EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - In the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many, many others by police, East Brunswick held a Black Lives Matter protest on June 12th outside the town’s municipal building. The event was organized by several East Brunswick High School students, and ran from 2 to 5 PM.
The protest was intended to be peaceful, consisting of several speeches given by local authority figures, residents, and guest speakers from other towns, along with a march around the civic center complex circling the public library and municipal building. Protesters were encouraged to bring signs. However, due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, they were also strongly encouraged to wear face masks and practice social distancing measures.
Hundreds of people, both East Brunswick residents and guests from other towns, surrounded the pagoda at 2 PM. Students, parents, and many more came to protest for justice for the victims of police brutality - including some local governmental figures. Assemblywoman Nancy J. Pinkin and former mayor William Neary were both in attendance.
The event began with several scheduled speeches, the first of which came from East Brunswick Mayor Brad Cohen. Cohen relayed his own story of working in the medical field, and the discrimination he saw there. “In medical school, when I studied demographics, almost every category of disease, outcomes were worse for black people,” he said of his studies. “Severity of disease was worse, age of outcome was worse... the mere fact that I never had to worry about that is an example of white privilege.”
While Cohen has shown support for the East Brunswick police, he chastised those who were involved in George Floyd’s murder - “The American experience still has a fault line when it comes to the treatment of the black community. That fault line has gotten wider and more obvious with the death of George Floyd, but it’s been there for a long time, and it’s happening at the hands of people who are supposed to be upholding the law.”
Other speakers included East Brunswick Human Relations Council Chair Erum Shakir, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and East Brunswick High School alumni. Several protesters also spoke during the open mic portion of the event, where attendees were allowed to say their piece on current events and share their own experiences.
“The system is not broken. It’s operating exactly how it’s supposed to,” said Williams in his speech. “We need to change that system.”
During the event, protesters also took a knee beside the unity pond to honor George Floyd and other victims of police brutality. They kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the exact amount of time that now-charged Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck before he died.
The Black Lives Matter protest was primarily organized by EBHS students Jolie Harmon, Naomi Ojemini, Angelina Josiah, and Madalena Jackson, who started planning the event about a week before it happened. Over time, more people began helping with the event’s planning, offering services such as coordinating supplies and writing speeches. For some, it was a personal stake in the issues at hand that motivated them, while for others, it was a desire to see change.
“I felt that as a daughter, sister, and as a black woman, I had to advocate so that my little brother doesn’t have to grow up in a world where he’s exposed to such unjustified hatred and where he doesn’t have to constantly watch his back,” said Josiah. “And I know many others felt the same way.”
Though the event was a major success, the organizers said that it did face some resistance while it was in the planning stages. “I’ve had people message me pictures and videos of them ripping the fliers [advertising the protest] off of the walls when they saw it, and a whole anti-protestors group was started as well,” said Ojemini. “Shutting it down and making sure there was no serious interference was difficult.”
Overall, the event’s organizers hope that it inspires change in the community and that more people will participate in activism in the future. Ojemini announced at the event that she is starting a Black Student Union at East Brunswick High School in hopes that it will encourage more black students to embrace their culture.
The march is not the end of the group’s plans, either. “Just a sneak peek, but we’re looking into organizing a festival with black vendors and black cultural things just to share the beauty of being black,” said Ojemini. “I will continue to fight and do all I can to support this movement until it doesn’t have to be a movement anymore.”