MILLBURN, NJ — In the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis Police, the first community action in Millburn last weekend was organized with minimal prep time, and still drew a crowd of more than 100 participants.
This time, with almost a full week to prepare, the residents of Millburn Township showed up en masse to again reaffirm their commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement. A crowd of more than 1000 participants marched from Millburn High School to Taylor Park, where a rally and vigil took place.
The event was organized by a group of Millburn student leaders, including Jade Wicker, Mellisa Okoko, Ashley Bush, Carly Dinowitz, Danielle Mangabat, Gabrielle Stoller, Jason Campbell, Katie Darvin, Purnima Palawat, Ranen Miao, Sabrina Liu, Savannah Prager and Zach Berkowitz.
For Wicker, a senior at Millburn High School, who acted as the lead for most of the afternoon's events and programming, seeing the Millburn community come out in this show of support was incredible for her to witness.
"It really means a lot to me," Wicker said. "Because as someone who's lived in Millburn my whole life, I never would have thought we'd have such a great show of support, and it really shows that Millburn is a strong community, that believes in Black Lives Matter and equality for everybody."
Among the speakers who made the most impact with the crowd was Wicker's fellow organizer, Okoko. Her speech was filled with examples of her lived experience as a young black woman in town, and had the crowd responding to her story. After her speech, she said that she had kept her experiences bottled up, and spoke up now because of the venue.
"I think, a lot of times, I don't want people to feel the pain that I do, because the pain is too much to endure," Okoko said. "But I want them to hear it, so no one else can go through the same thing as I did as a child."
Okoko also said that the crowd, made up of every shade of person, was a sign of the community spirit and dream that Martin Luther King Jr. had showing through, showing in Millburn.
Other speakers at the rally included NJ-7 Congressional Representative Tom Malinowski. He spoke about the sea change he saw as an elected official regarding racism and other related topics in the past week.
"This feels different to me from past moments, when America faced this kind of problem of mistrust between law enforcement and the people they serve." Malinowski said. "I sense a turning point. It feels to me as if an overwhelming majority of people recognize that there's a problem that has to be addressed in a constructive, way, and they don't want to be silent about it, and that's why they're all here."
Malinowski also remarked to TAPinto that the student leaders of the protest rally were showing "the responsibility of every young American to take part in the political process." He noted they are upset, but in his words, they have not given up on using the best of America to fix what is wrong within it.
Another speaker was Sylvia Akwaboah, representing the Black Americans of Millburn and Short Hills (BAMS). She said that the reason she spoke was because she wanted people to hear what it is like to be a black parent in town.
"It's important for people to just realize what we as black people go through," Akwaboah said. "I don't feel like they appreciate, or see things through our lens. I don't think that any parent should have the kind of fear that I have when their children leave the house. It's a basic right to stay alive, and that's what I needed people to hear and understand."
Akwaboah also said that any concrete progress would require everyone, especially white parents and students to move forward in a unified way that would enact change. She also said that following the rally, BAMS would look to open a dialogue with police, school officials and municipal leaders in town.
The religious community also made their voices heard, as multiple clergy members came to speak. One of those religious leaders was Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz from Congregation B'Nai Jeshrun. He said that the activism he had seen in recent days was inspiring to behold
"It's funny," Gewirtz said. "My first reaction is silence, because I don't think there are enough words to make up for what's going on right now. So this is just a start. This is a town that's not known for its activism, but for the first time that I've seen, and the first time that I've lived here the 14 years, that this has crossed such a line that it's really pulling everyone out together. Maybe this is a new start, maybe this is a new rebirth, but this is just the beginning."
In addition to the numerous speakers, the Millburn Board Of Education also read a prepared statement. the text of that statement is below:
The Millburn Board of Education stands in solidarity with our community in denouncing racism of any kind. Racism has no place in our society--especially not in our schools or in our curriculum. Our work is ongoing but it is not new. Every year, in accordance with state law, the of Board of Education creates two sets of goals - district goals and board goals.
I’d like to read an excerpt from a district goal that we voted on and approved one year ago.
“...eliminate bias language and expression, and to increase the awareness of cultural diversity and global awareness in response to the growing changes in our demographics toward a more inclusive culture in our schools.”
The board of education is deeply committed to continuing our work on anti-bias and diversity in our schools. The Board’s work even started in years prior by former board members as well. We know much remains to be achieved. We are troubled by recent events and committed to doing our part in our community.”
Towards the end of the rally, organizers also instructed the crowd to remain silent for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time that Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd. After remarks from a few more speakers, the crowd dispersed.
Following the rally, Wicker spoke about how overwhelmed she was with the support of the community, and how hopeful it made her that the tide was turning on the issue of racism in America.
"It's truly amazing," Wicker said. "Even a year ago, I never would have thought something like this would take place in Millburn, but seeing this happen today gives me hope that there's going to be real change not only in Millburn, but in New Jersey and in this country as a whole."
Wicker also said that the march would not be the final action, even though nothing definitive had been planned yet.