MILLTOWN, NJ - The We Are One Rally held in Borough Park on Juneteenth is a first for Milltown, which is not a community known for its diversity. Juneteenth is a state holiday celebrated on June 19. It dates back to 1865 when Union Army General Gordon Granger made the announcement to free all slaves in Texas. The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in 1863, but was not enforced in Texas until 1865 following the conclusion of the Civil War.
Friday's rally was organized by Milltown resident and business owner Katty Velez along with the Mothers and Daughters of Milltown in response to an incident of racism that took place last month in Albert Avenue Park. Velez's 12-year-old son was told to "go back to Africa with your dirty ass self" as he sat in a tree by himself.
Christopher Velez was one of the rally's many speakers.
"That week I did not want to be black," Christopher Velez said of the impact the racist incident took on his soul.
Katty Velez and her husband are longtime residents of Milltown, which has a deep-seated history of systemic racism.
"I was never more aware of my blackness until I moved to Milltown," Katty Velez said. "Fifteen years paying taxes in Milltown and we still don't belong. How long is this going to continue?"
Velez and her fellow Milltown Mothers and Daughters organizers set up a family-friendly, peaceful event in the popular borough park that is just steps away from the Parkview Elementary School. The Parkview School is the same school Velez's then five-year-old daughter came home from in kindergarten to wash and away the color of her skin.
With a Black Lives Matter banner as a backdrop, an array of speakers talked to the 200 plus crowd about what Velez called the "elephant in the room"; systemic racism.
"I'm so glad to see all of your here today," said Milltown Mayor Trina Mehr. "From my knowledge, this makes a first for Milltown. I'm here to listen to you and learn from you. Racism has no place in Milltown."
During her short speech to the crowd, Mehr spoke of forming a Human Relations Committee in the community to help assure that all residents have a voice and are included.
"I challenge you, my fellow Milltowners to get involved," Mehr said.
"The reason why this happens is because we let this happen," said Franklin Township businessman and social activist Benjamin Guy. "The question is are we going to change anything? The work starts when you get involved. Small communities like this can make a big impact on the state. Galvanize together to make change. If you want to make Milltown great, you will take that step today."
Fellow speaker and author Renee Taylor echoed Guy's sentiments.
"We are experiencing a breakdown,"an emotional Taylor said. "This is an us problem. Us against racism. It's time for us to experience a breakdown, so we can have a breakthrough."
The majority of the crowd sat in silence as they listened to the speakers and poets, who included teacher and entrepreneur Will Charles, New Brunswick Chapter of the NAACP Executive Board member Ashton Powell and Middlesex County Freeholder Ken Armwood, while small children ran and played happily. Many held signs in the crowd that spoke of theme of the afternoon. "There Comes a Time When Silence is Betrayal" (Martin Luther King), "My Skin is not a Weapon," "Hate has no Home Here" and "Teach your Children to Love" were some messages demonstrators conveyed with their signs.
"I challenge everyone here to get educated and get involved," Powell said. "Off the computers and into the communities. Black lives matter period."
"These young people have had enough and want a different world," Armwood said of the organizers of other Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Middlesex County communities like East Brunswick, Monroe and South Brunswick.
Armwood noted that Velez and her fellow moms were the oldest organizers of recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations that he's attended in the weeks following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. The Piscataway native spoke to the crowd of the Central Park Five, the five teenagers wrongly convicted of the rape and assault of a female jogger in Central Park in 1989. Armwood wore a t-shirt with the names of the Central Park 5; Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam.
"We had a cause to take to the streets," Armwood said of the time following the wrongful conviction of the teens whose confessions were coerced by New York City Police officers. He noted that at that time demonstrations like the ones happening in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minnesota did not happen. Armwood also spoke to the misconception that the Black Lives Matter movement is anti-police.
"It's not to put down other lives," Armwood said of Black Lives Matter. "It's not about beating up police officers. We appreciate good police officers. This is about a community that wants to work with the police not be policed. We want our children to grow up in neighborhoods where they are celebrated. We are asking for justice. When someone commits a crime, they are held accountable no matter who they are."
Dante T. Muse, one of the owners of the Above Arts Studio in New Brunswick, urged the people in attendance to sign a Change.org petition to repeal and replace the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The 13th Amendment states in section one that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The petition is asking for legislature to repeal and replace the 13th Amendment so that labor laws in the United States "apply equally to all Americans including prisoners."
Christopher Velez joined a group of children ranging in ages to read some Jim Crow laws from various states around the US after the conclusion on the scheduled speakers. Jim Crow laws were in effect at the state and local levels for more than 100 years, legalizing segregation. They were finally abolished during the Civil Rights Movement in 1964.
Before opening up the microphone to members of the crowd wishing to speak, Velez asked the people to take a knee for a moment of silence. The crowd listened to an audio recording of Floyd's final moments during his fatal arrest by four Minneapolis police officers one of whom held a knee to his neck for several minutes according to published reports. All four officers have since been fired from the Minneapolis police force and face charges including second degree murder charges against Derek Chauvin. Chauvin was the officer shown in video footage kneeling on Floyd's neck. Floyd's death occurred on the same day racial slurs were hurled at Velez's son in a Milltown park.
A chalk talk drawing was made on a portion of the blacktop surrounding Milltown's Borough Park of raised fists which was the logo designed for today's We Are One rally. Children spent time during the rally coloring the drawing in with chalk. At the base of the drawing stood the words "All Lives Cannot Matter Until Black Lives Do."
Norma Jackson, an East Brunswick resident and vice-principal in the New Brunswick School District, spoke of a recent incident where her husband was refused service in a Milltown liquor store because he is black.
"There are so many wonderful things Milltown should be known for and racism isn't one of them," Jackson said.