Vendair Charles was mixing together his “top-secret’’ barbecue sauce in the back of Preparations Grille in Dorchester Monday when he heard something going on outside. He dropped the sauces, grabbed his iPhone, and ran out the door to find more than 100 demonstrators chanting and pumping their fists in the air during the MLK Day March for Justice.
“Man, if I would’ve known about this, I would’ve taken the day off work to go with them,’’ he said as he shook his head and filmed the demonstration on his phone.
Charles was one of dozens of onlookers who stopped to film the march, which began in Columbus Park and proceeded to Grove Hall over the course of three hours. The demonstration was organized by Mass Action Against Police Brutality and the Fight for $15 Massachusetts campaign to demand police accountability and higher minimum wages, as well as to call for an end to institutional racism and Islamaphobia.
Several other marches took place across the city in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, including a Reclaim MLK Boston March, organized by Black Lives Matter, and a labor union rally at Logan Airport, where six people were arrested. The March for Justice, however, attempted to raise awareness for multiple causes that are all connected, said Brock Satter, an organizer with Mass Action Against Police Brutality.
“More often than not, the populations most targeted by police are also on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder––Black, Brown, and poor,’’ he said. “We want to make sure that the fight against police brutality isn’t only seen as a fight that affects one section of the population. Everyone has a stake in the accountability of the government otherwise all our rights are in jeopardy.’’
Despite flurries and frigid temperatures that topped off at 27 degrees, the demonstration drew more than 100 activists, students, and citizens who gathered in Columbus Park bearing large signs and hand warmers.
“What time is it?’’ Satter asked the crowd as he addressed them from the back of a white pickup truck covered with posters of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Gray, among others, all of whom were killed by police officers or in police custody. “I know it’s cold, but it’s time to fight for justice. We fight even in cold times.’’
Just after 1:30 p.m., the pickup truck drove down Columbia Road as demonstrators walked along behind it. Many people in stalled cars honked in approval, with some drivers sticking their hands out their windows to wave and cheer.
“Indict. Convict. Send those killer cops to jail,’’ the crowd chanted as more than 12 Boston police officers biked alongside them.
Last year’s March for Justice wound through Beacon Hill, but Satter said organizers planned this year’s march through Dorchester to engage more residents who might not already be politically active.
It worked. Wearing just an orange T-shirt and jeans, William Tholen stood on the front porch of his Dorchester home on Columbia Road, his hands holding his iPhone camera steady as he recorded the bundled up demonstrators pass by him.
“This is awesome,’’ he said. “Can anyone join this? Can I be part of this? I’m gonna go get my coat.’’
Tholen ran in the house and threw on his jacket, then rushed to the back of the crowd, where he joined them in chanting: “All night, all day, we will fight for MLK.’’
The group stopped at the KFC on Columbia Road to allow the organizers wearing purple “Fight for $15’’ shirts to rush inside and continue chanting. The four women working inside rushed to hide behind the counter. One worker, who declined to comment, called police even though there were officers outside escorting the demonstration.
“I believe that we will win,’’ the demonstrators chanted repeatedly as a drum beat steadily in the background.
Less than five minutes later, the demonstrators went back outside. The women slowly peeked out from behind the counter to make sure everyone had left. Two police officers responded to the call and, determining there was no threat, left.
The crowd continued marching in the middle of Columbia Road. Many residents drew back their curtains or stood on their porches in order to get a better view. Jessica Araujo came out from inside her family’s laundromat to film the procession.
While they chanted, “We got a nightmare, Martin had a dream,’’ Araujo nodded her head in agreement.
“I’ve got two brothers who are police officers,’’ she said. “Not all of them are corrupt. But some are. These people gotta do what they gotta do.’’
Unlike Tholen, who rushed to join in, most hurried inside once the procession passed. A few blocks down the road, police officers blocked demonstrators from entering a Burger King, where they’d planned to protest as they had inside the KFC. Police said the manager of the restaurant didn’t want them interfering with customers. So, instead, members of the “Fight for $15’’ campaign spoke in the parking lot.
“I’ve been working at Dunkin’ Donuts for eight months, and I only get to work 15 hours a week at $10 an hour,’’ said Jena Benson, an 18-year-old student at Bunker Hill Community College. “I fight so my children don’t have to live this way.’’
The demonstration ended in the Grove Hall shopping plaza, with only a couple dozen activists left.
Carla Sheffield, whose son Burrell Ramsey was shot and killed by a Boston police officer in 2012, made a public call to legislators to pay workers fair wages, as well as to police officers to make a more conscious effort to improve community relations.
“I challenge all authorities to come out here and work on our wages,’’ she said. “I know not all cops are killers, but the ones who are should be held accountable. We need to build our communities up. We need to build each other up.’’
Other speakers agreed, including Toussaint Liberator, a Boston-based musician who brought his 10-year-old daughter, Inari.
“I’m glad we’re all here today, but I’m also a little disappointed,’’ he said. “There’s still much division in this city. I would’ve liked to see us all join together and coordinate our movements. But I’m glad you’re here celebrating MLK Day the right way.’’
During the final speeches, flurries began to fall and covered the few remaining demonstrators in a thin layer of white powder. Once everyone finished speaking, the handful who remained buried their faces in their scarves and stared at the ground. Carrying their signs, they made their way to nearby bus stations without looking up or at each other, their feet tracing the footprints of those who had gone before them.