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A Good Day for Dissent

Millions March L.A., December 27, 2014 | Photo: Andy Sternberg/Flickr/Creative Commons

Last Saturday I marched in a protest against police brutality, one of many Ferguson-related marches that have been happening since August. I have to confess that it wasn't my idea. My niece, in town for Christmas, suggested that we do a movie at the Grove and then the protest afterward -- it was going to start at two in Pan Pacific Park, she said, right across the street from there. She made it sound not just convenient, but another fun yet beneficial thing for us to do together, like going to the gym or shopping for locally made goods at a craft fair. She also made it sound like it would be part of our quality time over the holidays.

I could hardly say no. Not that I wanted to. While I've been very supportive of the marching and protests the last five months, I had yet to get in the streets myself, maybe because nobody had invited me. It was time.

At the Grove we caught a morning screening of "Selma," appropriately enough, before heading over to the park. I've read about and seen countless iterations of civil rights history in books and documentaries, but the movie, with its deeply empathetic portrayal of black citizen activists facing 400 years of racial animus in the deep South culminating in the terrifying Selma episode, moved me in a new way. It reminded me of the real roots of police brutality and how shooting unarmed black people for so long wasn't even considered immoral, let alone illegal. Of course we don't have bloodbaths like the one that happened on the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965, but a callous public attitude towards the welfare black people remains, hardened over the decades into an almost polite indifference about all matters of race. But at the march I also saw positive echoes of the '60s. While most of the marchers were black, plenty were white, including one young married couple behind me who were pushing a pair of toddlers in a stroller. There were Asians, whites, millennials of all colors and older radicals, all marching, chanting and/or bearing signs reading "Black Lives Matter," as well as pithy tweaks on the sentiment, such as "Legalize Blackness" (my favorite was "Speak, so you can speak again," a Zora Neale Hurston quote). This is what I hadn't seen in my lifetime, this multiracial show of support for black humanity. It felt good, but strange.

Millions March L.A., December 27, 2014 | Photo: Desiree Cormier
Millions March L.A., December 27, 2014 | Photo: Desiree Cormier

We were marching through an unlikely part of town -- around the Beverly/Fairfax/Farmers Market/ La Brea area that's kind of a nexus of the L.A. good life. It lacks the grit of downtown, South Central, or even Hollywood. It lacks any resonant symbolism. So it felt odd to be swarming down Beverly Boulevard past El Coyote Café and then south down La Brea, past rows of upscale shops and boutiques that I had never noticed driving past in my car. An area that used to serve a mix of aspiring and upper middle class is now clearly aiming for the one percent. Marching past these places was incongruous, to say the least, and I expected hostility from the faces we passed. But I saw none. Some shoppers waved in solidarity, others watched curiously, still others walked past us with that look of determined racial indifference.

At 4th street we passed Bleu, a boutique that I've frequented since the days when I lived just south of the neighborhood, and I felt not guilt, but a kind of attack of consciousness -- what have I, among the first full beneficiaries of the movement, been doing with my life? What would I die for? What has relatively new freedom from the racial animus that defined so much of American history done for my character, for the character of my generation? Has the freedom to go into any store or public space we want, to buy what we want and default to the good life, made us too soft?

Millions March L.A., December 27, 2014 | Photo: Desiree Cormier
Millions March L.A., December 27, 2014 | Photo: Desiree Cormier

My 29-year-old niece and her friends were not bothered by such questions. As she marched, she chatted to her friends and worked her smartphone simultaneously. But she wasn't being callous; to the contrary, she was engaged. Coming to the protest was a no-brainer for her, because she believed in the cause and also because it was so doable. Around 2,000 people had rsvp'ed for this protest on Facebook, she told me with satisfaction. I am no social media acolyte, but I was happy to hear it. I know that Facebook and social media do not constitute revolution -- Malcolm Gladwell has made a convincing case for this -- but the fact that Facebook is on board with Ferguson is a good thing. The cause is helped tremendously if it becomes fashionable, or in modern lingo, if it's trending. In the '60s, the movement was definitely in fashion; it was something that everybody had to have a position or an opinion about, especially young people. You couldn't avoid it. Now it's looking like Ferguson, police brutality, and the timeless issue of racial equality is becoming similarly unavoidable. Again.

There were some moments that lay somewhere between surreal and transporting. On Wilshire, in the middle of Miracle Mile, we all stopped as one for moments of silence, as a huge billboard advertising "Selma" loomed overhead, and a police helicopter loomed over that. Further up the boulevard my niece and her friends made a dash into Starbucks. Lines were long, and I fretted afterward that the crowd had left us behind -- serves us right, I thought gloomily, for taking our eyes off the prize.

But it hadn't left us. We ran and caught up, and fell comfortably back into the stream of people like we'd never lost ground at all.

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