March for racial equality on Boston’s Trails to Freedom

Organisers at demonstration against police brutality urge communities of colour to take charge of their narrative.

Harper Quinn, right, holds a sign that reads, 'Take care of black people,' in the Park Street Church's courtyard [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]
Harper Quinn, right, holds a sign that reads, 'Take care of black people,' in the Park Street Church's courtyard [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]
Correction29 Aug 2016
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Marie Nuon was a Cambodian immigrant. This was incorrect: She is the daughter of Cambodian immigrants and a first-generation American.

Massachusetts, United States –  Marie Nuon glances briefly at the crowd assembling on Boston Common, in front of the State House.

“A lot of these protests …” she gestures around, and lowers her voice. “Well, there are usually so many people yelling.” But not today. Instead, the Change Coalition leads a peaceful, education-based demonstration through Boston, Massachusetts. On Sunday, August 28, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

The only yelling comes in the form of chants, as the group of about 50 people walks the Freedom Trail, a popular way for tourists to walk through downtown Boston, and learn a little something from federal park rangers, who have volunteered their time to speak about the significance in Black history of the stops along the protest route.

The Coalition is a relatively new organisation, founded by Lindsay Ladd and her wife Marie Nuon, shortly after the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Louisiana.

Lindsay Ladd, founder, The Change Coalition
Lindsay Ladd, left, holds The Change Coalition’s sign, as the group marches down the Freedom Trail  [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]  

“I literally couldn’t eat or sleep for days.” Lindsay Ladd said Alton Sterling’s killing was her “true moment of accountability”.

“I am very aware of my responsibility to be aware and involved in the fight for equality … but to me that looked very different when I saw the images of Alton Sterling being murdered on the soil, the very ground my family walked on, in my home state.”

Ladd said she “literally couldn’t eat or sleep for days” after the killing. That Sterling had been slain so publicly shook her to her core. 

Growing up in Louisiana, Ladd was no stranger to racism. She went to a predominantly white school; at the age of 19 she joined the Navy. In both settings, she said she never experienced outright racism, or violence, but the “microaggressions” – the subtle ways racism invades the lives of people of colour – were a constant drone in the background.

“There were always statements that attacked the content of what I was capable of as a black woman,” Ladd said. “If I achieved something – ‘Oh, you’re really not that black’.”

It was those kind of statements that spurred on Ladd to educate herself. She said she used her “thirst for knowledge and education as a vehicle to empower myself and others in my realm of influence.

“It doesn’t matter what background you come from. The power is in our unity,” Ladd said, both of the notion of change, and the Coalition itself. “We can’t wait on the Martin Luther Kings, and the Malcolm Xs. We have to pick up the torch. We have as much responsibility as our white counterparts. The solutions are found at the intersections of where we live and operate.”

Ladd said she originally joined the military because she had always felt a call to service. She felt that service had always been embedded within her; and, though this is a new kind of service, she said she has already been “changed for ever” because of the organisations and people with whom she is working.

“It is one of the most beautiful things, and poignant proof of black excellence,” Ladd said. “The fruits of our labour show that true collaborative efforts are produced with allies in the struggle towards equality.”

It is on this intersectionality that Ladd’s efforts are focused. The ralliers who are gathered are a diverse group; and though it is mainly black people who have been the focus of social movements in the United States – both now and decades ago, during the Civil Rights movement – Ladd believes having such a narrow focus, with regards to racism, only hurts efforts for change.

“Racism is not something that just affects black people. Having certain groups or organisations that think that attacking this from an approach where you can segregate people of colour, and then segregate the Caucasian or other or whomever and still get to a unified solution – I think they’re missing it.”

Marie Nuon, Associate Director, MIT Sloan Master of Finance Program    
Marie Nuon, left, listens to Nia Evans speak outside Faneuil Hall [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera] 

Marie Noun jogs ahead of the crowd wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with The Change Coalition logo, leading chants. She isn’t black, but as a child of Cambodian immigrants,  she is a woman of colour.

“I had clients who referred to me as ‘the Oriental girl’,” she says.

Marie Nuon can’t remember experiencing overt racism as a girl. Like Ladd, she experienced microaggressions. But when she entered the corporate workforce, it was a different story.

“I became aware of how I was marginalised by the system, and my colleagues,” Nuon remembered. “To have to deal with that treatment was something I had expected.”

As Nuon climbed the corporate ladder, the racism she experienced increased.

“I had clients who referred to me as ‘the Oriental girl’,” she said. “I had a client in California, and we had never met – we were talking on the phone, and she got to saying, ‘Oh, all the immigrants are taking our jobs!'” Nuon remembered “sitting there in disbelief” because her client was unaware Nuon herself was an immigrant, and a person of colour.

Race in the US: Herstory

Though Nuon told senior management about the interaction, she was surprised and insulted when her boss told her in so many words that she was just overreacting.

“He was just like, ‘Oh, that’s who she is.’ He didn’t take my experience into consideration, because he had never experienced this. It was very telling of the type of environment I was in, and the industry.”

Eventually, Nuon quit the industry, to accept a job at MIT as Associate Director at the school’s Sloan Master of Finance Program.

Quite simply, Nuon said, it all “got to be too much for me”.

“I was just tired of the industry. I just didn’t want to devote my life to something that wasn’t meaningful to me, or made me feel inferior to everyone else,” Nuon said.

Nia Evans, chairperson, NAACP
Nia Evans speaks to the crowd of protesters outside Faneuil Hall  [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera] 

Nia Evans is one of the day’s first speakers. She is the chairperson of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’s Economic Development (NAACP). She strains to make herself heard over the performances going on outside Faneuil Hall, one of the stops along the protest’s route. She talks to the group about economics, economic justice, and financial literacy, encouraging them to become “as informed a consumer as possible”.

“We are all shaped by the systems we participate in,” Evans says. “When we think about our economic system today, and how that incentivises us to interact with each other, there are a couple of things we learn. One of the things is that, in order for me to win, you’ve got to lose. We need to unlearn that.”

Race through the lens: A photographic journey

Though Evans believes the current model of economics in the United States keeps minority populations in cycles of poverty, she also sees these communities rising up to try “to invest in ourselves.

“We have a lot to be proud of, and one of those things is that we are rethinking every single system that we are in the midst of, right now.”

Unlike Ladd and Nuon, Evans and her family have had direct experience with police brutality.

“I don’t want to get into too many details … my father was killed by Californian police when I was 21,” Evans said. “But I have two sisters, and a brother, a mother who’s still alive, and a bunch of aunts and uncles and cousins who are survivors … I don’t solely see this as my story.”

Though Evans did not share more about the experience, she did say that it dramatically changed her views on the American penal system. She sees the system as so focused on punishment and consequences that it doesn’t adequately value human life, and what it means to take the life of another.

This is part of the reason she joined the NAACP in 2013, following the widely publicised shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a Floridian citizen. She said what was “truly frightening” is that Zimmerman wasn’t an authority figure. He was just a regular man, who had a gun, and shot a black kid.

“Then there was Jordan Davis in Florida – there was this white guy at a gas station who decided he didn’t like the volume of Davis’ music, and felt like he could make a decision about their lives,” Evans said.

Davis was killed when the man, 45-year-old Michael David Dunn, fired 10 rounds into Davis’ car, fatally injuring the 17-year-old.

“At the same time, we started to hear narratives of black parents having to tell their children how to not get shot, and how to not seem threatening to white people in general,” Evans said. “[The NAACP] is an effort I would like to devote my time and energy to, because it is absolutely unacceptable that any of us should walk around in fear for our lives.”

Naria Sealy, student, University of Massachusetts-Boston 
Bria Small, centre, leans against her sister, Naria Sealy, as they listen to Rahsaan Hall speak  [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera] 

It is Naria Sealy’s first rally. Sealy, a Barbadian immigrant and current University of Massachusetts-Boston student, hasn’t experienced outright fear when she walks the streets of Boston. But she admits that coming to the United States was the first time she actually experienced racism.

“I had people tell me, ‘Oh, you have affirmative action, you’ll get through,'” Sealy says. “They discredit how intelligent I am, based on the fact that there are systems in place that are supposed to help me, or give me a leg up, supposedly, because of my skin colour, or how ‘underprivileged’ I am.” Sealy punctuates this last phrase with air quotes.

Sealy even found racial bias has followed her to college. It doesn’t help that her school mostly comprises white students.

“People are like, ‘Why don’t you apply for that thing they have for black people?'”

Rahsaan Hall, director,  ACLU Racial Justice Program
Rahsaan Hall, centre, addresses the protesters on Boston Common at the end of the rally [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera] 

When Rahsaan Hall was in college, his fraternity’s party, hosted at a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, was broken up by a riot squad. The trouble was, none of the partygoers had any idea they were causing too much of a ruckus.

“It was predominantly black students and young adults from the greater Columbus area, and I guess hotel management just didn’t know what to do with all these black folks,” Hall said. “No one came and told us they had called the police, or that they had concerns with the people there. Instead, they called the riot squad, and in came this massive tactical unit with helmets and batons and shields.”

But it wasn’t the first time Hall, now the American Civil Liberties Union’s Director of the Racial Justice Program, had experienced violence at the hands of police. As a teenager he watched the police drag a friend of his out of her car as she was trying to leave the scene of a fight in which she had played no part.

“I tried to intervene, but the police sprayed mace in my direction,” Hall said. “Just seeing how she was treated infuriated me, particularly in light of the fact she had nothing to do with the disturbance going on.”

Though Hall is now years away from these incidents, his career path was, in part, defined by his experiences.

Though he initially thought he wanted to work as a corporate lawyer, Hall eventually realised he wanted to give back to his community, and became an assistant district attorney. But even then, he came face to face with racial injustice in the system.

Race in the US: The colour of Cleveland

“I worked closely with the police, and so, as a prosecutor, I would see the cases police brought me, and in those cases, I would see that they had beaten someone, and justified it, because of the individual’s conduct,” Hall said. “I would see how they talked about people … how they treated different people. Those experiences as a prosecutor gave me insight.”

But Hall also gained an appreciation for the work police officers do.

“They are human beings – flawed and imperfect. There are people who are motivated by outside racism, but there are also people in between who don’t recognise the biases they have, and are unequipped to deal with all the challenges thrown at them,” Hall said.

According to Hall, the practices of de-escalation and bias training are relatively new to the American police system. The only practices officers were trained in before were arrest or use of force – not exactly the best methods when dealing with people who have mental health issues, or unruly young people, Hall said.

“The biggest problem in policing isn’t racism. It’s the way policing is structured and set up to control people and function as a method of societal control, while also being informed by institutional racism and white supremacy,” Hall said.

Shalece Perryman-Welch holds up a sign that reads, ‘We are the hope behind all of the hashtags,’ outside Faneuil Hall  [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera] 

Hall is the day’s last speaker. In truth, the night before, he hadn’t been sure what he would talk about that day. But when he steps up to the podium, his voice booming out across the expectant crowd, the speech he delivers seems natural and easy.

“This country has a history of resisting. The very tour we just went on, the very locations at which we stopped, are monuments of the resistance of the people in this country,” Hall says into a megaphone. “But there is a very unique way this country treats people who resist, when their skin is white, versus when their skin is black or brown.”

He tells the story of 11-year-old Christopher Seider, the first American killed in the American Revolution. Seider was shot and killed after joining a mob that was protesting about a shopkeeper loyal to England in 1770. His death was one of the many sparks that led to the revolution, five years later. Seider is interred in the Granary Burial Ground, a stop along the Freedom Trail.

“But where are the remains of Emmett Till? Where are the remains of Trayvon Martin? Where are the remains of Eric Donovan?” Hall asks, and the crowd cheers. “And now we stand, at the foot of the State House, wondering, contemplating how far we have come as a country, and how far we have to go.”

The comparisons he sees between the events that led to the advent of the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century, and the rising tide of social justice movements today are “eerily similar”.

“How far have we come as a country? It looks a lot like 1968, in some respects. Some of the same uprisings, and some of the same resistance we saw … We have the same conditions in those communities. High concentrations of poverty, high concentrations of low educational attainment. High concentrations of low employment,” Hall says.

“But who are we honouring as patriots? Who are we honouring as resistors? Who is telling the narrative of what this day in history will mean? … We need to use our power, we need to use our voice. We need to resist!”

After Hall’s speech, no one registers to vote at the little booth the Coalition has set up, in anticipation of the forthcoming elections in the autumn. But they do take educational flyers, and exchange contact information. And to Ladd, this is a start.

Barbara Okeny poses for a photograph as she waits for the Coalition’s rally to begin  [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera] 

Source : Al Jazeera


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