MONTCLAIR, NJ - Community Leaders and Police Officials gathered at Van Vleck Gardens on Thursday evening for a discussion on community policing, conflict resolution and collaboration among neighbors.
Entitled Uniform Justice – The Montclair Project, this artistic, community, and progressive policing endeavor is a continuation of a project that began in Memphis two years ago, when retaliatory violence was so high that the Department of Justice (DOJ) decided to invest in research and development through a NY based non-profit organization called Intersections International.
The event was also a continuation of a discussion sparked in 2015 where Union Congregational Church hosted the 2015 staged reading of the play Uniform Justice. This reading sparked a community conversation about policing practices in Montclair.
Farid Johnson, who works with Intersections, guided Thursday evening’s discussion.
Johnson described the initiative as a multi-faith, multicultural initiative aimed to engage people in conversations in areas where they find themselves in conflict. It hopes to foster people discovering commonalities, such that interactions begin to happen more and more with a sense of “humanity, integrity, honor and dignity.”
During Thursday's discussion, Intersections ultimately provided training on conflict analysis and how to transform conflict prior to escalation and they were involved in facilitating the original production of a play titled Uniform Justice.
The title came as a result of how people sometimes see police uniforms as frightening or intimidating. A series of inside conversations in Memphis ran with that recurring theme. The resulting theatrical production was a depiction of the voices of the people of Memphis Tennessee. A documentary being worked on in Montclair also aims to get as many people involved and foster as many discussions as possible to bridge any divide.
On the heels of Montclair’s Future Forum where the word diversity was substituted for inclusion, the running tag line during the evening was Moving Montclair from diverse and divided to unique and united.
The training approach used is called Insight Training. Community Policing Commander, Acting Lt. Tyrone Williams, Mayor Jackson and the Township Council have been receptive to learning these methods. In fact 10 officers in Montclair have already been trained. But it is not a one-way street or a one-time training.
The focus of the evening was on an ongoing process that must be inclusive of community and Law Enforcement Officials. Acting Lt. Williams said he aims to have those who were trained become trainers, and to also get community training.
He acknowledged that it boils down to dollars and cents. He indicated that part of the challenge is dealing with the hot topic of the day, be it gangs, homeland security, or intelligence, officers are always being trained- however, there needs to be simultaneous community involvement and ongoing training.
An upcoming event resulting from a partnership with between Montclair Township and Intersections International will be Collaborative Canvas on May 21 from 11 a.m. - 2p.m. on Pine Street where folks are invited to bring an object from their home or community to be part of a sharing table, or a vegetable or flowering plant as part of a community pot. The idea is to use visual arts, music, movement and food for uptown and downtown residents to come together continuing to move toward making Montclair one cohesive town.
Councilwoman Dr. Renee Baskerville was in the audience and chimed in, “When you were talking about people you’ve been able to engage in dialogue, you mentioned Pine and Mission Street, historically lower socio-economic areas. Are you equally interested in going to the opposite end of socio-economics?”
Johnson answered that they are absolutely hoping to include everyone. The notion of funds being needed and possibly more easily garnered in some neighborhoods was brought up. The councilwoman once again interjected, that beyond seeking funds, she was referring to breaking down perceptions, helping people on all sides of town to foster cooperation.
Johnson spoke of Dr. James Price, Professor at George Mason University’s conflict resolution department, who was the first person to hear that the DOJ wanted to do some work around the spike of retaliatory violence.
For Memphis in particular, they did research and development and realized there was a sense of mistrust and sometimes misconceptions on the part of the community. Johnson said, “Just as an officer needs to see the humanity in a person running down the street, likewise people need to see the humanity in the officer getting out of his car.”
Johnson sat down with Tap into Montclair to lay out the plan. He said that the project has done two things in Montclair, “Improve and enrich the relationship between the police department and the community, and reach the overarching goal to enrich the overall relationship between the 4 wards of Montclair, for an even richer sense of respect, involvement, and connection from community to community.”
This is the first Northeastern project that this social justice organization working in the area of improving community/police relationships has led.
On the same day the Collaborative Canvas takes place there will also be an event at Glenfield School in the evening (May 21 at 7:30 p.m.). It is A Staged Reading of Dream on Church Street, an original play by Chuk Obasi.
Local resident Roxanne Kent became involved in this last year. She was invited to see the play in New York City and upon viewing it, realized it was an amazing opportunity to bring this project to Montclair. She realized that Montclair is diverse but divided, and saw this as a way to draw attention to the issue, and focus on a resolution. But she couldn’t do it alone.
She first went to the police department insisting a police officer join her to see the play. After considerable insistence she finally convinced Montclair’s Acting Lt. Williams to go with her and both of them became spellbound.
Kent is the project manager of this endeavor for the town, whereas Johnson, also a Montclair resident, manages the project from the Intersections Office on 28th street in Manhattan.
Steve Harms, in the audience, was excited about the project. He said it is a huge challenge to change behavior and warned that you can’t train once, and that you must start with the leadership. Harms said, “Seeing talent and commitment is an opportunity that we should never let go by.” Additionally he warned, “However it will die if we do not drive by talent and finance.”
An audience member offered that there are volunteers in town willing to help. She said they had spearheaded an effort to have children make get well cards on mother’s day that were disseminated all over town. On father’s day letters will be sent to police officers and firemen, who, she said, “are surrogate fathers to all of us; they protect us.” She encouraged the group to utilize volunteers.
Intersections was described as a social justice program that focuses on working toward global peace. They aim to dispel many of the myths people spend their lives believing about each other. They are deeply involved in LGBTQ rights, informing the veteran/civilian experience, and more. Johnson said, “In many instances the longest distance traveled is between head and heart.” and he shared ways in which the arts and humanities are a universal language. To prove his point, he finished his sentence in song.
In a cautionary tone, Johnson said Williams had once famously said that every city in America is one incident away from being a Ferguson, but Williams summed it up on a very positive note. Williams said, “We’re giving birth to something wonderful that should outlive us all!”
Kent wished to thank all the supporters and said, “We have received funding from the township for the training of the 10 officers. We also received grants/gifts for development of arts initiatives, community dialogues and workshops within the schools from the Montclair Foundation and the Montclair Fund for Women, and Union Congregational Church.
We have received significant support in terms of granting us use of their facilities from the Montclair Art Museum and Montclair State University. The latter also providing use their invaluable support of their stage crew for a production of the original play, "Uniform Justice" last fall.
Glenfield School is and Union Congregational Church are also granting use of their space and technical support for the upcoming staged readings. The Montclair Film Festival provided a screening of one of their own films on children's views of how the world can change for one of our community gatherings at the museum.”
May 21, 11:00-2:00 Pine Street Near Bay St. station
May 21, 7:30 p.m. Glenfield School
June 10 &11, 7:30 p.m. Union Congregational Church