06/19/2012 05:31 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

Inside the March Against Stop and Frisk

If, like me, you were in the middle of last Sunday's New York City silent protest march against the police department's stop-and-frisk policies, then you know the march wasn't quite silent.

From the start there were quiet conversations going on about how many were present and what impact the march would have on New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who spent Sunday morning defending the stop-and-frisk program by speaking at a predominantly black church.

The quietness of the march did, however, define it. As thousands of people walked down Fifth Avenue, the atmosphere was closer to that of a church service than a political rally.

On Monday New York's three major newspapers put the march story on their inner pages rather than feature it, but that is only a sign of how easy it was to underestimate the diversity of those who marched.

Only one other march that I have been on, the 1965 Selma march for voting rights, compares to Sunday's. At Selma, which began with Martin Luther King aide Andrew Young organizing everyone in straight rows, there was more order than on Sunday, but what the two marches shared was the belief that at issue was a fundamental right to equal treatment under the law.

With 87 percent of the 684,300 people who were stopped by New York police last year being black or Hispanic, any claim that stop-and-frisk measures are evenly handled is virtually impossible to defend. Blacks and Hispanics make up only about half of New York's population.

According to a March Quinnipiac University poll, 59 percent of white voters approve of stop and frisk, but the makeup of Sunday's marchers reflected anything but such a racially lopsided figure. Even for New York, this was an extraordinarily integrated crowd.

Equally revealing was the age of the marchers. The crowd was not, like Occupy Wall Street, dominated by the young. It was filled with middle-aged people and families, including mothers with strollers.

The United Federation of Teachers members in blue T-shirts were easy to spot, and so were the members of Al Sharpton's National Action Network in their white T-shirts with NAN in block letters. But clearly any number of marchers had come on their own. Home-made banners (in Spanish and English), while not as striking as the glossy banners union members carried, were actually more numerous.

How many participated in the march will be debated in the coming days. The estimates start at 25,000, and that number feels right to me. It took me over two hours to cover the mile and a half from 110th Street, where the march started, to 78th Street and Fifth Avenue, where it ended.

Even had I wanted to, I could not have gone faster. There were too many people ahead of me, and no room on the sides of the march. Fifth Avenue was filled from curb to curb.

Without speeches and without political chanting, the march stopped when it got within a block of the mayor's Upper East Side apartment. Those who wanted to stay were asked to stand on the sidewalk. Many did. There was a feeling that the march had made its point with the kind of dignity most protests -- with an eye on what will make good television -- so often lack these days. At the end of the march, people simply didn't want to go back to their apartments and their private lives.

For Mayor Bloomberg, whose poll numbers have been sinking since his third term began, the march is bad news, and for Police Chief Raymond Kelly, who has been talked about as a mayoral candidate, the news is even worse.

As it showed with its self-discipline, this was the kind of crowd that takes its politics seriously -- and votes.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964.