‘We refuse to celebrate’: July 4th protesters say not all Americans are free

CHICAGO — Not all Americans are kicking back to watch fireworks to celebrate independence this holiday weekend.

Amid thousands of protests against police brutality and a pandemic that has disproportionately ravaged communities of color, many people planned to spend Fourth of July drawing attention to what they say is a hypocritical celebration of freedom.

Rallies, marches and sit-ins were planned Saturday in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and more than a dozen other U.S. cities.

On Friday, protesters blocked a highway leading up to Mount Rushmore, where President Donald Trump was scheduled to speak. Police used pepper spray and arrested the protesters, who argue the land in which the monument lies on – Black Hills – was seized from the Lakota Sioux by the U.S. government in the 1800s, and that the Trump administration opposes the interests of Native Americans and other minority groups.

On Saturday in the nation’s capital, where Trump planned to host hundreds of people at the White House for music and fireworks, organizers led several demonstrations across the city. Thousands of people expressed interest in a Facebook event for a “George Floyd Memorial March on Washington,” which began Saturday morning.

The Independence Day holiday “doesn’t really mean anything when Black people weren’t free on July 4th and those same liberties weren’t afforded to us,” said Kerrigan Williams, co-founder of Freedom Fighters D.C., who has been co-organizing marches in the city for at least three weeks.

“We’re still marching for the same things.”

Williams said her organization has planned a “Juliberation” march Saturday through parts of Washington, D.C., and is encouraging all participants to wear black.

Williams, who grew up in Houston, said she used to mark the Fourth of July with family cookouts. But thoughts of her enslaved ancestors always lingered in the back of her mind. The family’s real celebration, Williams said, was on Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, when Galveston, Texas, finally got the news that President Abraham Lincoln had freed enslaved people in rebel states two and a half years earlier.

Amy Yeboah, a professor of Africana Studies at Howard University, said she planned to spend the holiday by joining a sit-in outside the Supreme Court.

“We’re honoring Black women – the lives that have been lost to police brutality – but also the blind eye that America has to the injustices that face Black women,” Yeboah said, invoking the names of Breonna Taylor, Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Jones, who were fatally shot by police.

“This being the celebration of independence, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I’ll be talking about how these are not things Black women have been given the space to celebrate,” Yeboah said. “Their justice is still being considered.”

In Chicago, nearly 2,000 people had expressed interest in a Facebook event for a rally and march downtown. Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef, an activist and South Side resident who planned the protest, said he grew up celebrating the Fourth of July with family, watching fireworks and having barbecues. As he grew older, started his studies, experienced police brutality and lost a nephew to gun violence, that all began to change.

“Independence for people of color has not been part of our livelihood. We’re constantly murdered, harassed because of police brutality all over the country. The concept of freedom does not seem to come to our doorstep, even though we’ve been here 400 years,” Yosef said. “We look it as an abomination to recognize anything that comes with the Fourth of July.”

Yosef said event-goers planned to take a knee in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in memory of George Floyd. A violinist was also expected to play the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Yosef had prepared a banner for the march bearing the face of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his famous words – “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”

The quote comes from a July 5, 1852, address that Douglass gave at an Independence Day celebration in Rochester, New York. “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common,” he said. “This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

In Brooklyn, New York, activists planned a “Confronting July 4th” march and rally to honor Black and indigenous activists, saying they “refuse to celebrate the whitewashing of this country.”

Jo Macellaro, who is helping to organize the event, said Douglass’ words still ring true, more than 160 years later.

“So much of it is still relevant,” Macellaro said. “What does the Fourth of July mean to people who are still oppressed, marginalized – who don’t have all the freedoms we’re supposed to have in this country?”

Many more protests were planned in Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Honolulu, Detroit, Newark, New York City, Orlando, Los Angeles, Houston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Seattle.

Yosef said organizers planned to ask everyone to social distance, wear masks and use hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Medical personnel would also be handing out face masks.

“Of course, you’re always going to be scared, but it’s for the movement for Black liberation. You have to risk (for) that,” said Williams, who said she is immunocompromised.

The nation has a long history of Independence Day demonstrations.

In 1854, abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth and Henry David Thoreau held a rally in Framingham, Massachusetts, where Garrison burned copies of the Fugitive Slave Law and the U.S. Constitution.

From 1965 to 1968, gay rights activists picketed outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia. In 1976, prisoners at the Marion, Illinois, federal penitentiary staged a hunger strike against their inhumane treatment there. In 1986, after the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia statute that largely criminalized homosexual activity, activists protested in New York City.

More recently, in 2013, following revelations about NSA mass surveillance programs, Restore the Fourth, a nonprofit supporting the Fourth Amendment, held rallies in dozens of cities. And in 2018, Patricia Okoumou climbed the Statue of Liberty to protest the detention of migrant children.