CAMDEN, NJ — What began as an idea to gather residents in Camden for the Black Lives Matter movement has devolved into a spat between the people who run a longtime Camden non-profit and the city over how it should be done.
In July, Sescily Coney and Dr. Stephné Coney, who run the National Stop The Violence Alliance (NSVA), approached Councilman Angel Fuentes to sponsor a resolution to rename Broadway “Black Lives Matter Blvd.”
The symbolic gesture was met with praise from organizers and city administrators alike, who said the collaboration spoke volumes of the city’s inclusiveness.
But the initial idea grew to include a unity march, motorcade and large mural — placing the Coneys at odds with the city, which envisioned a smaller event.
At the time, according to spokesman Vincent Basara, the city was already floating the idea of a small-scale unveiling ceremony for the street sign. However, the Coneys say an event to celebrate the street renaming was in fact their idea.
By the end of the summer, the event evolved into the march and a giant Black Lives Matter street mural - similar to those in Washington D.C. and Charlotte, North Carolina.
According to the Coneys, a series of Zoom calls were conducted to discuss the event. Those meetings - although those present varied - included NSVA organizers, the city clerk, Mayor Frank Moran, Councilman Fuentes, and representatives from the Department of Public Works (DPW) and the Camden County Police Department (CCPD).
“During a Zoom meeting on Sept. 30, we were basically told the motorcade wasn’t going to happen, and despite our trying to talk through it, we felt blocked on every end. The mayor also brought up public safety concerns that hadn’t been brought up before then,” Stephné Coney, founder and chief executive officer of NSVA, told TAPinto Camden.
Stephné Coney said that because she felt “harassed” and “bullied” in that conversation she would no longer participate in the process.
“It was then I said I would step back. Me. Not the NSVA,” she said.
Her daughter, Sescily Coney agreed, saying that she was on the call as well and the city subsequently took it was the entire NSVA stepping back.
“She is founder and CEO. She is not the organization. We have a full board and [in addition] I was on the call too and I did not say I was no longer participating,” said Sescily Coney, who is NSVA’s president and director.
A city business administrator later denied allegations that officials had harassed or bullied Coney.
After promoting the Oct. 24 “National Black Lives Matter Unity March” for some weeks, the city on Wednesday sent the NSVA’s president a letter pointing out that while the non-profit sought sponsorship for the event it incorrectly stated in its materials a partnership with the City of Camden.
“As of September 30, 2020, NSVA'S above statement is incorrect as the founder and Chief Executive Officer of NSVA, Dr. Stephné R. Coney, during a Zoom conference call with Mayor Moran on September 30, affirmatively removed the organization from participating with the City in planning the march and city's separate ceremonial street renaming event,” Michelle Banks-Spearman writes in the letter. “The city administration continues to plan for the city's separate ceremonial street renaming event for all Camden residents to safely celebrate as it does during the normal planning for other similar events.”
In a phone call, Basara and business administrator Jason Asunción said the planned mural was not initially communicated to them. When they were informed of it, they said it would be a matter to approach the county with as the stretch of road it would be painted on is county-run.
Moreover, city officials said it did not have as large a scale event in mind as the NSVA - pointing to public safety and financial concerns.
“To bring this large of an event it needs to be planned appropriately and coordinated,” Asunción said, alluding to various permits needed too.
The city’s Oct. 14 letter said that per Camden metro police a staging area for the march on Broadway and Martin Luther King Blvd. would be “substantially problematic” due to an interference for fire trucks and emergency medical personnel traveling with patients to Cooper Hospital. It also said such an event would disrupt Walter Rand Transportation traffic and the River Line.
“Also, prior planning with and approval of NJ Transit and PATCO would have had to be obtained well in advance for an event of the magnitude envisioned by NSVA,” wrote Banks-Spearman.
In various letters with the city starting on Oct. 6, Sescily Coney - identifying herself as a pro bono attorney - asked the city to cease and desist in using NSVA as a trademark with no authorization. The letter says the idea of the unity march was conceived by the organization not the city. Two days later in a good faith gesture, according to the Coneys, Moran was invited to open the event.
Overall, Stephné Coney - who founded NSVA in 1991 - said Wednesday that she felt disrespected as an African American woman throughout the process.
“It’s hurting me, because [I'm made to believe] there’s a racial issue here in the city,” she said. Still, following the Sept. 30 meeting, she said she would be willing to rejoin the process despite feeling her organization was being undermined.
“I’ve known them for over 30 years and never in my life had we had a negative outcome like this,” Fuentes said, noting that he believed the conversation became combative chiefly because of NSVA.
The councilman also said during Tuesday’s City Council meeting that there was never a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed for the event.
The city still plans to host an event but has not released any details on whether it will take place on Oct. 24 or another date. Moran declined to comment for this report.
Kevin Barfield, president of the Camden County NAACP, said Tuesday that he was concerned about the falling out of communication between the city and NSVA organizers.
“It’s supposed to be Black Lives Matter…How can we not come together and unify and do an event together?”
The Coneys say the mural painting this Saturday and the Oct. 24 unveiling and unity march are still scheduled.
The city has not said what actions it would take if the events took place.