MILLTOWN, NJ - On May 25, the 12-year-old son of borough resident and business owner Katty Velez became a victim of racism when he was playing in the Albert Avenue Park. That moment was the driving force behind the upcoming We are One demonstration on Friday, June 19 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in Borough Park.
Fellow mothers and many members of the Milltown community were outraged about what happened to Velez's son in the park that Monday afternoon. They banded together and attended previous BLM rallies in Monroe and South Brunswick. Then the Mothers and Daughters of Milltown, decided to it was time to host a protest in Milltown. Last Friday, Velez spoke about what happened to her son at the Black Lives Matter rally in East Brunswick.
"I believe the story really hits the heart of the listener because we really don't get to hear from the family or the victim before the brutalization has occurred," Velez said of sharing what happened to her son. "We often hear after the brutality that the victim was a great young man, good in school or well liked. In this case Christopher is very well known in town. People watched him play his saxophone through a good part of the coronavirus pandemic. He is well known at school and does work for members of our community. To hear that such an ugly thing happened not only in our town, but to someone the town knew and cared about really hurt a lot of people personally."
"People who don't know Christopher also relate to me as a mother," Velez continued. "They cannot imagine something so vial and disgusting happening to their child. They hurt with me and really seem to have their eyes open for the first time."
Velez is hopeful that by sharing her story at the East Brunswick rally and again tomorrow in her own town that more eyes will be opened.
"I hope they will learn to put their prejudices aside," Velez said. "To see my beautiful black son as the child he is. Not a threat to society or the good life as we know it. He is a member of our community. If people could really, for a moment, look past the color and actually engage in conversation they would see we have so much in common. More than would ever imagine."
At the June 12 rally in East Brunswick, Velez had the opportunity to meet with and speak to East Brunswick Township Mayor Brad Cohen. Cohen spoke at the rally and has been a part of two Facebook Live conversations about race relations along with the East Brunswick Human Relations Council and East Brunswick Police Chief Frank LoSacco.
"Now more than ever is a time for leadership," Velez said when asked what she took away from her meeting with the East Brunswick mayor. "I appreciated that Mayor Cohen stood in partnership with the protestors and also gave his testimony of how he grew up in white privilege, as he described it. I felt he shared a bit about how his life left him very near-sighted to how the other half, black Americans, were living. Every rally I see the light bulbs going on and I implore the listeners to take the message home to their families, friends and circle of influence. The people who need to hear the message are most likely, not in the crowd, and so we have a big job on our hands if we want to see change in our world."
Velez has received positive feedback from many Milltown residents about the upcoming borough rally on June 19. However, she also found that many residents especially the older population was under the impression that Black Lives Matter is anti-police. This left her feeling disheartened.
Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. BLM is an international human rights movement that works to end violence and systemic racism.
"I would like people to stop with the time-wasting semantics and focus on the point," Velez said when asked what she would like people to know about the Black Lives Matter movement. "Pound for pound a black life, black freedom, black safety and rights do not balance out on the scales. We need to do a better job with truly valuing all life."
"There is inequality that points to nothing else but color," Velez continued. "We cannot document every racist remark, every promotion we were not given, every job we were denied, every name we were called, but the police brutality tells a story. It's the visual evidence we have that says, hey something here is seriously not right! The videos are undeniable."
"We can argue that we don't know all the facts, but the treatment of blacks, the harassment of blacks in routine traffic stops and domestic calls, tells a story of oppression and abuse that stems all the way back to Jim Crow and of towns that were not welcoming of blacks," Velez said. "We need police departments to have zero tolerance for abuse of power and there should be consequences for this violent behavior. We can't turn a blind eye just to keep the brotherhood together. I teach my children to respect our law enforcement. We need to work harder to create a law enforcement model that we all can trust."
Velez and the Mothers and Daughters of Milltown planned Friday's peaceful We Are One protest with the cooperation of the Milltown Police Department.
"We have spoken to the event organizer and are grateful for her peaceful planning and cooperation," said Milltown Police Chief Brian Knelle. "The Milltown Police fully support peaceful and lawful gatherings and embrace the ideas and concerns that raise awareness to this important topic. I wish everyone a safe and productive event."
"We would like a peaceful protest that gives us a chance to be heard," Velez said of tomorrow's We Are One demonstration. "Many have already expressed their displeasure in the event. I hope those individuals will come and listen. They don't have to agree, but I hope they can listen and maybe walk away with a new perspective."
Masks and social distancing are required by Velez and her fellow protest organizers tomorrow. Signs are welcome as well. Friday's event will include music, guest speakers and an open microphone. Velez hopes others will share their stories as she shared hers at last week's East Brunswick Black Lives Matter demonstration.