More than 2,000 predominantly Black and Latino working people gathered March 21 on Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. in Harlem in a militant protest against gun violence.
Organized by a broad coalition of labor and people's organizations, it was a powerful grassroots protest against the National Riffle Association and a warning to Congress that it must pass strong gun control legislation, including a ban on assault weapons.
George Gresham, president of Local 1199 of the Service Workers, captured the fighting spirit of the rally. In a message to all elected officials, Gresham said, "We are the people; do the right thing and we got your back. Do the wrong thing, we got your job."
MSNBC commentator, the Rev. Al Sharpton, addressing the NRA, declared: "We have the right to bear arms but we do not have the right to kill babies. The second amendment does not give you the right to have guns that can hold 30 rounds. We have to take back our streets here in New York and beyond."
When I asked a retired New York State Superior Court Judge-turned- community-organizer why she was attending the rally, she said, "The failure to pass a bill against gun violence is an acceptance of a policy of genocide against Blacks and Latinos by the authorities."
Leslie Cagan, who was part of the organizing team for the rally, said that the demonstration was particularly important in light of the Senate leadership having announced that day that the assault weapons ban would be left out of the legislative package. "We need Congress to find the backbone to stand up for communities and families here in Harlem and all over the country," Cagan declared.
The gathering took place in the shadow of the Adam Clayton Powell Harlem State office building and across the street from the historic Teresa Hotel where, in 1960, Fidel Castro stayed after having been offended by downtown hotels. Hundreds of workers representing many of the key unions in New York, were represented.
Among them were Local 1199, 32BJ of the SEIU. There was a contingent from Local 1180 of the Communications Workers of America. The Transport Workers Union, the United Federation of Teachers and the Professional Staff Congress were also there.
There were signs from "Nurses and Caregivers United to Stop Gun Violence. Other signs included, "Moms demand action to protect our kids," and a contingent of youth wearing t-shirts emblazoned with "I Am a Peace Movement" and "Youth Against Gun Violence."
Jackie Rowe Adams from Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E spoke with great passion about losing two of her children to gun violence. "I am in pain," she said tearfully. "Put the guns down and pick up the peace sign." There were several mothers who told heartfelt stories of how they lost their sons to gun violence.
There was also Darren Wagner, from Newton, Conn. expressing his community's full support to the people of New York in their fight for gun control.
Hazel Dukes, president of New York State's NAACP, spoke and called for the unity of black, brown and white, Jews, Gentiles, Protestants, and Muslims. "We all have to get ready for a real fight."
Shannon Watts, the founder of "Moms Demand Action," a national group of 80,000 advocating strong gun control, talked about her activities.
Michael Mulgrew, president of New York's UFT, told the crowd that his union was divesting from any stocks that have anything to do with guns.
An emergency room doctor from Harlem Hospital, Dr. Vanessa Gorospe, said, "Gun violence is second only to auto accidents as a cause of death. The number of children below five years old killed by guns are four times the number of police killed by guns."
Refusing to buy into attempts by the NRA and some other groups to scapegoat the mentally ill, she declared: "The mentally ill are four times more likely to be victims of violence rather than purveyors of violence."
The surprise guest at the rally who received a warm welcome was legendary jazz singer Tony Bennett. He spoke of how Harry Belafonte had convinced him to march in Selma and how it had a big impact on him. Bennett is now an outspoken advocate of an assault weapons ban.
The chair of the rally. the Rev. Jacque DeGraff of the Cannan Baptist Church, aroused the crowd as he introduced speakers. He emphasized, as did many other speakers, that it was necessary to keep pushing to pass Gov. Cuomo's gun control bill and that it is necessary to carry the fight to Washington. "We are going to change America, starting right here in Harlem," he declared.
There were many elected officials at the rally including two running for mayor. None were allowed to speak but their names were mentioned, John Lui, the first Chinese-American to run for Mayor, received the loudest applause.
In a related development, Mayor Bloomberg has announced that he is prepared to spend millions to run ads against those running for office who are opposed to gun control. One person at the rally told me that, in addition to controlling guns, Bloomberg needs to control the New York Police Department.
The department has come under heavy criticism for carrying out a notorious "stop and frisk" program which critics note singles out Blacks and Latinos but does nothing to control crime.
Estevan Nembhard, Manhattan organizer for the Communist Party, pointed out that "it is common knowledge in Harlem and in ghettos and barrios across the country; when the unemployment rate and drop-out rate goes up, so does desperation and violence. This rally is very important and will help but not enough was said about the root causes of violence; the lack of jobs, education, the presence of drugs and the absence of a real future for our youth."
Nembhard agreed that "Mayor Bloomberg is doing a good thing placing ads against the anti-gun control politicians across the country." But he took issue with the mayor on a host of what he considers related issues: "His (Bloomberg's) cut backs and policy of economic austerity for the working class, along with 'stop and frisk' and his sanction of brutality and high incarceration for youth instead of jobs and education, will continue to get the same negative results."
People at the rally like most New Yorkers, seemed to agree that good jobs and good quality education for all are necessary steps to ending gun violence on the streets.