EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - I am standing in a sea of people I haven’t seen in months, and the crowd keeps growing. I didn’t think the reunion would be like this. But I have never been more proud. From behind their masks, there is no question that I am staring into the eyes of people who have had enough. They are angry, I am angry, and rightly so. And I can’t help but wonder, looking into the eyes of my classmates, my friends, my neighbors, if these voices, these young voices, are the voices of a generation who will truly be the change. It’s a story history has seen before. But never quite like this.
“We have to hold onto this moment, to remember what we feel right now,” Jumaane D. William, Public Advocate of New York City, told the crowd at the East Brunswick Black Lives Matter protest on Friday, June 12 from his place on the steps of the municipal pond gazebo. The crowd nods. It’s the gazebo I used to watch summer concerts from, years ago. It’s next to the pond where I used to secretly feed the geese. In a few moments, it will be on the banks of this pond that hundreds of East Brunswick residents put their foot down on. The pond where my peers, my generation, says enough is enough.
“You go through the civil rights era, you go through the abolition era, you go through the Vietnam era--it's always been young people who step to the front and say this is not the world that I want to live in,” Middlesex County Freeholder Deputy Kenneth Armwood said. “And it warms me that at some point in my life I’ve been able to look out on a diverse community and see signs from people who are not black that say ‘black lives matter.’”
I look down at the sign I made last night, and back into the crowd. As a privileged, white young woman of East Brunswick, New Jersey, I have never known a life where I must fight for my place in the world because of the color of my skin. But neither have so many of the people I see in front of me. And yet, there are lines at the voter registration table and frustration in the eyes of people of every color.
I have a feeling that could truly be the difference.
Before the protest began, I asked Naomi Godwin, one of the organizers and a graduating senior of EBHS, what inspired her to rally East Brunswick residents together. She said it was the “microaggressions” in addition to the “subtle, more prominent racism in our community” that pushed her to be a part of such a change. It surprised me. East Brunswick schools have seemingly always advocated for tolerance. But I am learning that tolerance is simply not enough.
“I tolerate pain. It doesn’t mean I like it,” Freeholder Armwood said. “It means it's something I’ll endure for a temporary amount of time, and that’s what we did as adults, until these young people were brave enough to stand up and hold America to its true roots.”
The coordinators of the East Brunswick protest were all EBHS students. Godwin, in addition to Madalena Jackson, Jolie Harmon, and Angelina Josiah, helped organize the rally. It was advertised on Instagram and Facebook, and reposted by dozens of my peers throughout the week. It was my peers who spoke of the microaggressions Godwin mentioned, the racism that persists in a district that prides itself on diversity.
“I think it’s so important that EB, as diverse as it is, stands together and unifies to show our support for our neighbors and friends,” Harmon said. When I asked Harmon what someone our age could do to help other than reposting on Instagram, she said that many of her friends have had the same question. “I don’t think it matters if you’re posting or not,” she said. “Getting involved can be something as simple as signing a petition, donating $5, or reading an article. And after you read, talk about it. Debate it, question it.”
Connecting with my generation, I can see, is crucial to the Black Lives Matter Movement’s efforts. And to do so, these young advocates speak on a platform that teens pay close attention to--social media.
“When the East Brunswick football team is getting their asses kicked in the pouring rain on a Friday night, a lot of us are all out there. But where are they today, when all you have to do is open up Instagram to see another unarmed black man getting murdered in the street?” Malcolm Linnehann-Herring, an EBHS graduating senior and local advocate, said. He was addressing his classmates, the ones who didn’t show up, in a language they could understand. Instagram and Friday night lights. And it’s important, Herring said, that he do so. Because allies are needed now more than ever. According to Freeholder Armwood, their arms are open to truly everyone willing to help. Even the police.
According to Harmon, the conversation with the EBPD has been open. She felt that the department was entirely willing to discuss a protest that ensured the safety of EB residents. It was true--the roads of the municipal complex were safely closed off, the officers aiding protestors in crossing the street. They were clearly willing to help. But such treatment isn’t always the case. It certainly wasn’t for George Floyd.
“They say that there’s one bad apple, but you gotta understand, in the community, it’s not like that one bad apple walks away. That one bad apple has a 20-year career,” Freeholder Armwood said.
Not all cops were bad, Herring added, defending the police and the EBPD from his place on the gazebo after the chants and the marching were done.
“But the good cops are silent!” someone yelled from the crowd.
“Silence is compliance, in 2020,” he replied.
Herring’s message wasn’t just for the police. It was meant for everyone. But today, I remembered the sound of hundreds of voices coming together, of car horns honking in approval on Ryders Lane, of megaphones and footsteps and the rumble of change, and I knew something was different. Today, East Brunswick was anything but silent.