Organizers of the National Moment of Silence (NMOS), a nationwide, 90-city event held Thursday evening to remember victims of police brutality like Michael Brown, were adamant that the event should be a peaceful vigil to mourn the dead, not a protest. They rejected the “Day of Rage” framing, pushed by the online “hacktivist” group Anonymous; there was already plenty of civil unrest and anger over the shooting death of the unarmed teen at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, and peaceful demonstrators didn’t need more police aggression.
“[Protesters in Ferguson] are being treated like animals … and I felt that we needed a moment where we all come together,” said organizer Feminista Jones in an interview with Feministing. “In that solidarity, we will let our voices be heard that we are tired of this, that this is a national emergency, that the police state of this country is problematic.”
By and large, the vigils went off in exactly that spirit, including the one in St. Louis, of which Ferguson is a suburb. Still, rage and conflict were not wholly absent—shouting protesters interrupted a gathering in Washington, D.C., and the specter of police overreach manifested itself in New York City when NYPD officers threatened to arrest thousands of marching demonstrators.
In D.C., organizers read the names and told the stories of people killed by police: Tarika Wilson, killed by a SWAT team that also shot and injured her 1-year-old baby. Shantel Davis, shot point-blank after a car chase, unarmed and begging not to be killed, by an officer with a history of aggressive behavior. Rekia Boyd, shot in the head by a possibly-drunk off-duty officer. And in much more recent memory, Eric Garner, killed by an illegal chokehold that has been ruled a homicide.
But when it was almost time for the moment of silence—coordinated across the country, 7:20 p.m. Eastern and 4:20 p.m. Pacific—a few people around the fringes of the D.C. gathering started shouting. Not everyone in the crowd of 1,500 at Malcolm X Park could hear them, but the gist seemed to be that this kind of rally wasn’t enough to make real change.
Then somebody close to the center of the gathering piped up, and kept it up until 7:20 p.m. had come and gone. “We need more than peace and chants! They’re killing us! They’re killing our babies!”
The organizers and most of the crowd begged the shouters to stop for just 60 seconds, one minute to mourn the dead. There would be protests soon, they promised, but not now.
“When you feel anger, there is one way to build power, and that’s to organize people,” said one speaker. To thunderous applause, he called for a “freedom movement,” urged attendees to start doing the hard work that such a movement would require, and passed around a sign-up sheet for people to join the organizing drive.
During a call for audience members to speak, a young Howard University alum named Justice Woods shouted from the wall he stood on top of with other alums, holding an American flag.
“Two nights ago my friend got shot in the head, protesting silently in Ferguson!” he said, referring to Mya Aaten-White, a Howard alum who survived what police said was a drive-by shooting, while some social media reports alleged a cover-up.
“If you want to do something, that don’t mean you’ve got to get violent!” Woods said. “If I can sit here right now, and have my friend shot in the head, with a real bullet, that I went to class with, that I kicked it with, that I ate with, drank with, chilled with, talked about this shit with—and I ain’t fighting nobody, I’m out here, talking to y’all and waking y’all up!”
The Howard community is “up in arms, literally” Woods quipped to RH Reality Check, referencing a widely circulated photo of Howard students holding their arms up in the “don’t shoot” posture that has become a symbol of protests against Brown’s shooting. “If there’s one thing you learn at Howard, it’s how to take action and stop talking,” Woods said.
Some action happened sooner than people thought. After the vigil, hundreds of attendees spontaneously flooded the streets, flanked but not interfered with by D.C. police as they marched and shut down half of 16th Street, then U Street, then 7th, finally parking on the steps of the Smithsonian American Art Museum for more speeches. Other demonstrators headed to Howard for a somber vigil.
The NYPD was not as accommodating when a similar spontaneous demonstration followed New York City’s vigil. Twitter erupted with reports of “kettling,” the practice of blocking protesters’ possible exits in order to release them a few at a time, or to arrest large numbers of them. At least four protesters were arrested Thursday evening.
Other vigils were less chaotic, but no less fraught with the memories of fallen community members. In Austin, a few hundred people gathered outside the capitol building and mourned the 2013 police murder of Larry Jackson. In Oakland, infamous for police brutality, the mother of Alan Blueford spoke movingly about his death. “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she said.
Andrea Grimes from Austin, Texas, and Zoe Greenberg from Oakland, California, contributed to this report.