervention training for officers, more diversity in police recruitment, a renewed commitment to community policing, education to help residents learn how to relate to officers and calls for creation of a citizen review board with subpoena power.
But they haven’t produced the one goal marchers said they want most:
“Justice. For everybody,” said Tye McEwen, a student at Wichita State University who took part in the Thursday protest in Wichita.
“If you’re not a law enforcement officer, everybody else is at risk,” she said.
The protest, led by Occupation Wichita and Kansas Justice Advocate, drew about as many white people as black people and included a “die-in” at the Wichita Public Library, with about 40 of the protesters lying on the floor around the information desk as symbolic shooting victims.
Action after outrage
Protests did once move the country. In the 1960s, civil rights marches produced landmark legislation and leaders who wound up running cities and states and serving in Congress. The anti-war movement of the late 1960s helped motivate a generation of baby boomers to enter public service.
Since then, however, protests have rarely led directly to much political action.
The grassroots tea party movement was influential in helping elect Republicans to Congress in 2010, but the momentum fizzled, and its impact on recent elections has faded. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, protesting the government’s coziness with Wall Street, had little impact on electoral or legislative politics.
But little by little, the outrage over Brown’s and Garner’s deaths is having an effect.
Obama is seeking $75 million to buy 50,000 more body-worn cameras for local law enforcement. Attorney General Eric Holder says the Justice Department will take new steps aimed at ending racial profiling. Some states and communities are pursuing initiatives. In places like Wichita, police and residents are talking together.
The challenge now is maintaining the momentum.
Marchers in Wichita said they are determined to keep marching until they see permanent change and until police officers who shoot unarmed residents are held accountable.
Organizers said more protests are likely but will be done randomly.
“There’s not a manual on how to do this,” said Auriel Brown, a Wichita resident who took part in Thursday’s demonstration.
Brown is from St. Louis and has participated in protests in Ferguson most weekends since the shooting of Michael Brown, who was related to a friend of hers.
Wichita’s protest on Thursday night impressed her.
“I didn’t think they had it in them,” she said. “It’s pretty cool that they’re ready to disrupt the everyday flow of life to to create change. It’s a good thing.”
“The big thing is they’re out here and willing to take a stand,” she said. “That’s the most important part. Everything else will work itself out.”
She also thinks Wichita is doing well by having the community meetings to continue dialogue between city officials, police and residents. In Ferguson, there’s a huge disconnect between the community and law enforcement, Brown said.
“Wichita is working to stop problems before they start, or at least put a stop to ongoing issues that have evidently been present here for some time,” she said.
But McEwen said she attended the community meeting at Century II the previous night and came away feeling more disrespected than before. One speaker, the sister of a shooting victim, was cut off, she said, and the talk of body cameras for police “was a way to pacify us.”
Cameras aren’t effective if prosecutions don’t follow, McEwen said. People have been documenting police violence for years on cameras, recorders and cellphones, and no officers have been held accountable, she said.
Marc Kemp, a retired licensed practical nurse in Wichita who attended the protest, acknowledged that the protests may fade away. His hope is that laws and policies will have changed by then, and people will be better educated about law enforcement.
“We’re hungry for some positive change. Change in legislation, change in policies, change in protocols,” Kemp said.
But it’s a two-way street, he added. Change starts at home. People need to educate children about what to say when approached by police.
“It has a lot to do with us,” said Kemp, a father of teenagers and young adults. “They need to do their job, but in return we need to make it easier for them not to administer such deadly force.”
Among the protesters was Jacqueline Parke, mother of Tayler Rock, a 22-year-old Arkansas City resident who was shot to death by a Cowley County deputy during a traffic stop on U.S. 166 in May. The shooting was ruled justified, but the family objects, arguing that Rock was unarmed and the stop was a setup.
Protests over such shootings need to continue, no matter the public disruption, Parke said.
“Without discomfort there can never be a change,” she said. “The system has gotten way too comfortable murdering children, fathers, brothers, sisters, and I think we have to start somewhere.”
Contributing: Associated Press, McClatchy Washington Bureau
Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or firstname.lastname@example.org.