A few weeks ago, a fellow journalist called me an activist. And although many reporters would rather gouge their eyeballs with broken beer bottles than be called an activist, I don’t mind it all. I am one. Indeed, I got into activism for the same reason I got into journalism – to correct the mythical American narrative and effect change.
So when I was asked to speak on Saturday at Washington Square Park in New York City during Rise Up October – a rally and march against police brutality – I did not hesitate.
It was not yet noon when I took the stage with friend and fellow Native American Jared Dunlap, who’s Ojibwe, and reeled for four minutes (my allotted time) about 520 years of domination and conquest and racism and hubris and bigotry and lies. I spoke about the deaths of Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Paul Castaway, and others, and I went into detail about the brutal death of Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, the 18-year-old Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Eastern Band of Cherokee youth who was shot seven times, once in the back of the head, by Custer County Sheriff’s deputies in Oklahoma in December 2013. The two deputies who shot and killed Goodblanket both received the Medal of Valor.
At about the third minute into my mad rant, I blared into the microphone that it was 125 years ago this year that the Medal of Honor was awarded to 20 U.S. soldiers who participated in the indiscriminate killing of 300 Lakota, 200 of whom were unarmed women and children, during the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890. “More medals for more dead Indians,” I think I said.
The overall message [that a genocide was committed on this land, and that that genocide continues] seemed to resonate with the crowd, which by 1 p.m. had swelled to the brims of the park with hippies and NYU students and the families of victims, and wandering tourists who didn’t seem to really know what the fuck was going on.
Scholar and activist Cornel West, left, embraces fellow protesters as journalist Simon Moya-Smith, right, hoists a sign of slain Native American youth Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket. Photo courtesy Jared Dunlap.
After I stepped off the stage, one of the event organizers approached me and asked if Jared and myself planned to march with the masses. “Of course,” I uttered. The organizer, Annie, said we should line up a block away and be prepared to lead the march with the other speakers, many of them still with tear stains streaming down their faces from having earlier recounted what happened to their loved one.
One of the last invited speakers to say a few words was Academy Award-winning filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. When he got to the microphone I had every intention of listening to his statement, but I got distracted when a white man standing behind me whispered “This is bullshit. I don’t know what they expect to accomplish.” I turned around, eyed the man and the woman he was whispering to and shot them both a sinister grin before they decided to scurry back into the park where small groups had congregated to share in their own heated debates.
By 1:30 p.m. we were marching – stopping and going, heading north toward Bryant Park. Protesters – including Jared – were yelling at onlookers to join us and march in solidarity. A young, blond passerby began to chuckle as she filmed the march with her phone, which set off a family member who was marching near the fringes. “This is our lives!” she yelled at the girl. “These are our loved ones.” The woman’s cries did nothing to phase the young blond. She just kept sauntering and filming until she was out of sight.
We were nearing 25th St. when I noticed, to my right, Tarantino and I were marching side-by-side. I didn’t notice this at first, until he laughed, and his signature vibrato guffaw reverberated off the facades of the Manhattan canyon.
I immediately noticed he was holding a sign of another victim of police brutality. Jared was marching just a few yards ahead of me when I called out to him to come back. “I want to get him to hold this sign [of Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket] so we can get a photo,” I said to Jared.
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Quentin Tarantino holds a sign of Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket who was a victim of police brutality in December 2013. Photo courtesy Jared Dunlap.
“Quentin,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder. He first looked at me, summing me up, and when he noticed I was a fellow protester, he leaned in ear first.
“Hey, man, do you mind if we get a picture of you holding this sign?” I asked.
I showed him the picture of Mah-hi-vist.
“His mother couldn’t make it,” I said.
“Sure,” he responded.
I handed him the placard, which he held with his left hand as he continued to cling onto the other with his right.
In an instant we got the picture, and the filmmaker handed the placard back to me. I thanked him for his willingness and went about hoisting the big board of Mah-hi-vist back over my head, marching deeper into the city. “NO JUSTICE! NO PEACE!” was the song of the day, and Jared and I joined in.
Suddenly, a hand reached out and nudged me. It was Tarantino. “Hey,” he said to me. “Send my love to his mother,” which I did, and to which Melissa Goodblanket, Mah-hi-vist’s mom, responded that she was brought to tears by his heartfelt message.
One foot on the street, one foot on the web, folks. That’s how we’ll get it done.
Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota, is the Culture Editor at Indian Country Today. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him @Simonmoyasmith.