CAMDEN, NJ — When he was 19, Javon Saint Cloud was pulled over by police in Pennsauken where he lives.
He says despite having all the necessary paperwork, he was put in handcuffs, accused of stealing a vehicle (what ultimately resulted from a clerical error) and never read his Miranda Rights.
“It was a very traumatizing experience for me,” Saint Cloud, now 28, told TAPinto Camden. “It was my first time actually dealing with the arrogance of police officers firsthand. It was one of those things that changed me.”
Saint Cloud channeled his experience through spoken word Sunday — one of multiple performances as artists gathered roughly 500 people to advocate for Black Lives Matter movement and demand justice for victims of police brutality, including George Floyd.
Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer this past Memorial Day. Other officers stood by as Derek Chauvin held his knee to Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes — prompting protests across the world.
Unsatisfied with the number of young voices heard during the George Floyd solidarity march last weekend, various artists with the help of roughly 90 volunteers came together to hold today's event under the banner: “Camden Arts for Change.”
“A lynch doesn’t just mean a rope,” Ayinde Merrill, 25, repeated into a mic at the Camden Waterfront Circle.
“Today, when I talk to my community leaders, when I talk to my political leaders, and they try to silence young people’s voices, I feel like I can’t breathe,” he said.
Some 250 people cheered Merrill on — a crowd that would double as protestors marched down Martin Luther King Blvd. to City Hall around 1 p.m.
The group was led by 20-year-old musician Sol ChYld crying out with others: “No justice, no peace! No racist, police!” “What lives matter? Black Lives Matter!” “What do we want? Justice!”
One of the signs held asked, “AM I NEXT?”
Others read, “Equal Means Same Value,” “Justice for George Floyd,” “COVID-19 Doesn’t Scare Me, Racism and Police Brutality Do.”
Merrill credited Yolanda Deaver for what she accomplished in Camden — a march that gained eyeballs across the country and was referenced by President Barack Obama in a post about making real change.
However, he felt once everyone arrived at the Camden police headquarters, younger voices were not represented as much as others.
“We didn’t like that,” he said Sunday. “So we said, let’s counter that narrative.”
This time, after performances with City Hall at its backdrop, marchers took to the police administration building on Federal Street.
A list of demands was read aloud by one of the organizers, Reet Starwind, 26, of Pennsauken.
It comprised: provide assurances to Camden residents that the Camden County Police Department will confront and eliminate racial bias, provide de-escalation and create an independent civilian police review board.
“[It’s about] understanding that they can be a presence in our neighborhoods that we trust and that we welcome, and they don't have to be people that we are afraid of, and we can be in this together,” Starwind said. “We are here together.”
He also mentioned the need to demilitarize the police force and remove officers from district schools.
Camden Police Chief Joe Wysocki and Captain Zsakhiem James took the list of demands and shook hands with the organizers.
Merrill said the department attested to already working on some of the items listed.
Shortly before the protest concluded, everyone took a knee and was encouraged to say a name. Among those shouted: George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Eric Gardner and Rodney King.
“I’ve grown up in Camden with mostly a black community and I came out to support the movement,” Veronica Oquendo, 32, a lifelong city resident of Puerto Rican-descent. “I couldn't come last week because of work so thought it was important I come today, that we all do our part."