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Thousands March In Washington For 'Justice For All' Rally

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Demonstrations took place across the country today to draw attention to several high-profile deaths of African-American men at the hands of police. Tens of thousands of protesters marched in New York City, Los Angeles and Boston among other cities. In Washington D.C., marchers started in downtown and moved to the U.S. Capitol, chanting all the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting) Hands up. Don't shoot. Black lives matter. Hands up. Don't shoot. Black lives matters.

RATH: The march was titled Justice For All. NPR's correspondent Laura Sullivan was at the much today and joins us now. Laura, what was it like out there today?

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Well, it was a very diverse crowd of young and old, black and white - thousands of people that gathered just outside the White House to march down Pennsylvania Avenue. And, you know, they were holding up signs that repeated a lot of what we just heard them saying, you know, hands up, don't shoot, black lives matter. They were also chanting I can't breathe. Those two slogans have really just come to symbolize this movement of African-American men being shot and killed at the hands of police, often when they have been unarmed, and the frustration that has come out of those shootings.

I can't breathe, of course, comes from the video of Eric Garner in New York who repeated that phrase over and over while police had him in a chokehold until he passed out and died. Grand juries in that case and the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson did not indict the police officers involved in those cases. And then recently, just a few weeks ago, there was the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, who was in a park with an air gun, which is like a pellet gun, and he was shot and killed. And those together really have been the tip of the iceberg of what brought so many protesters out today.

RATH: Can you tell us about the speakers that were there today and how they got the crowd fired up?

SULLIVAN: So this was a really powerful lineup of civil rights activists. It was organized by Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network. There were speeches before the march and then many more after the march as they closed in on the Capitol. There was a small dustup early on on the podium when a group of protesters from St. Louis - from the Ferguson area - stormed the microphone and said they had viewed, sort of, Al Sharpton's group as too establishment, and they wanted to speak. Al Sharpton allowed them and the rest of the organizers allowed them to speak and the rally then went on. Here was Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RAS BARAKA: They say that Jim Crow is dead in America, and I say Eric Garner is dead in America, that Mike Brown is dead in America. And there's no justice for people of color and poor people in this country. And until there is justice for all, there will be justice for none.

SULLIVAN: That was powerful but it was really the black relatives - the mothers and sons and daughters of black men who have died in unarmed altercations with police that brought, sort of, this hush over the crowd. Kimberly Ballinger is the partner of Akai Gurley, and he was unarmed and walking up the stairwell of an apartment complex when two rookie police officers were walking down it, doing a crime sweep with their weapons drawn, and they shot and killed him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIMBERLY BALLINGER: All I really need right now is justice. How do I explain to his two-year-old that daddy is not coming home? So as we yell justice for Akai Gurley, I'm also yelling justice for Akailo (ph) Gurley as well. Thank you all for the support.

RATH: Wow. Laura, did people coming away from this march feeling like they'd made a difference?

SULLIVAN: So, you know, there was a lot of frustration out there, and many protesters said they want to see Congress enact new laws to make it easier to hold police officers accountable. They want the Justice Department to conduct real, you know, deep investigations into all of these cases. And both of those face enormous hurdles.

But there were many older members of the crowd that told me that they were deeply moved to see so many young people - black, white, of every race - taking up this cause and marching in Washington. And one older man told me that it just lifted his spirits like it was 1968.

RATH: NPR's Laura Sullivan. Thanks, Laura.

SULLIVAN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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