SECAUCUS, NJ — While city residents by the hundreds spilled into the streets of Hackensack this past week mobilizing to condemn racism and police brutality and demand justice for George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, following his Memorial Day slaying by a white Minneapolis police officer, a group of paddlers set sail on the tranquil waters of the Hackensack River to “row” their support. 

On June 5, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, an independent, non-governmental advocate for the Hackensack River — a 45-mile-long body of water that flows through the New Jersey Meadowlands and empties into the Newark Bay — joined hundreds of environmental justice groups from around the globe in a “Solidarity in Surf.” The initiative was started by an empowerment surf camp in Senegal, West Africa for native girls who aspire to a career in professional surfing. In the U.S., solidarity surfing, along with other on- and in-water events, took place from New Jersey to California. 

In Secaucus last Friday, a dozen members of the staffs of the Hackensack Riverkeeper and the Laurel Hill County Park Paddling Center were met by friends, colleagues and members of the Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit championing African-American leadership in nature and conservation. The ripple effect of their purpose that afternoon was felt throughout the world. 

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Paddlers said their paddle on the serene waters that afternoon was an oasis to grieve, heal, and pay respect to George Floyd, and to the lives of other black people lost to the hands of police brutality — among them, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, and many others. To honor their lives, paddlers placed yellow roses on the outgoing tides. As the roses glistened on the shimmery water as they floated down the river, paddlers were quiet for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to observe a moment of silence for Floyd. This was the amount of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin spent kneeling down on his neck with his bodyweight during an arrest while he cried out “I Can’t Breathe!” before he eventually succumbed. Chauvin is now facing murder and manslaughter charges in the second-degree for his crime. The three other arresting officers are being charged with aiding and abetting murder.  

“Today we honor George Floyd. But our common work does not stop after we disembark from these kayaks,” said Samantha Kreisler, outreach coordinator of the Hackensack Riverkeeper. “Tomorrow is a new day. On the river and land, we will continue to fight for clean water and air and for everyone, regardless of your race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.”

The Hackensack Riverkeeper works to protect and defend the environmental quality of the eco-system of the estuary, river and watershed, as well as the quality of life for both the people and creatures that inhabit it. Among its environmental justice communities in its patrol area are Hudson County municipalities Union City, North Bergen and Jersey City; and Hackensack and Englewood in Bergen County.  

Hackensack Riverkeeper Captain Bill Sheehan, who is presently up for a seat on the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Environmental Justice Advisory Council, explained there is an age-old link between the state of the natural world and the human experience.

“We can’t just fight for clean water or to protect habitats,” said Sheehan. “We also must fight for the rights of people to access which is theirs by right — something the first people who paddled this river knew in the very fiber of their being.”

“As a woman of both Lunaape (Lenape) and African-American heritage, I felt a special understanding of this solidarity movement in this specific space and water body of nature that my ancestors honored,” said Monique Perry, an Outdoor Afro member. “Today's paddle had a deep purpose in time and location.”

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