I knew early on that something was off with last Saturday’s #MarchOnWashington. The whole premise of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network led “march” seemed way too safe. From “Black Lives Matter” to “All Lives Matter” and from “Justice for Mike Brown” to “Justice for All”. This was supposed to be a National Day of Resistance, but this production seemed far too PC to be in line with the movement taking place across the country. There was an obvious disconnect, and it was a far cry from the tone of New York’s “Day of Anger” – not to mention the VIP section and the very chill presence of the cops – but we’ll get to that later.
“There were some young people who rushed the stage to speak,” a man told us as we made our way to Freedom Plaza.
Apparently we already missed what went down, but luckily a video quickly surfaced of 32-year-old Erika Totten boldly grabbing the mic to demand that the roster of speakers include the young protesters from Ferguson who’ve actually been on the ground for the last four months. “We need to let them speak!” she demanded. Soon the crowd joined in and she mustered enough support to get 25-year-old activist Johnetta Elzie a chance to share her firsthand experiences in Ferguson.
It only made sense.
“People have been wanting to do that to Al Sharpton for a while … I saw an opportunity and I took it,” said Erika, in a tone that would be the equivalent of the most unapologetic, Yeezy-est, “I’m let y’all finish but” shrug. Totten is a self-described a stay-at-home mother of two and Spiritual Life Coach based in Washington DC. She’s also founder of To Live Unchained and has been active in many initiatives for social justice; most recently lending herself to efforts on the ground in Ferguson and DC over the last few months. She’s been shot at with rubber bullets and tear gassed, but most of all she’s been determined to get justice.
After I saw her ill mic snatch, I had to speak with her. I knew she could explain what was really up on Saturday. A little social media stalking and our interview was set. Things started off shaky due to some technical issues with our video chat, so we opted to speak over the phone. This conversation was going to happen by any means necessary, and that was the vibe I got from watching the footage of Erika on stage – she’s a woman who makes things happen and moves without fear. Over the phone I felt Erika’s passionate spirit even more, and she held nothing back. Check out her behind-the-scenes perspective on last Saturday’s march, how she managed to get on stage, and her thoughts on the role of Civil Rights leaders like Al Sharpton in today’s youth-led movements against racial injustice.
OOGEEWOOGEE: Tell me about your initial thoughts on last week’s march …
Erika: We saw that Al Sharpton was coming into our city, with no communication with many of the local organizers here on the National Day of Resistance to hold a march that had no teeth. It was moreso an event that seeks to make people feel good about coming out and go home and do nothing after. So he was co-opting the movement that we created in August and spread across the country, without even talking about the message.
OW: Was there a disconnect between Al Sharpton’s organization and the young people who have been leading this movement?
Erika: There was no connection at all. If they had’ve reached out to local organizers in DC that are heavily involved in the movement, they would’ve known that that day was called the Day of Resistance. Everybody in this movement knows it’s about revolution. It’s not about reform, it’s about transformation. Al Sharpton is not about that. So you can’t try to co-opt our movement and our voice, by having an event just to parade these families around …We don’t have time for speeches, we need action. That’s what our movement is about, so we shut it down.
OW: Why do you think the slogans “All Lives Matter” and “Justice for All” were chosen?
Erika: He didn’t want anyone to go up there and say what he referred to as “problematic rhetoric” or “calling for violence”. Why? Because he’s a part of mainstream media. He has internalized that idea that protesters from Ferguson are violent, which is not the case. He wanted to assure that we wouldn’t promote “inflammatory rhetoric against non-Blacks” and the statement he is referring to is Black Lives Matter. That’s why the name of his march was called “Justice for All”. We’re calling for justice for Black lives, because we are the ones not getting justice … so we had to shut it down.
OW: Take me to the moment you decided to go on stage and take over the mic – what led up to that point?
Erika: I feel like I went [to the march] with the sincere intention of seeing whose voices he would elevate on the platform that he had. And because of my background in journalism and event planning, I know how to talk my way into anything. I went and told someone that I had folks from Ferguson that want to speak, and that’s how we got the passes. We stood on the side and I told them ‘Stay close to me, we’re getting up on this stage. We’re gonna make sure your voice is heard.’ There were multiple people representing unions and organizations speaking that were not involved in the movement. We heard a representative from the teachers union go up there and say “All Lives Matter” – that’s what flipped me! All people aren’t being killed every 28 hours by police, it’s Black people! I knew that we needed to hear the voices of people that have been out here for 131 days, that started this uprising. So I saw an opening and I took it. We couldn’t let the message be skewed just for the sake of having an event.
OW: Where do you see Al Sharpton’s role and other Civil Rights leaders in today’s movement?
Erika:The Civil Rights movement with their “wins” – all it did was put people in a comfort zone – it dulled them to sleep. But we’re still being impacted by this as young people. So we need our own movement, because it’s a new time and a new day and police are killing us every 28 hours. It speaks volumes of our people that our children are being killed – 7 year old Aiyana Jones, 12 year old Tamir Rice – and there isn’t a national uprising? It lets you know we’re sleep. People can bust into our houses and kill our children and we’re not supposed to tear this whole city down?! Al Sharpton’s not about that life, and that’s fine. We don’t need him to be. He’s used to suppress people. He’s a part of mainstream media, which is a tool to keep you from fighting against injustice … See, what people don’t understand is that young people work together – it’s not about ego for us. This is about our survival. So the leadership is decentralized. We don’t need a figure-head because we work together. We are the people we’ve been looking for, all we have is us.
OW: Why do you think some people said you were being disrespectful?
Erika: To have people in my ear saying ‘You gotta be respectful, you don’t want it to look like this.’ And we’re like for who? I wanted them to say it – ‘Don’t act like this in front of white people.’ We have this fear that Black people will look divisive, like we’re always supposed to agree on everything. You have respectability politics that so many people in the older generation have bought into. Our generation is not about that. We have deconstructed that. We are not your respectable negroes! We are not gonna look how you want us to look. We’re not gonna sound how you want us to sound. We’re gonna sound like us. It’s not gonna look how it looked in the 60s. We don’t need mass organizations; we don’t need figure heads; we don’t need corporate funding; we don’t need our government to make a space for us.
OW: In the video we hear you saying that people were being “condescending” – what did you mean by that?
Erika: Part of it is paternalism. They assume we don’t know what we’re doing because we’re young. Especially people with organizing backgrounds, they like to come to us and say ‘What are you asking for?’ We’re not asking for shit no more, we are demanding! And if it’s not done, we will shut this whole country down. They can play with us if they want to. Our lives are at risk. We don’t have fear. What do you do with a generation who doesn’t have fear? We have nothing to lose but our chains. Word to Assata.
OW: As an individual, what are your plans going forward to aid in this movement?
Erika: As an individual my goal is to make sure people don’t go back to business as usual, so that means disrupting. My role is definitely to disrupt the status quo, to not allow people to go back to sleep, to keep them awake, to keep them asking questions, to have conversations about why we’re doing what we’re doing. And, help people deconstruct the internalized white supremacy that keeps them from fighting, and has them looking at us -people fighting for liberation – as their enemy. People have to stay awake. So that’s my job, to keep them awake. And once they’re awake, plug them into the movement in whatever way they can help.