VOICES at the MILLION YOUTH MARCH in HARLEM
On Saturday, September 5, Abe V. (Soundstage) Systems’ stagehands were up early. Mr. V. had alerted them the night before; there would be work setting up the stage on Malcolm X. Blvd. and 118th St. in Harlem for the Million Youth March, after all. Mr. V. has had his share of problems in the past with good-intentioned music artists and impresarios, but Master P’s word was bond. His check was solid.
In separate areas of New York City, Sharonne Salaam, C. Virginia Fields and Vondora Jordan awakened to a warm vibrant sun melting through their respective windows. These three women live different lives, lifestyles and have different goals, but the same subjects dominated their thoughts that morning: youth and families. It would be a good day for the Million Youth March or a rally or … a picnic.
In Brooklyn, teenager Richard Aytche (pronounced “H”), the son of artist Ricardo Louis, collected his craftswork, dog tag necklaces all stamped with Million Youth March 1998. (He would sell them for $5 or less.)
Math teacher Fatima Prioleau gathered two of her five children to meet a sister-friend and her young children, Native American Xicana Moratorium of San Francisco looked out of a window somewhere in the city at the land her people named Manhattan long ago, and Phillip Hynet of Ohio was just glad to be in New York, to be part of history.
Several thousand people, from all races, backgrounds, cultures, religions, came from across the city arose to take part in the Million Youth March. For some the trip was longer. Tony B Conscious and Queen Sistah Charmaine, the Los Angeles-based March coordinators, travelled three thousand miles, selling tee-shirts all along the way to raise cash for their trip back. Far March organizers it was a longer, arduous trek … just getting the March on the road took nearly a year. The first steps began almost a year earlier with the announcement of the date in September and the place, Harlem.
Reacting to March organizers’ statements, the Mayor denounced them and it. He wanted the March to be in an arena setting, like Randall’s Island. Organizers declared they had a right to march where they wanted… at home in their community for the length of Malcolm X. Blvd. On June 9, a request for the march permit was denied. Heated exchanges between the Mayor and Khalid Muhammad played out in city headlines over the summer, second fiddle only to the President and his indiscretion. On Wednesday, August 26, Manhattan Federal Court Judge Lewis Kaplan gave Million Youth March organizers the right to march on Malcolm X Blvd. in Harlem, New York City. The Mayor filed an appeal in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court and gained a partial victory limiting the March to several blocks, and slicing the time from 12 hours to four. The events leading up to the march were allowed to divert attention to free-speech issues from the other issues organizers said they wanted to address.
So some 80 years after the Silent Protest Parade on Fifth Avenue, thirty-five years almost to the day after Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, nearly two years after the historic and still-impacting Million Man March, and nearly one year after the Million Woman March, the Million Youth March was on. Throughout the Village of Harlem that September morning, there were flashbacks to John Henrik Clarke’s Harlem, Langston Hughes’ Harlem, Countee Cullen’s Harlem, Jean Hutson’s Harlem. The Village greeted her visitors with welcome signs.
At 11:50am, Winston St. Francis Robinson a.k.a. “Eastwood” strolling (no, floating) with the crowd, passed vendors of all cultures and races along Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. Police had turned them back as they approached Malcolm X. Blvd. walking down 116th Street. No problem, he thought. Probably too many people already down at the intersection. He noticed The Big Apple Tourists, buses filled to capacity, easily navigating through police restrictions. As Eastwood negotiated barricaded cross streets, he began to see police on horseback, and dozens of police at each entry to Malcolm X. Blvd. He was directed to 119th Street. Once there, officers told him to move on to 122nd Street. Eastwood, perspiring, commented, “We go through maze and gauntlet to get to a March. Is this freedom?”
When he finally made it to Malcolm X Blvd., there were waves of blue knights all along the avenue. In the windows. On rooftops. “This is amazing. This is rough.”
An accurate count of the numbers in attendance may never be determined. Yet, scores of youth leaders – black, red, brown and white, with some of the latter observed wearing Black Power T-shirts – congregated on Malcolm X. Blvd, that day. They represented many thousands of young people in New York City and across the nation. As speeches exploded from the stage, individuals connected with each other, forming mini-assemblages and discussed issues dear to them. Trust, the sagacious, scholarly keeper of books at D.A.R.E. Bookstore (across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music), talked to a group of young brothers. He wore a T-shirt with the words: “Assata is Always Welcome Here!” Just before Trust introduced Jimmy Breslin to a black reporter in the crowd, a speaker on stage cried out, “We’re the only group who asked permission to be here.” Nearby, a young woman named Annie of The Refuse & Resist Youth Network handed out literature. She wore a T-Shirt proclaiming her new identification: “I Used to be a White American, but I Gave it Up in the Interest of Humanity.”
Several yards away, Fatima Prioleau carried a sign: “All students need to be on-line, not under Glockline.” Prioleau was in a circle which included Russian Igor Vertiletsky and Vondora Jordan of Jordan’s now 9,000-member strong Workfairness organizations. The signs talked about the war against blacks and poor people. “They give us WEP jobs, no paychecks,” said Jordan. “WEP workers say it has nothing to do with job training, or real jobs. But everything to do with exploiting workers who receive no paycheck, and have no rights.”
Nicola Ford sat on her 119th Street brownstone stoop holding her 5-month old daughter Daria. The speeches were muffled, unclear. She hoped the most important issues were being covered. To her they were “issues like voting, education, the community, drugs.” Nicola’s next door neighbor, Haitian brownstone owner Susie Muzac strained to hear the speeches from her front yard. “I don’t have faith in marches,” she said. “But I support the people’s right to have them. I have faith in humanity.” As a chaperone for The Children’s Center at St. Thomas Church on 118th St. & St. Nicholas Ave, Ms. Muzac says her job is to keep the young people (ages 3-21) off the streets and out of trouble with sun, food, games.”
Juanita Tate sat with a friend, Y. Nelson, on a low waist-level concrete wall at the corner of 119th Street and Malcolm X. “I was born and raised in Harlem around the corner from Minton’s,” said Ms. Tate, who picked up snatches of remarks from the stage. “Ever heard of Minton’s? When I was growing up, Harlem was about unity, peace, respect and love. And just look at the beautiful art deco on these buildings. There are no masons like this anymore. I don’t understand why black churches can’t get together and fix up Harlem. This is prime property. Great real estate. We need to take it back.”
Across the street, Harlemite Evelyn Cunningham sat alone on the steps of an apartment building. Next to her was a man who claims he has the cure for AIDS, but no one will listen. She came out to support the young people, but remarked on how surprised she was to see so many whites in the crowd. “I don’t know what it means,” she says. “My overall impression is this is not as well-planned as the March on Washington which I attended. Still, I’m happy I came today. Another thing: I see all these young people with no light in their eyes.” Then she walked down the street, catching up with a friend.
In the rear of Abe V.’s soundstage, Terrence of Guerrilla Films captured historic images, the young guards, the future leaders of the “New Millennium”, Conrad Muhammad and Jessica Care Moore. Dr. Cornel West arrived with 3,500 voter registration cards, but there was no time for him to make a speech to the crowd. “There are so many challenges, and young black people are wrestling with them everyday. There’s too much that blacks are missing out here .. too much suffering … too much that they are wrestling with… and you can start with the crisis in black leadership. Black youth got the fire. They got the leadership.. they got the passion and more.. you can see it in their art and in their music.” But what about some of the denigrating rap lyrics? “The passion has to be channeled constructively.” He was pulled off to the west side of Malcolm X. Blvd. Applause greeted Dr. West as he moved away from the press into the crowd. Gil Noble, the distinguished television broadcast journalist, with his “Like It Is” crew arrived, and the security fell back, making way for this giant in their lives.
“He’s a tall, noble soldier. I watched his reports on television when I was a kid. I could count on him to give straight news,” Quentin Walcott told us. Walton of the Queens Black Power Committee, was one of the dozen or so security officers whose job was to protect the backstage and V.I.P. seating areas. These young men formed a human ring around the site, and moved women and children from the area, when police in riot gear moved forward at 4pm.
At 4:02, a helicopter buzzed over the crowd; at 4:04 the crowd was peppered sprayed. Queen Charmain and Tony B jumped down off Abe V.’s stage and hid underneath with many others. They photographed the action from their vantage point.
Though it was reported that barricades were thrown, many people in the crowd lifted the metal barriers as protective shields. A source says he observed a man throwing objects into the air, then photographing his missiles.
Reena Walker of the Black Radical Congress, earlier in the day, disseminated flyers to marchers explaining how they should protect themselves in the event of a crisis. In short breaths, she told us, “We’re leaving …helicopters swoop down … a crowd of police advance. I saw a man being carried bodily, a woman’s baby girl knocked over. Riot gear, nightsticks. I was trying to help someone. A woman police officer came up to me. She says, ‘Move it. Move it.’ I said I was helping keep things calm. She said, ‘Move it.’ I said, ‘I’m moving it, sister.’ She said, ‘I’m not your sister’.”
Kelly Berry, 28, of Rockville Center, Long Island “bugged out” when she heard “they were even thinking about bringing in the National Guard … if the police couldn’t handle it. One of the barricades just came up on my chest It fell on my shoulder blade, upper right side… We ran backwards… trying to get out of their way. The media showed a couple of barricades being thrown in the air, they didn’t show how the people were holding them to protect themselves. Brothers were trying to get the women and children to move back and they were trying to put the barricades back up. The reason the people just stopped moving and stood there holding their ground was to see what the police would do next and to see if all of us together could do something. I wanted to make sure my people were OK. We were true soldiers in the army of the lord, that day! There was no way we were going to start fights amongst each other.” Kelly was one of those who talked to C. Virginia Fields.
Ms. Fields is 3rd in line – after the Comptroller Alan Hevesi and Public Advocate Mark Green – of succession to the Mayor. The position of the five borough presidents were established a century ago when the boroughs were fearful they would lose “home rule.”
As the President of arguably the most powerful island on earth, C. Virginia Fields must be ready for all of its people, all of the time. So on September 5 morning, Ms. Fields might have thought about the harrowing events leading to this day – and the men at its center, her neighbor Khalid Muhammad and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. More than likely, she reflected on a morning in the 1960’s when, at 17, she and her activist mother prepared themselves for the now-historic Birmingham March led by The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She also thought about the youth who were coming from all parts of the city to be in Harlem seeking empowerment and enlightenment in a March that promised both. She was worried.
At the time Khalid Muhammad took the stage, shortly before 4pm, Ms. Fields was monitoring events from the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building on 125th Street. Minutes later, as the disruption unfolded, she made her way to the point of the police action on 118th and Malcolm X. The Borough President later said she was “appalled” by Khalid’s comments and shocked by riot police action. “What happened in the final moments of the rally has left a number of troubling questions in the community that need to be answered,” she said in a September 8 press release. “Was the police response, including buzzing the crowd with helicopters and a full mobilization of riot police, an appropriate response to the existing situation?”
Ms. Fields, the only politician at the frontlines, listened intently to the people. She listened closely to police officers. Then, she firmly admonished one officer in charge, eye to eye, “There is no need for this. There will be no attacks on the community.” As Ms. Fields talked to the residents, a few feet away, an officer captured the attentions of two women of European descent. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you,” he said, proudly. “We’re not worried. This is sort of exciting,” one of them responded.
Butch, a sanitation worker, had just finished talking to D.J. Supreme. “No body’s smokin’, drinkin’ , fightin’ . Everybody came in peace and began to leave in peace.” Butch borrowed a friend’s cell phone and called down to the station. He found out that “the sanitation workers (were) at 110th Street and Lenox. Just sittin’ there. If they intended for the crowd to disperse, they would have come in with the streetsweepers, the sanitation trucks. I know better. Sanitation closes the streets.”
The last to leave the Boulevard before traffic opened up, may have been the workers from Abe V. Systems. Earlier when police pulled the plug on the microphones, cables were broken, the outer casing of the generator was destroyed, as were the stairs. “About $2,000 in damages,” said Mr. V., a businessman of Puerto Rican descent in a telephone interview. “Of course, you’re scared,” he said, commenting on the final minutes of the March. “Mainly, you’re scared for the children. You don’t want people gettin’ hurt. Machinery is insured. It can be replaced. Not the children.”
(As the director of People United for Children, Sharonne Salaam is passionately concerned about the problems and challenges faced by families caught up in the legal system. The phone in her Harlem apartment rings at all hours. Her support group is “geared towards people who have children who have been removed and placed in foster care, or who think their children are in jeopardy.” She attended the March for several reasons, but mainly because she’s on a mission to educate the public about how we are losing our families to a foster care system that is out of control. And her son, Yusef Salaam, 23, was a speaker at the march. He read one work from his sizeable volume of poetry. We met Mr. Salaam at Ground Zero, 118th Street and Malcolm X Blvd., during the “siege.” Several days later we called his home, and his mother answered.)
SHARONNE SALAAM Speaks
Our Future – A Community Without Families?
Our young people have a lot of issues that are not being addressed in the normal political arena. We must stand up for them. Our children are being removed and placed in foster care, money for preventive services is being eliminated as I speak, new laws can terminate parental rights in 12 months, you can lose your rights to your children, even if you are innocent. If you’re not speaking out on these issues, we will be a community without families, like slavery time when someone can take your children and sell them off. Part of the problem is some children are truly being abused and they need help; they need families. The largest number of children going into the system is coming out of Central Harlem.
We have a grandparent who is raising grandchildren given to her at birth by the birthmother. She was in her 60’s when the children were given to her. Recently she lived in the projects. There was a leak from someplace above her, part of the ceiling fell into the hallway of her apartment. ACS came in and removed the children saying it was unsafe for them. The courts charged her with neglect. They said she had the children living in an unsafe environment. Now, when you look at it, you have to say to yourself, Who caused the problem? The city owned the building where the ceiling leaked. This was the third time it happened. Then another city agency comes in and removes the children. Then they tell her they will give her the children back if they can find another place, then they tell her they can’t find another place; they claim it depends on whether it is an emergency. She’s been fighting to get her children back for more than a year. She’s in her 70’s now… They say if she takes parenting skills … but this woman can teach the parenting skills class. This mother, this woman worked for this country, and is living on social security. She worked for many years. She did was she was supposed to do. She was a good citizen. And ACS the housing department, the public housing department, all of them gave her and her grandchildren a swift kick.
There are so many other issues. Many young people think that the government is only interested in placing them in foster care or placing them in jail. They feel they are being cut off from upward mobility because of the college situation. and all these limitations. When it comes to remedial education to bolster them, they feel they are being penalized because the public education from first grade up didn’t prepare them.
These children want to work, you can’t get jobs, they have many issues, even tiny issues: they go into a store, and if they look a certain way, or are of a certain color, they are followed. They have a lot of issues: The Salvation Army takes them in during the day. At a certain time in the evening, the Salvation Army puts the youth out to take in the homeless – not much of a commitment to our children in this city.
All we are doing is giving lip service to the year of the child. That lip service sounds good in the ad, but what are we going to do to make the year of the child more encouraging for the child so they can go on and become better human beings? As we move down this road, we have to start taking our young people seriously, and their issues seriously. Many of these young people cannot even vote and we make decisions for them regardless of what their interests are. Unemployment, racism are other issues. Our youth confront them every day. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. I remember Jim Crow.
Blocked Off … at The March
The night before the Million Youth March, squads of police were camped out in the North end of Central Park, along 110th St. The next morning they used the school at 111th Street as a barrack. They brought in horses, motorcycles, early in the morning. Before 12 noon, you could hardly get on the block.
I went out two times: once to see what was going on. The first time was about 11 o’clock. We went out and tried to get in through 5th Ave. It was blocked off going North at 117th, 118th Streets. I walked up to 120th Street. Those were all blocked off. When you tried to get in, you had to show ID to prove you lived on that block. Or if you were going to visit someone, the police said they would walk you to whoever you were going to visit. The blocks were completely empty with the exception of 117th Street, where they had a lot of police vehicles parked that morning. The first go around, we got in with a friend of mine who works for a cable station and has a press pass. We just walked around, and we saw how they had it all divided up like a cattle car situation, herded in to these little fenced-in areas. They had the press pushed away to the side; they had the press trucks down below 116th Street. It looked like it would be another calm day.
The next time was about 12:30. It was even more difficult to get in. We were able to get in with a police escort, a black man who was a friend of a friend. People were being sent everywhere. You could hardly walk. It was like you were in a sardine can. The free space that was not cordoned off appeared to be for the police and others working for them.
My son spoke briefly. Because I came out from behind the stage, I was able to get back on both sides of 118th Street, the central areas. Here were a number of religious organizations from the community who were just sitting back there as observers to make sure everything moved along. Things did not get out of hand until the last few minutes. We left before then, at about 3:45pm. When we left the community affairs police had left. I think they were called off. We passed police walking north towards 116th St., up Malcolm X. Others started lining up around Malcolm X. and 117th St. in the vacant lot near the large grocery store. There were police cars parked and lined up.
You didn’t see the helmets, riot gear at that time, but when they were walking out from behind the grocery store, they were lining up and putting their gear on. You could see bulletproof vests. You could see the bulges under the shirts. As we moved closer to 116th Street, there were police there with their helmets on the ground, ready to replace the ones who were ahead of them.
In THE AFTERMATH
of the MARCH,
“The Code is a Black and Latino youth movement that is committed to bringing about a fundamental change in the culture of today’s Black and Latino youth. Our strategic goal is the implementation of A Code of Conduct to be adopted by Black and Latino youth in our streets. The Code calls for a Cease Fire, No Snitching, Ownership and Control of our Cultural and Intellectual Properties, Taking Back our Community, No Drug Dealing in The Hood, Looking Out for Each Other. The Code understands that the life and death of brothers like Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls reflect the assault on Black culture and Black youth perpetrated by the media and the entertainment industry. The industry relentlessly propagandizes guns, money, drugs, sex, prison, death and inadequacy in the Black and Latino community. We understand that it is extremely difficult for young Black and Latino men and women to become successful in the entertainment business today, if you do not meet these criteria. Just watch MTV, listen to a radio station, or go to any movie focussing on Black and Latino Youth. The time had come for us to take control of our culture and implement this new Code of Conduct, that reflects a critical consciousness of the society in which we live in. As the new leadership for the 21st century, we must begin to enter into discussion with one another on the global crisis in the economy, and which way forward for oppressed people around the world.” As this paper goes to press, The Code has called a National General Strike for Monday, Nov. 2, No Shopping, No School, No Work. At 6pm, There will be a forum on the Million Youth March at Emmanual AME Church, 37 W. 119th St. Contact The Code at Sistas’ Place, (718) 398-1766.
(Part Two of Three)
Bernice Elizabeth Green