HACKENSACK, N.J. — As tens of thousands of demonstrators continued to flood major cities around the country to protest in the name of justice for George Floyd Thursday evening, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Court House in Hackensack for a peaceful rally to make their voices — and the ones of deceased victims of police brutality — heard.
"I think it's great, especially because there are so many young people involved," said Hackensack Mayor John Labrosse. "I was just speaking with some people back in my day. Most of the protests evolved around the Vietnam War, and I always had the picture of the young lady who was a solider with an M-16 rifle standing there trying to stop the protesters, and she went up and put a flower in the barrel of the gun, and it stuck in my mind since I'm a teenager. A peaceful protest is great."
Before a setting sun, a sea of protesters heard impassioned pleas from a series of speakers who are Hackensack High School alumni as they proudly held up signs reading “Black Lives Matter,” “Enough is Enough,” “End Police Brutality,” “Stop Killing Us,” and “Justice for George Floyd,” while cheering and chanting in between.
“I pray for peace, but I feel enormous rage,” said Subiya Mboya, 19, who was dressed in a lime green T-shirt that bore the words Stigma-Free. “Each time a black life is stolen, a bit of our soul breaks. A bit of our soul bleeds over the blood spilt. For what? Why is our blood being spilt? Why are our lives being taken?”
The protest was organized following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died on Memorial Day in a neighborhood outside Minneapolis, Minnesota after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt down on his neck with his bodyweight while he was down on the pavement during an arrest for nearly 9 minutes. According to footage captured by an onlooker with a smart device, less than three minutes into being pinned to the ground, Floyd is heard yelling “I Can’t Breathe!” “Please, Don’t Kill Me!” and pleaded for his mother as Chauvin continued to dig his knee into his neck until he died more than five minutes later.
Chauvin has since been charged with second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder, which prosecutors recently upgraded to second-degree murder. The three ex-officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao and Thomas Lane — who were all fired the following day — were charged with aiding and abetting murder and face a sentence of 40 years in prison. Kueng and Lane helped Chauvin restrain Floyd while Thao stood by.
When asked of his reaction to Floyd's death, Labrosse said the video speaks for itself.
"It's another wake-up call that systemic racism still exists in this country and it's a problem," said Labrosse.
In her harangue, Mboya told police officers everywhere (not just the heavy police presence at Thursday night’s rally) to use their role for good, and called out the “bad cops” while elucidating their unjust behavior.
“I address all officers in this nation when I implore you to use your position to uplift the community,” she said. “You are founded as slave watch. You are founded to rise through our communities and intimidate us into complacency. You are founded to demoralize us. You are founded to harass us and keep us in our place. No more."
While she stated she refused to view police officers as her enemy, she would respect them after it is earned.
“Your job is dangerous, but so is being black,” said Mboya. “You willingly chose to join an organization that fundamentally oppresses our people. We didn’t choose to be oppressed. Unless your everyday actions reflect ways to dismantle the oppression and uplift our community, then you are part of the problem.”
During the two-hour rally, the names of African-Americans who wrongfully died at the hands of police officers in recent years were read off. Of them was Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by Michael Slager, a white police officer, in South Carolina; Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman who was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Department officers; 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed in Cleveland, Ohio after a police officer spotted him carrying a replica toy Airsoft gun; and Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black boy who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a member of the community watch, in Florida as he was returning from a nearby convenience store. Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense, was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, but was acquitted of the charges by a jury in 2013. Hackensack’s own Elvin Diaz was also acknowledged. He was shot and killed by city police officers inside his home five years ago after allegedly brandishing a kitchen knife at police while they were carrying out a welfare check for probation.
“You must stop profiling us. You must stop harassing us,” said Mboya. “You must stop targeting us and you must STOP KILLING US! We want to be treated like human beings not caricatures. Human beings, not easy targets on a stressful day. Human beings, not punching bags. Human beings not statistics. Human beings, not hashtags. We want to be treated as human beings while we are alive, and that is only the tip of the iceberg of what we want.”
Many of the speakers noted the repetition of the wrongful deaths of the African-American community by police officers and noted the exhaustion of having to make their voices heard once again.
“You didn’t listen to us when the chains shackled around our necks were choking us,” said Mboya with increasing conviction. “You didn’t listen to us when our churches were bombed, our communities set ablaze. You didn’t listen to us when our young were castrated. You didn’t listen to us when bullets barreled through the walls of our homes. You didn’t listen to us when we were shot down for wanting a pack of Skittles and iced tea from the corner store. You didn’t listen to us when we screamed we can’t breathe. You didn’t listen to us when we were being hunted down in broad daylight for wanting some exercise. You didn’t listen to us when we called out for our mothers, our fathers, God to save us from the peril you ensured with your knee crushing our windpipes, and some of you who still didn’t try to listen to us, and the aftermath of it all when we — the survivors of the terror you started 400 years ago and counting — beg you. Enough is enough.”
She continued, “I don’t want to die for you to finally listen. But is that what it will take? You must join us in this movement to protect our freedoms while we are still here. While we are still breathing.”
She then implored officers to speak up and protect the community if they witness a fellow officer promoting hate before she joined the crowd in a chant, “Who Do You Serve? Who Do You Protect?” before answering “It should be us!”
Apart from members of the black community, speakers also included the maltreatment of black people in the trans community, namely, Iyanna Dior, a black trans woman who was beaten by a mob in Minneapolis just two days ago and at the start of Pride Month.
“I expect all of you under the sound of my voice to stand with us against hatred, against racism, against misogyny, against homophobia, against bigotry, against stigma, and love for your community and all of its members,” said Mboya.
“Since the summer of 1969, still nothing has changed,” said Eboni Singletary. “At least 26 transwomen since 2018 have been killed. And most of them were black.”
Another Hackensack High School alumna, Nastasja, spoke about the Movement for Black Lives, a space for black organizations nationwide to debate and discuss the current political conditions, among other objectives.
“The fight for racial equality can not be fought by one community alone,” she said. “The fight for racial equality will take all of us. A big part of the movement for black lives is unity, and when we unify, we become a bigger force, and have a greater chance of bringing an end to injustice and racism that this control is built on.”
Following George Floyd’s death, Brittina Bulli wrote a rhyme infusing her interpretation, feelings and opinions about the current events dating back to slavery to the present day shootings and delivered it to a roaring crowd. In one of them, she calls for putting the Black Panthers back to work because “stuff is getting worse.” In another that she wrote after Floyd’s passing, she holds out hope, addressing human rights activist and controversial black racial advocate Malcolm X and his vision.
“All we ever asked for was peace/You claim you got freedom when you know we ain’t free/… The whips turn to guns, they’ve had their fun. The chains turned to cuffs, we’ve had enough. How many more have to die before they start seeing us as human beings and not scum on the floor?…. /Let’s be the last one standing in the middle of the ring. After all this hype, Malcolm, sit tight. They double crossed us, too, many times, so we gonna fight. And let it spark till we make our X mark.”
Before the crowd of protesters branched off into a separate rally across the street, event organizer Alysia Colon encouraged attendees to continue the conversation after the day’s event by reaching out to a government official, signing Facebook petitions, donating to organizations that aid and uplift black people, confronting their own biases in their personal lives, and voting in the upcoming presidential election in November.
“Yes, we are fighting for justice to be served for the tragic loss of life, but we are also fighting to stay alive. Keep trying to change the world,” said an emotional Colon. “Because if we don’t, we will be back here again, asking the same things, and it will prove that you did not listen when we needed your solidarity the most. Change will only happen if we make it.”
A second protest will be held tomorrow in Hackensack starting at noon. Demonstrators will congregate at Municipal Lot E, 401-405 State Street, and depart at 1 p.m. to march to the Court House and back.