BAYONNE, NJ - Long before schools taught black history lessons, the story of the African Diaspora had been spread through the generations, old talking to young about their journey and their struggle to survive, slaves in the south talking about the ordeal of the ships, or the grandparents of 1960s ghetto kids talking about the Great Migration.
The lessons of black history, told in the tenement houses of Chicago or New York or in the houses of holy worship in places like Jersey City or Bayonne, told of spreading the word of struggle, and shared lessons on how they coped against a system that seemed dead set against them.
So hearing some of the elderly speaking at the Bayonne rally on behalf of George Floyd Sunday felt more like one of these old gatherings than a protest where people of color combined with people who are sympathetic kneeling in the plaza before the great stairs of Stephen Gregg Park for the 8 minutes 46 second moment of silence, depicting the time for which Floyd struggled under the boot of an arresting officer.
“I’ve been a pastor in ministry since 1999,” said Rev. Dorothy Patterson, pastor of Wallace Temple A.M.E. Zion Church in Bayonne. “I’ve been to funerals. I have seen people die. But this is the first time I saw people murdered – this man begging for his life and being murdered in front of me.”
During the moment of silence, the diverse crowd kneeled reverently, some with raised fists, some with eyes closed, nearly all carrying signs of protest or resistance, in solidarity with Floyd and others who have perished over the years as a result of conflicts with police.
Having knelt oddly, Rev. Patterson became acutely aware of just how long those minutes were and how Floyd must have suffered.
“This was so powerful I began to think of what if I had the whole weight on my neck,” she said.
The issue is larger than just one cop, and includes other officers who stood by and let it happen, even though Floyd screamed out that he could not breathe. This became symbolic, not just of one man’s prejudice, but a system of injustice.
“We later find out that there were other complaints,” she said. “Why didn’t those above this officer do something?”
The concept of institutionalized racism raises its ugly head and has become the target of activists seeking to change the system to become fairer. As with other aspects of culture, racism is learned – often passed down from generation to generation.
Rev. Patterson said one of the most encouraging things she saw at the Bayonne rally were the young Caucasian people who clearly were rejecting racism of the past, halting the ugly cycle and eventually making racism something of the past.
Many of the signs people carried said “Black Lives Matter,” the theme of a movement to help stop African Americans from dying during conflicts with the police. “When I say black lives matter, I’m not saying white lives don’t matter,” Patterson said. “White people know their lives matter even if they’ve been in the country a short time.”
While all lives matter, in America people need to be reminded that this includes black lives as well as others, not just whites. She said there are some gray areas in the conflict over racism such as in free speech and other areas protected under the U.S. Constitution, when it comes to Floyd there was no gray area.
And she said part of the tragedy is that it took Floyd’s death to bring this to national attention.
Rev. Patterson said she had witnessed institutional racism even in Bayonne and has worked hard to change it. “My intention has always been to build a better Bayonne,” she said. “This is about building a better community.”
When dealing with institutions such as the police department in Minneapolis, people need to start at the top, developing a dialogue with those in charge in order to change the culture of racism that might exist. “We also need to hold those in charge accountable,” she said.
Whether in conflicts involving individuals like Floyd or protestors, police need to be professional. “They are the ones who have the expertise,” she said. “They are the ones trained to deal with conflict, and if they weren’t, they shouldn’t be police officers.”
Rev. Patterson also took the issue to heart on a personal level. “As a mother I have one son,” she said. “That could have been my son dying in front of me.”
Bayonne resident Michael Mulcahy said there was a need for this ceremony and that many families shared in Floyd’s pain. Saying that he was one of five children, with one his sisters part African American, Mulcahy added “Bayonne has a lot of families with deep roots like that.”
A community activist, Jerome Colewell has long been an advocate for racial justice. He said this was an important moment for the community.
While this rally featured many of the same chants of outrage as many of the others held around the county, the most moving part of the Bayonne ritual came when some old people spoke about their own struggles over the years, an unofficial off to the side moment that reverberated among those who overheard it.
Two of the main organizers of the event, Paris Crawford and Malcolm Robinson, led chants and talks, using the rally as both a protest and an educational opportunity. The rally included a portion called “Black Bayonne,” featuring music and poetry with the help of the Bayonne NAACP and the Bridge Art Gallery.
Many of their faces were grim with the reality that they are possible victims in the future; many other faces just seemed sad about a broken system of justice they feel helpless to repair.
Jersey City activist Chris Gadsden who had come to witness the ritual and take part in it and to share with the hope that all such events bring people.
Nearby on a hill overlooking the site, police officers stood looking slightly uncomfortable while more police officers stood at the two main gates in and out of the park and still more sheriff's department officers waited down by the waterfront.
“Everything turned out alright,” said one of the ranking officers on the site.
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