PISCATAWAY, NJ – Nearly 100 area residents and visitors came together to stand against bigotry and prejudice at a vigil held at Perrine Park on Rivercrest Drive in Piscataway Monday night. The “Vigil against Racism and Hate” event was one of many organized in communities around New Jersey and the nation in the aftermath of last weekend’s domestic terror attack in Charlottesville, VA.
Participants held candles and flashlights through the hour-long event with some also displaying homemade signs with messages reading “Stop Racism Now,” “Silence is Complicity” and “Hate Has No Home Here.”
The vigil opened with a prayer from Elder Jerry Brooks of the Zion Hill Baptist Church who said, “We hope God will intervene on behalf of, and heal our country.” At the conclusion of his remarks he led the crowd in a recitation of the end section of the Pledge of Allegiance, with the words “We are one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” echoing through the quiet park as the sun set.
Joanne Rutherford-Pastras said she came to the rally because of how much she loves the Piscataway community, which rallied behind her husband when he suffered a stroke and a brain injury a few years ago. “We are here because of the power of Piscataway,” she said. “We believe that every single person has the right to live on this earth in peace and without fear.”
Vicar Serena Rice, of the Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, said she attended the vigil in two capacities, as an American and as a faith leader. “America is a country that stands for justice and liberty for all,” said Rice. “I want that for my country. My heart is grieved that we are ripped apart by hatred. I cannot stand by as a white American and let hatred have the loudest voice.”
Piscataway resident Staci Berger, who helped organize the event with the Central Jersey Progressive Democrats, encouraged the attendees to register to vote and to sign a petition urging Piscataway’s municipal leaders to adopt fair and welcoming policies in response to the Trump Administration’s policies affecting immigrant communities. She said she invited Mayor Brian Wahler and members of the Township Council to attend, but had not yet received response.
Mindy Walsh, another resident led a moment of silence to remember the life of Heather Heyer who was the victim of what Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said was an act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville on Saturday. Heyer was killed while peacefully protesting the presence of Nazis, KKK and other white supremacists in the streets of her hometown when a car driven by Jason Kessler plowed into a crowd, injuring at least 35 others.
Bill Irwin, president of the Piscataway Township Board of Education, spoke about the need to resist KKK, Nazis and other fascist forces “not only with words, but with action and policy, and not only nationally, but locally.”
“That is why, for starters, communities, and counties need to adopt fair and welcoming policies that make it clear that we will not voluntarily cooperate with ICE, that our resources, and our police, will not be used to further a profoundly immoral agenda,” said Irwin. “These policies are a test. The fascists are trying to find out what measure of injustice we will accept, what measure of goodness and decency we will give up when threatened with reprisal. The answer must be not one bit.”
In response to the Trump Administration’s changes to policies targeted towards immigrants, Piscataway’s Board of Education was the first in the state to adopt a resolution affirming the district’s commitment to educate all students. Last fall, the Board also adopted a policy to protect the rights of transgender students. Other municipalities in the state, including Highland Park, and Middlesex County Freeholders have since adopted similar versions of fair and welcoming policies.
However, Franklin resident Brian Lee said that there are daily raids against immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in New Brunswick which he said are terrifying residents there. He urged participants to defend DACA, an Obama-era program that allows people who were brought to the United States as children to access a pathway to citizenship.
Republican State Senate candidate Daryl Kipnis led the crowd in the NJ Interfaith Coalition’s Pledge to Stand Up for the Other, and said that “As a Jewish American, I condemn Nazism in the strongest possible terms. It has no place in our society.”
Other participants spoke about the need to defend of the rights of LGBTQ residents, immigrants, members of the Muslim community and others targeted by racism and hatred.
Koon Javaid, of Piscataway, who described herself as a hospice nurse, a Muslim and a new American citizen, said she came to say thank you to the community. “I wanted to represent our community and to say thank you to the town for standing up.”
Elena Matthews, a young Piscataway woman told the gathering that no one should be judged for where they come from. “People have died to make America what they wanted it to be, like Martin Luther King and Harriet Beecher Stowe,” said Matthews.
Piscataway resident Kamuela Tillman closed the vigil by singing “Amazing Grace” and the crowd joined her for “We Shall Overcome.”