United States: AFT mobilises for 28 August March on Washington

published 28 August 2020 updated 31 August 2020

Many thousands of people are marching in Washington, DC in the “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks”. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), several other trade unions as well as civil rights and other civil society organisations are mobilising to bring attention to systemic racism, the need for police and criminal justice reform, and protection of the right to vote.

Civil Rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton and his National Action Network (NAN), launched the march at the funeral service for George Floyd, killed when a police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee for nearly eight minutes in Minneapolis. Sharpton also spoke of the march at the EI/PSI Democracy Conference on 29 June, where he was a featured speaker. The march is raising some of the same issues as the 1963 March on Washington.

Sharpton told the Conference, “There has always been a marriage between the union movement and those fighting against injustice and racism.” American trade unions are carrying on that tradition.  Like the original march, participants gather (many are also participating virtually), despite COVID-19 and strict safety measures, to demand justice. Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT and member of the EI Executive Board, described the context of this march, saying,

“America is confronting a triple crisis and it's no exaggeration to say the very future of our democracy is at stake. The economy is tanking, the pandemic is raging and despite a national reckoning over race, Black people are still being gunned down by police in plain sight. We have an incompetent and venal president who spends his days denying reality and pedaling conspiracy theories that appeal to our worst impulses, rather than our better angels.”

“The labor movement, led by United Federation of Teachers (UFT) member Bayard Rustin, was a driving force in organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and we are as staunch a partner today. The journey for justice is long, but the need for this march is as great as it was 57 years ago. Just as we did then, so will we stand at the Lincoln Memorial this Friday in solidarity and with a conviction for justice. Our activism, combined with our vote, can bring about lasting change. It's a lesson our country must never stop learning."

Police and Criminal Justice Reform

As a response to killing of Black people by police, the Black Lives Matter movement was formed and produced protests. However, the killing of George Floyd on 25 May, filmed by bystanders, ignited a national and, later, an international, multi-racial reaction. Overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations took place, although there were some incidents of violence, in some cases between protestors or others and police and, in other cases, involving Extreme Right groups.

Some state and local governments have banned chokeholds and taken other measures and national police reform legislation has been adopted by the House of Representatives, but not yet by the Senate. An initial reform of criminal judice was adopted with bi-partisan support, but more needs to be done.

The Right to Vote

One of the priorities of the civil rights movement and of the 1963 March on Washington was the elimination of barriers to voting for Black Americans to ensure that all citizens had the equal right to vote. Congress with bipartisan support, adopted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that would provide federal enforcement of the voting guarantees already contained in the 15th amendment (1870), but which had been violated with measures taken by State governments, mainly in the South.

In 2013, the Supreme Court, struck down an essential enforcement mechanism of that law reducing the effect of that law. To correct that decision, the “John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act” has been passed by the House of Representatives and introduced in the Senate.

Many other actions have been taken to discourage and block voting, including making unsubstantiated claims of massive fraud to cast doubt on the results. Voting rights, 55 years later, has, once again, become a major challenge for American democracy.

EI General Secretary David Edwards hailed today’s March on Washington saying,

“This is not only a march to oppose police violence and other abuses, but a determined fight for racial and social justice and democracy. At our Democracy Conference, Reverent Sharpton said, ‘We need long-term sustained indignation that leads to real change.’ For democracy to work, that indignation means speaking without fear, peaceful protest, and the massive exercise of the right to vote. EI and its member organisations support democracy and the processes that make it possible all over the globe, including in the United States. The world is watching.”