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From Million Man March to Columbus Day: Challenging White Supremacy & “Doctrine of Discovery”

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Tens of thousands from across the country gathered on the National Mall in Washington Saturday for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. The rally commemorated the 1995 event, when Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan called African-American men to the nation’s capital for a “day of atonement.” This year’s rally, themed “Justice or Else,” called for an end to police brutality and demanded justice for communities of color, women and the poor, and was more inclusive than the first. Among this year’s crowd were women and other people of color, including Native Americans who are calling for a renaming of Columbus Day, the federal holiday that commemorates the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the so-called New World in 1492. The holiday has long evoked sadness and anger among Native Americans who object to honoring the man who opened the land to European colonization and the exploitation of native peoples. We speak with Larry Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, who was at the first Million Man March in 1995 and also attended the 20th anniversary march, and Gyasi Ross, author, speaker, lawyer and member of the Blackfeet Nation.

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AMY GOODMAN: That’s music, drumming, from the Million Man March. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Tens of thousands from across the country gathered on the National Mall in Washington Saturday for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. The rally commemorated the 1995 event when Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan called African-American men to the nation’s capital for a “day of atonement.” This year’s rally, themed “Justice or Else,” was also organized by Louis Farrakhan, who this time invited women, whites, other people of color. The march comes amidst renewed concerns about police brutality and excessive use of force in the wake of the police-involved deaths of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown—and the list goes on, which certainly sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, going back to Trayvon Martin. Louis Farrakhan praised Black Lives Matter in his speech on Saturday.

LOUIS FARRAKHAN: These are not just young people who happened to wake up one morning. Ferguson ignited it all. So all the brothers and sisters from Ferguson, all the brothers and sisters that laid in the streets, all the brothers and sisters that challenged the tanks, we are honored that you have come to represent our struggle and our demand.

AMY GOODMAN: Organizers of this year’s Million Man March called for an end to police brutality and demanded justice for communities of color, women and the poor. Since the first event, the unemployment rate for African-American males has increased from 8.1 to 8.9 percent, and studies from Center for American Progress show 40 percent of the incarcerated population is now African-American. Speakers on Saturday included Gyasi Ross of the Blackfeet Nation.

GYASI ROSS: Peace. Peace. My name is Gyasi Ross from the Piikáni people, the Blackfeet people. I’m proud to be here on behalf of Native American young people, young folks, standing in solidarity, demanding justice. Justice or else! Justice or else! A specific justice, an injustice we must correct, is that Native folks have been—we’ve been antagonized by the same monster that has antagonized so many people of color. It’s called the papal bull. It’s called the Doctrine of Discovery. That is a doctrine that has enslaved and has punished us for many, many years, for centuries. We demand that the Catholic Church revoke the papal bull and the racist doctrine of discovery. Moreover, we demand that the Catholic Church rescind the sainthood of Junípero Serra. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Gyasi Ross, author, speaker, lawyer, storyteller, member of the Blackfeet Nation, author of How to Say I Love You in Indian. He joins us here in our studio, along with Larry Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, which is based in New Jersey. He was at the first Million Man March in 1995 and also attended this 20th anniversary march in Washington, D.C.

Let’s start with you, Larry Hamm, also known as Adhimu.

LARRY HAMM: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: How did this compare to what happened 20 years ago? And why were you there, with so many of the people from your organization, POP?

LARRY HAMM: Yes, we had several hundred members there. We took two packed buses from Newark, and then members were on buses from throughout New Jersey. I would say folks in New Jersey had a very strong presence there, as we did in 1995. 1995 was a gathering of biblical proportions. And this gathering—

AMY GOODMAN: What was it? It was something like 1.8—

LARRY HAMM: One-point-eight million. Some people say 2 million. So it was unlike anything we had ever experienced. And remember now, it wasn’t just the Million Man March. There was the World Day of Atonement that followed. There was the Million Family March. There was a 10th anniversary Millions More Movement. So, this 20th anniversary is not actually part two, it’s more like part of an ongoing movement. So, I would say that this was a time for people who were there in 1995 to renew their spirits. But there were so many young people who came to get that spirit, so that they could go back and organize in their communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Today is also the federal holiday known as Columbus Day, and it’s a federal holiday that commemorates the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the so-called New World in 1492. But the holiday has long evoked sadness and anger among Native Americans who object to honoring a man who opened the door of this country to European—or these lands to European colonization, the exploitation of Native peoples and the slave trade. Their outrage has led to campaigns like this one.

RECONSIDER COLUMBUS DAY AD: Columbus committed heinous crimes against the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and millions of Natives throughout the Americas. And Columbus set the stage for the slave trade in the New World. So, please, please reconsider if this is a man you want to honor. Reconsider if you want to celebrate the crimes of Columbus. It’s not your fault; it happened a long time ago. But remaining neutral and pretending like it didn’t happen or that it doesn’t still impact us today? So, please, take the day to learn the whole story. Celebrate the people who were here first. Petition for a nationally recognized indigenous holiday.

AMY GOODMAN: More and more cities are calling people to reconsider Columbus Day by acknowledging the genocide of indigenous people and celebrating Native American traditions. This year, Multnomah County, Oregon; St. Paul, Minnesota; Olympia, Washington; Traverse City, Michigan; Albuquerque and Sandoval County, New Mexico are among the latest jurisdictions to decide to mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same day as Columbus Day. In South Dakota, the holiday celebrated is Native American Day, while Hawaii observes Discoverer’s Day, which honors Polynesian explorers. Last year, the Seattle City Council unanimously adopted a resolution to celebrate the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Gyasi Ross, your thoughts on whether we have made progress in this country? In California, the state has become the first—Governor Brown has just signed on to a bill that says public schools cannot use the term—can’t use the term “Redskins” in mascots or names of teams.

GYASI ROSS: Mm-hmm. And the question is: Did we make progress? I think that, yeah, you know, we’re trying to change the narrative, and the narrative is one that’s been colored—you know, America loves myths. America loves myths. And the myth is that, you know, there’s Santa Claus and that Abraham Lincoln was the great liberator and that Christopher Columbus discovered this nation. The truth is that if America wants to choose to acknowledge these myths, that’s fine. But acknowledge the people that were here first, who already had structures, who already had societies, and who taught humanity and actually saved the lives of those first Europeans who did land on this content. And I think that’s what the movement is, to—if America wants to continue that myth, then we’re not going to protest this. This isn’t about a particular European—I’m not even one to say his name. This is instead about us. It’s a day of love, and it’s a day of honoring our communities and our people.

AMY GOODMAN: You spoke yesterday. How were you chosen—on this weekend, Saturday. How were you chosen to be one of the speakers at the Million Man March? And what was your message?

GYASI ROSS: My message specifically was about Junípero Serra, the recently canonized saint of the Catholic Church, as well as the Doctrine of Discovery. And it was—

AMY GOODMAN: When Bishop Francis [sic] came here to the United States, right?

GYASI ROSS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: It was the first canonization on U.S. soil.

GYASI ROSS: That’s right. And he was a monster. He was somebody that absolutely, as a matter of historical fact, enslaved California Natives and who did heinous things, as many other members of the Holy Roman Catholic Church—

AMY GOODMAN: Pope Francis, I mean, yeah.

GYASI ROSS: Yeah, did absolutely terrible things to the Native people here. And the Doctrine of Discovery, obviously, that’s based upon, you know, dehumanizing both Natives and black folks for the purposes of exploitation, capitalism, slavery, etc., etc. But overall, the presence—just my presence being there and all the Native people that Minister Louis Farrakhan invited was that we have intertangling and intrinsically and inextricably linked narratives. And that is that even today—forget history. History, absolutely, we’re tied. We’re stuck with each other. But even today, Native people, as a matter of empirical data, are killed by law enforcement at a higher percentage than any other ethnic group. And that runs collateral, obviously, with the carnage that the black community is dealing with every single day at the hands of law enforcement. We’re all dealing with state-sponsored violence that not only attacks our physical bodies, but our self-esteem, and tells us that we have no value. And that’s what Saturday, I believe, was about, “Justice or Else,” that we need to fix that. That’s an injustice to us and our ancestry and our kids, because if they don’t believe that they can safely navigate these streets like every other person in this country, then that’s a huge injustice.

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Gyasi Ross: Why I Support Bernie Sanders & the #BlackLivesMatter Protesters Who Interrupted Him

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