With the country still in turmoil following the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and countless others at the hands of policemen, actor Jussie Smollett has rallied together with Justice League NYC to help put an end to police brutality and the use of unnecessary force in the field.
The "Empire" actor joined the March 2 Justice in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday (April 21), where he, along with roughly 100 other inspired marchers led by Justice League NYC, walked the final six miles of their 250-mile journey from Howard University to the U.S. Capitol.
The nine-day pilgrimage, which started in Eric Garner's native Staten Island, New York, culminated in the hand-delivery of the three-piece "Justice Package" to legislators. The proposals included the End Racial Profiling Act, the Stop Militarization of Law Enforcement Act, and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which seek to end racial profiling, demilitarize our police forces, and invest in our communities.
"I've been to a lot of marches in my life, but this was probably the most life-changing experience I've had as an adult," Smollett told MTV News over the phone. "There was so much love. There was so much pain. There was so much inspiration as we were walking and chanting and singing the same songs. Everybody from different backgrounds -- there were black folks, white folks, Latino folks, Asian folks, Native American folks, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists -- everybody was marching together. And we were marching to justice."
Smollett has been an activist since the age of six when his mother brought him to a protest march over the shooting death of Yusef Hawkins in 1989.
"Activism isn't new to me," said Smollett. "But I'm glad I have a bigger platform to talk and people are listening. I have a responsibility to use that in a positive way."
The 31-year-old actor credits the "true leaders" of the march -- Justice League NYC activists Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory -- for inspiring hundreds to join the March 2 Justice.
"You have an Arab-American sister, an African-American sister and a Latina-American sister who had this crazy idea to march from Staten Island, where Eric Garner had been choked to death by a police officer, to Washington, D.C. and have a rally on the Capitol and take the Justice Package to Congress the very next day," he said. "They're the true leaders. I'm very humbled to be in their presence. 'Empire' has given me such a huge platform, but we all have a platform. We all have the ability to speak out about these injustices."
It's about how we talk about these issues that's important. Anger is a warranted, visceral reaction to these senseless acts of violence, but anger alone won't help solve the problem.
"I think everybody has to yell a little bit louder and realize that the nation is angry right now, and we have the right to be angry. But we have to channel that righteous anger into a positive, strong call to action. Sometimes, when you march, you forget what you're marching for -- are we just marching to yell? -- but that's why it was so important to Tamika, Carmen and Linda that we march with an agenda. The agenda was to bring the Justice Package to Congress."
As powerless as some people may feel in light of these ongoing stories of police brutality, there are plenty of ways people can get involved. Activism starts with education.
"We have to realize that this is not one community's issue," Smollett said. "Yes, people of color have been getting killed, but this is not something that is entirely new. What is happening is that with social media and people talking online it's getting these stories out. So we're seeing it every day. And now we've got to have a conversation that this is not just a black issue, it's a national emergency. We have to educate ourselves."
And while social media means that anyone can be a watchdog these days, these tragedies deserve to be more than hashtags.
"I feel like with social media, these issues turn into a fad hashtag. We're re-posting things that we do care about, but if you ask us, we don't really know what it's about," he said. "We just feel something inside of our hearts, so we feel inclined to post it. But we need to educate ourselves on the things we're posting. Don't just look at a headline and a picture and feel sad about it -- read and talk to each other and join the movement."
So where do we go from here? Smollett will keep marching for justice, and he thinks you should too.
"We have to be non-violent, but that doesn't mean we have to be peaceful," he said. "Don't be peaceful because there is no peace until there's justice, and there is no justice right now. So there is no peace. March and yell and go to the Capitol and go to Congress. Do what you have to do, just go out and do it. We have to remain vigilant, and we certainly cannot tear ourselves apart. That, we won't do."