SOMERSET, NJ - At the heels of Sunday’s peaceful demonstration, more than 500 Franklin Township community members mobilized in ninety-degree heat to carry out the second local protest to memorialize the life of George Floyd and condemn police brutality.
George Floyd was murdered by white Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25th after Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Thursday was Floyd’s funeral.
The protest was organized by FHS Class of 2016 alum Jordan Browne in just four days to “show that young people have a voice as well”.
“Most of the time, you see people speaking at an older age, so I took the initiative to plan and organize this protest so I can let people know that we have a voice and our voice must be heard,” Browne, 22, said.
In the days leading up to the event, Browne coordinated with the Franklin Township Police Department to approve the protest and ensure that proper security and traffic measures could be put in place to maintain the safety and well-being of all protestors.
“The intention of today is to show the police of Franklin Township that we can be as one,” Browne said. “A lot of times, a lot of people think that the police are the bad people, but the Franklin Township police are really respectable and they respect the residents. I just want to show them that we can come together as one, even during dark times.”
Hundreds of protestors gathered around the basketball court, reconnecting with old friends, neighbors, colleagues and teammates. Beneath the Middlebush Park pavilion, volunteers offered water bottles to protestors as well as free hand sanitizer, masks, and snacks. Colorful chalk was distributed to attendees, who began writing the words of chants and phrases of solidarity on the court. Franklin Township Human Rights Commission member John Tibbs encouraged attendees to register to vote and offered voter registration forms.
The diversity of Franklin was represented in the turn out that included residents young and old, educators and administrators, community and religious leaders, and members of the Franklin Township and Somerset County Sheriff's office.
The Franklin Township School District made a significant show of support to their students and the community-at-large. Protest attendees included Superintendent John Ravally, Assistant Superintendent Dan Loughran, Coordinator of Policy, Communications and Regulations Mary Clark, FHS Principal Frank Chmiel, FHS Vice Principal Rebekah Solomon, FHS Vice Principal Louis Solomon, FMS Principal Nick Solomon, SGS Vice Principal Daryn Plummer, Supervisor of Technology Edward Ward, Franklin Park Principal Purvi Shah, Franklin Park Vice Principal Nikkii Tatum, and Supervisor of Elementary English David Heras.
“The children of Franklin Township have a great stake in everything that's happening in the world today, and they allowed their voice to be heard today,” FHS Vice Principal Rebekah Solomon said. “They requested the support of the administration at Franklin High School and the district and we showed up today to support them.”
Many of Franklin’s retired district teachers were also in attendance.
“I’m 73 years old, and for more than 50 years, we have been fighting this battle,” Myra Mitchell, retired Franklin educator and coach and active member of the Warrior 4 Life Foundation, said. “It is a wonderful thing to be able to be here amongst this diverse group of young people leading the charge because they’re going to make the difference that my generation could not make.”
Religious leaders like Reverend George H. Montanari of Middlebush Reformed Church and his family also joined the community at Middlebush Park to march.
“I feel the heartache of so much of our community at large, our neighbors who are people of color who just feel the brokenness of the loss of Mr. Floyd and all that represents,” Rev. Montanari said. “We just want to stand in solidarity and in support for peace, for justice, for the torn hearts and the torn fabric of our society to be resewn together.”
Before the march began, Browne gathered the protestors together to speak out on the systematic inequalities experienced by the black community and express the dire need for change. He also established the ground rule that the protest was a place for voice and a place for peace, but not a place for violence.
“We all have problems in this world that we want to get solved, but you guys holding it in and not letting people know about it or giving it a voice, it’s not going to get done,” Browne told the crowd. “It starts somewhere, why not in Franklin?”
Just after 3pm, the protestors – led by Browne – proceeded down the driveway of Middlebush Park before turning onto the sidewalk of Demott Lane. Cars honked and chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe!” echoed throughout the crowd as they poured into the Franklin Township municipal complex.
As they arrived before the Franklin Township Police Headquarters, sweat-drenched protestors held their signs in the air and cried out in alternating, passionate chants.
Browne soon invited the crowd to take a knee and raise a fist for a total of nine minutes, the approximate time that Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd. In complete opposition of the fiery chants just moments before, a hushed silence wiped over the crowd.
During this silent memorialization of Floyd’s life, a subset of the crowd began demanding that the police officers in attendance kneel alongside the crowd; however, they remained standing. Police Director Quovella M. Spruill made a public statement after the protest addressing this choice.
“We recognize and stand with you to correct the issues that plague our Nation,” Spriull, Franklin’s first female African-American Police Director, said. “Colin Kaepernick would kneel during the National Anthem in an effort to shine a light on these injustices. In Minneapolis, a uniformed officer kneeling was the act of murder. That is not who we are, and for that reason, our officers stood in silence and solidarity with the community against the killing of unarmed black people.”
While the crowd continued to hold their fists high, protestor Alyssa Burrell quietly helped individuals register to vote.
“At a lot of these protests and rallies that I've been going to, it has been mostly young people,” Burrell, armed with New Jersey voter registration applications, said. “It's been mostly people in high school fresh out of high school people are newly eighteen, and I think they need to know the importance of voting and that their vote counts.”
At the conclusion of the nine-minute memorial, the protest broke into a series of speeches and calls to action from community leaders and from protestors themselves.
René Edghill-Smith, Educational Advocacy Committee of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, called upon protestors to demand proper implementation of the Amistad Law in New Jersey’s curriculums, while Police Director Quovella Spruill insisted that those in attendance get and stay involved in their local community meetings and committees to ensure that change is made beyond the day of the protest.
Local residents Adalia Torres, Seyi Aladejob, Justin Richardson, Chris Anderson, and Olewole ‘Wole’ Osuntuyi, among others, addressed the crowd about police reform, the support of black-owned businesses and mental health in the black community, as well as the importance of listening to the lived experiences of people of color in our community.
“White people, your black friends are watching you right now, and non-white colored people, your black friends are watching you right now,” Torres said. “Listen to black people when they say they are hurting. Listen when we say Black Lives Matter, because this is not for us. This is for y’all.”
Several protestors were treated by East Millstone First Aid Squad for heat related issues, but otherwise the event concluded without incident.
“It was good to see a peaceful protest,” Somerset County Sheriff Darren Russo, who attended the protest, said. “It was well maintained and well-ordered ... and peaceful is always where you want to go.”
To FHS Principal Frank Chmiel, the protest was a true example of Warrior Pride.
“I was extremely proud of my students today because they weren't standing on the sidelines of history, they were a part of history,” said Chmiel, who attended the march and later posted a public statement about the murder of George Floyd on Youtube. “They took what they learned in a classroom, and they applied it. They took a stand. And as I looked around the crowd, I saw so many current Franklin High school students, alumni, recent alumni, and I was just honored to be the principal of a school like that.”
The Franklin Township Council was proud of the day’s events as well.
“Young and old, black, white, and brown, they all came together in Franklin to exercise their First Amendment right,” Councilman Sivaraman “Ram” Anbarasan, who marched in solidarity, said. “They came to peacefully express their grievances and demanded justice and equality. How many George Floyd and Breonna Taylor incidents is it going to take for the nation to purge systemic racial discrimination and make effective reform to the criminal justice system? As local leaders, it is our responsibility to affect changes to level the playing field for all. The fight for equality must continue.”
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