Washington protest decries police brutality

Demonstrators say Latino, African-American men are often the victims

April 04, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Declaring police violence an epidemic that has reached every city in America, thousands of protesters marched at the Capitol yesterday to demand that law enforcement officials stop brutalizing crime suspects.

In speeches, chants, raps and poems, protesters denounced police tactics that they compared to human rights abuses and ethnic brutality around the world.

"You can't preach morality in Yugoslavia and ignore immorality in Philadelphia," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a New York City-based activist who has galvanized weeks of protests there over the recent killing of an unarmed African immigrant.

"You can't send our boys to Yugoslavia and we're afraid for them to walk the streets of Chicago. You've got to have one standard everywhere -- so we must nationalize this fight," he said.

The march comes amid a growing national outcry against police brutality sparked by the killing Feb. 4 of Amadou Diallo by New York City police. The 22-year-old street vendor, whose father, Sekou Diallo, attended the rally, was shot at 41 times and hit 19.

After more than seven weeks of protests in New York, during which more than 1,200 local residents and national figures were arrested, the four white officers who shot Diallo were indicted on second-degree murder charges last week.

The events that galvanized New Yorkers have also touched a nerve across the country.

The Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will observe a National Day of Nonviolence today, with events planned in Baltimore and 11 other cities.

NAACP officials have called for a day free of violence -- no guns, street conflicts or domestic fights -- to mark the 31st anniversary of the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Protesters came from Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Maryland, among other places, and underscored the national patterns of police abuse, largely against African-American and Latino men.

Hundreds of victims' family members attended the rally, which was called by the National Emergency March for Justice Against Police Brutality and organized by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

The family members told stories that sounded eerily similar: A Bronx woman's son shot in the back 14 times; a Connecticut woman's son shot 20 times.

Many sobbed openly and showed graphic photographs of battered and bruised relatives. Few reported that police were punished in the killings.

Dorothy Elliott of Prince George's County told of the death of her son, Archie Elliott, in 1995 while handcuffed in a police car. By her side was radio talk show host Joe Madison of WOLB-AM (1010) in Baltimore. He has been protesting the killing for weeks and marked the 48th day yesterday of a hunger strike designed to get the case re-opened.

"Let us pledge today in the memory of all those who have been victimized and died at the hands of the police that we will keep the pressure on," Madison said.

Around 3 p.m., rally organizers announced that the number of demonstrators had reached 25,000. The number was likely closer to 3,000, according to some participants.

Capitol police, who reported no incidents, do not provide crowd estimates, a spokesman said.

Marjorie Smith, a Baltimore organizer who led a bus load of about 20 participants, disputed official estimates: . "When he said 25,000, I thought `Gee whiz, where are they?' I thought it was closer to 2,500."

Either way, she said, "I think it has made people more aware that people have just had enough."

Beverly Higgins, a government worker from Joppa, attended with her three children and husband. "There is so much injustice in the world," she said. "If there is unity among people, maybe we can bring about change."

Though police brutality has not touched her personally, she said, "I think it's everywhere. It's the same all over. I hope this makes the president and the Congress aware of the concern of the people."

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who did not speak at the rally, said in an interview: "The main thing is this has to be about more than rhetoric. It has to be about action. This is about a lot of nameless and faceless people whose story is not reported."

As in the past, he called on President Clinton to order a Justice Department inquiry into police departments with patterns of abuse. Sharpton echoed his call for government officials to be held accountable.

"Let me remind you, Mr. President, some of us came here to defend you," Sharpton said, referring to the strong support Clinton got from African-Americans during his impeachment trial. "Don't forget, Mr. President, when you were under attack by the same right-wing law enforcement community, you didn't turn to [Republican Sen.] Jesse Helms; you turned to Jesse Jackson. You're there because we stood for you. Now it's time to stand for us."

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