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Protesters Of Police Violence Divided By Generation

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Protesters filled the streets in Washington, D.C. yesterday to speak out against the police killings of unarmed black men. Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team was on the ground in the nation's capital. And he says that there was a clear and sometimes contentious generational divide among the protesters.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: The activism that galvanized this movement online and in real life has been spearheaded by young people. So it didn't go unnoticed that many of the people on the stages at Saturday's march were decidedly not young. That rally was organized by Al Sharpton's National Action Network, so he was the nominal leader. But Sharpton's marching days started decades ago. And that was true of most of the other speakers on the podium.

But the new generation of activists didn't wait for the old guard to pass the mic. They were ready to take it. At one point some young protesters from Ferguson bumrushed the stage. After the official organizers cut their mics, chants of let them speak rose up from pockets of the crowd competing with other chants of get off the stage.

Official organizers tried to retake control cautioning the young people to show the proper respect to the families of the slain victims. But that didn't fly with Johnetta Elzie, a young protester from Ferguson.

JOHNETTA ELZIE: This movement was started by the young people. We started this. It should be young people all over this stage. It should be young people all up here.

DEMBY: This nascent movement has been compared to the Civil Rights Movement, often unfavorably, by people who remember the Weekly Reader version of that struggle. In the retelling, the Civil Rights Movement has become a noble, nonviolent consensus. Of course, that was never true. In fact, the Civil Rights Movement was marked by fierce debates over tactics and turf and who would be the face of those campaigns. In many ways, that too was a young people's movement.

But that movement had discrete policy goals, like the Civil Rights Act, while Saturday's rallies mostly avoided any specific calls to action. That could be in large part because many of the problems the protesters say they're trying to address don't have obvious policy fixes.

The Federal Government mandated desegregation of the 1960s. But what can the Federal Government do about ingrained, systemic and unconscious biased - the kind that makes people see unarmed black men as inherently dangerous? It's a dilemma that's deeply rooted that no generation of activists has been able to figure out yet. Gene Demby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.