At the vigil for Michael Brown in Washington D.C. last night, one of the first signs visible as you entered the park was a medium-sized white posterboard held aloft by a young, hip-looking female that read “NOW WHAT?!” in bright red letters. It was a reasonable enough question to ask.
But as the crowd began to fill in and take shape, a low-fi megaphone blasted out the voice of a charismatic young man with a disarmingsmile named Jonathan Lykes who let the rapt crowd know that the “Now What?” was exactly what they were doing.
"You're taking the first step in the right direction, you're doing something,” he belted out.
And that little bit of reassurance actually did help ease the tension in a crowd which, understandably, seemed to lean towards the “I support the general cause but I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here” camp. But as the demonstration gained steam, it quickly became apparent that this was a legitimate, organized event encouraging non-violence and discussion, and soon that cautious support turned into devoted attention towards the evening's message of respect for one another, the power of discussion, and the importance of unification in order to bring change. And Lykes, an analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy and past winner of the ACLU Student Activist of the Year award, did his best to make sure that the conversations were positive and focused. There were, of course, occasional interruptions from the crowd to break up the well-run proceedings, but if it seemed like they were an attempt at productive conversation, they were actually given their 15 seconds.
At one point, a man coincidentally named 'Justice Woods' (pictured above, furthermost to the left) stole the crowd's attention with an impassioned story about his friend Mya who was shot in the head protesting in Ferguson. But even as he shook with fury and his voice quivered, he let the crowd know it was okay to not know what do with this anger: "Be confused about all this. I'm confused too!"
And Woods' words touched on what this night was really all about. Though it was most certainly focused on making actual change and standing up against systemic problems in our country with action, the evening played a crucial role in allowing the people gathered there to mourn and to process what has happening together. It was more than anything a chance for humans to be out in the real world surrounded by other real life humans who were, by their very presence, a reminder to each another that the hurt and confusion and helplessness that they were feeling was shared. It was a chance to talk about it with other people who knew how important this situation is and who couldn’t stand not doing something, even if that something meant just showing up at a park because it felt like the right thing to do.
“New media and the internet are essential parts of the activism process, but they can’t be the end of that process; people need to get out from behind their computers,” Lykes explains during a break in the seemingly endless stream of people wanting to thank him after the event for doing this “the right way,” as one middle-aged woman put it.
And maybe that’s why the night seemed so inspiring; it really felt like this was “the right way” to handle the “Now What?!”.
The situation in Ferguson is incredibly tragic, but it was uplifting to see over a thousand people come together with, aside from a few (ignored) detractors near the fringes, the proper respect for both the event and one another. The crowd actually listened whenever someone spoke on the megaphone, meaning everyone was able to truly internalize it when a white-haired man used his time with the megaphone to proclaim that "it's the system that is racist" or when a boisterous middle-aged woman reminded us that "We need to march! Dr. King marched!" Even when an unplanned speaker went rogue -- one man who waited his turn for the megaphone decided to blame PTSD'ed veterans getting jobs as cops -- the crowd let them speak their piece. “Sometimes people just need a chance to vent and feel like they’re being heard,” a teenager said to no one in particular as he strained his phone skyward to take pictures of the event. “You feel like you’re taking crazy pills and eventually it boils over and you have to do something to stop it. I get it.”
However, unlike the protests at ground-zero in Ferguson where the direct enemies are the police, in the nation’s capital, the crowd here understood that the real power they were fighting against was situated only a few blocks south of them.
“I’m glad so many people came,” a woman near the back mentioned to her boyfriend, “We’re right in the backyard of the people who can change all this.”
Lykes seemed well aware of that fact. "Nothing is going to change unless there is actual policy change at every level, and that comes from organizing, uniting, and using that collective voice to demand those changes,” he describes. "But there are a lot of hurdles in the way to getting there."
And there are. Even trying to objectively wrap your head around the situation requires an empathetic understanding of its enormous complexity. Almost hourly, there is another disheartening update to the situation in Ferguson (although the drastic change in policing tactics seems to have calmed the storm). But if each long journey begins with a single step, those few hours in a park in the most powerful city in the world where a diverse crowd driven by infinite reasons gathered to promote the common goal of peace made it feel like we were at least pointed in the right direction.