The first time I met the organizer of the March for Justice she told me to shut up. She put it more politely, but that was the meaning all the same.
I was milling about in the lobby of the Beacon Light Tabernacle Seventh Day Adventist Church in the Hudson Valley in New York state half-asleep, chatting with marchers about what in the hell would bring them out on a cold, rainy early Sunday morning when I heard it.
“S” is protestor-speak for shut the fuck up.
One of the march’s drivers, Bill, who looks like he could be plucked out of a picture from the height of the upheavals of the 1960s, leaned over and whispered: “When Miss Soffiyah says ‘S’ it means be quiet.”
Soffiyah Elijah, the charismatic executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice who created the March of Justice, has an almost uncanny ability to tap into reserves of energy. She had already marched 80 miles from Harlem, with another 100 to go. She had been sleeping on cots and inflatable mattresses, with the occasional catnap in the rattling school bus or on tattered couches. But here she was taking command of the group of marchers and newcomers.
She ordered everyone into a circle. It was time for chi. Justice, Elijah insists, takes chi.
I am not what you would call a chi guy. But something about her exuberance and infectious smile and the almost military no-nonsense way she barked out orders about channeling energy from the universe won me over. Next thing I knew I was twisting back and forth and paying a visit to my toes and rubbing my shins.
Elijah, a former defense attorney for revolutionaries, conceived of the march as a way to use traditional civil rights tactics from the 1960s to draw attention to what she sees as a civil rights catastrophe happening every day behind New York’s prison walls and in the ubiquitous inequities that plague its criminal justice system.
I traveled 20 miles with Elijah. I watched her face obstacles as serious as prison administrators who tried to stop her march to as mundane as finding a place to wash clothes. She never stopped. When a park employee told her she couldn’t continue without a permit, she replied with a smile and without hesitation: “We aren’t turning back.”
The last time I saw her, Elijah was done marching for the day. She was in yet another church basement turning a rickety foldout table into an information booth surrounded by people. She was explaining, composed but with quiet passion, what is happening in the prisons while they sleep at night.
Bob, one of the other drivers for the march and a veteran of the social justice movement since the 1960s, offered to give me and my photographer a ride back to my car, which was a 10-mile backtrack to the south. We sat bumping along in a silence for a few minutes. Then I remember that earlier in the day, during the march, I saw Bob rocking out to reggae music while he crawled next to us in his Toyota FJ Cruiser. I mentioned to Bob that I saw him enjoying his tunes.
“You were really pumping out the jams today,” I say.
“What's that,” he says as he leans forward to hear me better.
“I said you were really pumping out the jams today!”
“Oh yeah,” he responds, making a face that he knows it.
He turns on the radio and Peter Tosh’s rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” comes on. He is beggin’ for his people to be set free.
"Who's there yonder dressed in white?
“Must be the children of the Israelites.
“Go tell it on the mountain,
“To set my people free."
It might be an Old Testament song but after two days of marching it has a contemporary resonance.
"Look at that, you got yourself a beautiful full moon tonight," Bob says as we turn down New Paltz Main Street, where a few hours earlier a 105-year-old white woman in a wheelchair held hands for a brief electric moment with an 82-year-old black woman marching and shouting civil rights era chants.
He's right. It is. It looms in the twilight sky like an omen. In the sideview mirrors Shawangunk Mountains, known around here as The Gunks, recedes into the distance, outlined by splashes of pastel pinks and oranges.
I don't know how much saving this world has left in it. I have never been much for the bright side of things. But it's all so god damn breathtakingly beautiful that it's almost tempting to think that Bob might be right.
Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.
If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.
Thanks for listening.