'Black Spring' Activists Invoke Mideast Protests in Demand for Justice
Like most uprisings, it started with a fire. In December 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor set himself alight after a policewoman allegedly slapped him for not having a permit to sell his wares. Mohamed Bouazizi’s drastic action kicked off a wave of protests that ignited the country and toppled the regime of Tunisia’s then president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Soon, the call for change swept across the Middle East and North Africa, sparking widespread demonstrations in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.
The media dubbed the rebellions the Arab Spring, giving activists the legitimacy needed to get the international community on board, and President Obama praised the demonstrators. “The people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands,” he said.
After the recent protests in Baltimore, many believe America is prime for a “Black Spring”—a sustained movement that will lead to the end of state violence and injustice in the United States.
“The first Black Spring was in Burkina Faso,” says Mervyn Marcano, spokesperson for Ferguson Action, an organization born last summer after the killing of 18-year-old unarmed teen Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.
Since Brown’s death Ferguson Action has staged rallies, marches, and national trainings to further the movement to end police brutality. Through those efforts, Marcano heard from other organizers about Burkina Faso’s Black Spring. The small African nation declared its own “awakening” last October after then-President Blaise Compaoré attempted to rewrite the constitution so he could stay in power. The protests in Burkina Faso inspired other movements across the African continent, and Marcano believes they’re connected to those in America too.
“We are all having this conversation because young black folks are taking to the streets,” says Marcano. That’s why late last week, Ferguson Action and several other social justice organizations—including Black Lives Matter, Millions March, Black Youth Project, and the ACLU—decided to call for a Black Spring in America.
Over the weekend, people from coast to coast participated in Black Spring protests, demanding justice for Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, and other African Americans killed by law enforcement. In Harlem, New York, picketers stood in front of a police station to proclaim, “Black lives matter.” In Orlando, Florida, marchers blocked intersections and called for police officers to wear body cams. In Toronto, protesters gathered in front of the U.S. Consulate General. In Southern California, demonstrators rallied at Los Angeles City Hall and La Cienega park in Beverly Hills.
Ivy Quicho, the national organizing director of the feminist group AF3IRM, attended the protest in Los Angeles. “We as feminists believe this is a reproductive justice issue. We’re tired of our brothers and sons being killed and brutalized,” she says.
Her comment backs up Marcano’s assertion that the Black Spring—and the greater Black Lives Matter movement—is about more than just police violence.
“Folks are interested in talking about all of the many ways in which state violence affect black folks in our country, whether that’s state-sanctioned murder of black trans women and queer people of color or whether that’s an education system that’s broken,” Marcano says. “When you talk to folks in the street, people are moved to action based on these deaths we now see as hashtags, but they’re also concerned about the quality of life of black folks across the country.”
Those people are seeing that “they can take action with other black folks around the world to spark this conversation and move forward,” adds Marcano.
For Marcano, calling the effort to catalyze justice a “Black Spring” is an attempt to ensure that the work of people of color is seen as a legitimate uprising, not a destructive force. “It’s a way of centering our protests as a freedom fight,” he explains.
“There’s been many springs over the course of history, but somehow when black folks take to the streets of the U.S., it’s called riots,” Marcano says, referring to the way media outlets and politicians have labeled African American protesters.
Last week Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake came under fire after calling youths marching in the streets “thugs”—a word rooted in stereotypes of marauding, dangerous black people. Rawlings-Blake later apologized for using the word, saying that her initial language was the result of “frustration and anger.”
Frustration and anger are what many African Americans across the nation are feeling after decades of police brutality, segregated housing and schools, and deteriorating neighborhoods. Despite those conditions, many Americans watched in surprise as protesters set buildings in Baltimore alight last week.
The world is noticing the injustice. On Sunday, thousands of Ethiopian Jews flocked to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest rampant racism and brutality after a video surfaced of an Ethiopian Israeli soldier being beaten by a white Jewish police officer. As is the case in many black communities in America, Ethiopian Israelis deal with crushing poverty, unequal access to jobs, inadequate health care, and police abuse. The similarities to what’s happening in the United States are so striking, one protester lamented, that “Israel is becoming like Baltimore.”
Marcano acknowledges that critics might believe that the protests will die down, but he says his organization is participating in the Black Spring movement for the long haul.
“We’re not going to slow down at all. You’re going to see a broadening of this movement,” he says.