FRANKLIN – A woman in a bright green shirt and a straw hat paused from sweeping her driveway as a group of people came up Lewis Street.
“Happy Juneteenth,” they called to her.
A big smiled broke across her face as she cast the broom aside to wave back.
Saturday’s rally had a decidedly different feel than some of those that moved through these streets and other municipalities since George Floyd died after being pinned to the ground by a white police officer for about 8 minutes, 46 seconds on May 25.
“I wanted to make it positive,” said event organizer Jasmin Bonner. “I didn’t want to focus on George Floyd’s case, Breonna Taylor’s case, even though they are very important cases and we don’t want to shy away from them.
“I wanted to bring some celebration for us,” she continued. “We’re out here, we’re doing the work, we’re asking for changes on a constant basis. And, here we are on Independence Day. So, I wanted to just bring some fun, some music, some dancing, some talk all today.”
The rally started at Naaman Williams Park and made its way through the surrounding residential streets.
There were call-and-response chants of “No justice, no peace” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
Some held aloft repurposed Amazon boxes emblazoned with messages such as “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe.”
And they waved to each person they came across during their hour-long walk from Hamilton Avenue to Baire Avenue to Lewis Street to Franklin Boulevard to Fuller Street to Parkside Street to Matilda Street.
Juneteenth is celebrated each June 19 and commemorates the day in 1865 that Union Major General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and told slaves of their emancipation, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
READ: What is Juneteenth?
In the wake of Floyd’s death, Juneteenth has taken on added significance because it stands as a kind of reminder of the road African Americans have traveled and that there is still a long way to go.
“It’s important to not only continue to push for justice and push against injustice,” said one woman, “But to take this as an opportunity to take inventory of those victories we have won – voting, educational opportunities, fairness in housing. We need to recognize that our hard work as a people made those things possible.”
Saturday’s event was also a celebration of the younger activists in the community. Several children marched alongside their moms and dads.
Activist Tormel Pittman paid tribute to the kids when he launched the event Saturday, saying “the young people have gotten us in position – let me repeat that – the young people have gotten us in a position where we can really make some moves and some changes.”
Pittman also noted that there have been many white people at the rallies he has organized or led, from New Brunswick to Phillipsburg.
Apparently, Asian, too. Councilman Ram Anbarasan walked with the group through the township streets. He said a parallel could be made between the black experience in America and the racism many encounter in his native India.
“The blacks in this country have long suffered from slavery yesterday to systemic racism today,” he said. “It’s important to recognize the freedom they have on June 19th and we want to show our support to the community in town. As an immigrant, I come from Indian, where the caste system is prevalent, and racism is as bad.”
The march also had the support of the Franklin Township Police Department.
“The men and women of the Franklin Township Police Department take pride in the relationship they have with the community," Franklin’s public safety director Quovella Spruill said in a statement. "We fully support their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. My command staff and I will continue to ensure that our officers are held to the highest standards and continue to serve the community with honor and respect. We look forward to engaging with them.”
Director Freeholder Shanel Robinson, Councilwoman At-Large Crystal Pruitt, Councilman Carl Wright, Township Prosecutor and Chairwoman of the Somerset Country Democratic Committee Black Caucus Tina Jalloh, and Democratic Chairman Ron Jordan were also in attendance.
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