MONTCLAIR, NJ - Intimidation. Racism. Fearful. These are words used by Montclair parents to describe how they felt and why they believe the police were called to intimidate them from speaking up during a recent Montclair Board meeting.
Tension hung in the atmosphere all evening during the Wednesday, February 19 Montclair Board of Education meeting. The topic of race and racism began weaving its way throughout the entire evening's agenda and eventually exploded because of an action pre-planned by the Board of Education to bring the police to the meeting.
Now, for the first time since the meeting, the Interim Superintendent and officer were both asked to respond to allegations of racism for having police officers at the meeting for the first time, possibly in Montclair's history.
Was it to intimidate black speakers, as parents allege?
Both the Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker and the officer present at the meeting, were offered an opportunity to make a statement, yet both of them declined.
According to several parents and others interviewed for this article, this is the first time a uniformed police officer attended a Board meeting, ever. At least in the last 15 or more years, they state. This statement has not been confirmed. Request for information has been placed with Chief Todd Conforti. When he responds, the article will be updated.
Residents maintain that police have never been involved, not even when there were nearly 200 passionate residents in attendance protesting PARCC nor when there was public outcry when the Board was being accused of filing a FOIA request on activists protesting PARCC testing.
Kellia Sweatt, who has been attending the BOE meetings for over 15 years, stated, “This is the first time a uniformed police officer has ever attended a meeting, and was working.”
Khayreedah Elu DeFreece, a community activist and parent, has been attending these meetings for over five years. She also does not recall ever seeing a uniformed police officer at the meetings.
"'Cause they can’t get our mouths to shut up, so they bring in this excessive force. We didn’t have any guns or night sticks or anything to protect ourselves. All I had was a notebook and a pen. Most of us that come out to speak up for our children are women. So it is definitely an intimidation tactic to send an armed man to come and intimidate us women because it may feel impossible to protect ourselves against him," DeFreece said of the encounter.
Neither has Sienna Robinson, another parent who attended the February 19 meeting. She has been attending meetings for over two years.
Though the verbal agenda of the evening centered around working to erase racism and bring the community together, to the community, the actions of the Board indicated otherwise.
Sweatt, who is President of the National Independent Black Parent Association (NIBPA) approached the podium, as she has done during many prior Montclair Board of Education (BOE) meetings. She was there to continue to call for the resignation or termination of Parker after he was alleged to have made statements regarding employment of racist teachers.
This has been the stance of the NIBPA for the past months since hearing of Parker's commentary regarding racist teachers. The NIBPA maintains that their mission is for zero tolerance of racism toward children of African descent in the Montclair School District.
Consequently, they have come out in full force to the BOE meetings to make their mission a reality ever since the speech given by Parker in an October NAACP meeting where he is alleged to have stated, “I know this will be controversial, but I do not care if a teacher is racist, so long as it doesn’t interrupt the instruction,” was brought to their attention.
When asked why they think the Board of Education hired an armed police officer to act as a security guard at this particular meeting, Sweatt stated, “More and more black parents, concerned citizens and activists are showing up for these meetings because of the blatant racism that goes on in our educational system."
DeFreece stated that she felt it is a tactic to intimidate black parents from, “Coming to the meetings and speaking up against racism."
"This particular Board is creating additional barriers. Racism is about the denial of access and I think this speaks to the clear demonstration of their perpetual systematic forms of racism. This board does not feel very welcoming to African-American people and other people, as well. Having a police presence shows us that they do not want us here and they want to criminalize anyone who speaks out against racial policies,” Sweatt added.
As Sweatt was giving her speech at the meeting, the announcer announced that she has 30 seconds remaining. All public speakers are given 3 minutes to stand at the podium.
Sweatt then stated, “I am not finished yet. I will let you know when I am done.”
When she reached the 3-minute mark, the speaker who was assigned to speak next, stated that he would give his 3-minutes to Sweatt so that she may continue. Eve Robinson, President of the Board of Education, stated that forwarding minutes was not allowed.
As Sweatt was leaving the podium, Officer Pierre Falaise, an armed, uniformed Montclair Police Officer, hired by the BOE that night to act as a security guard for the meeting, walked up to the podium to enforce the request that she leave the podium immediately. He then followed behind her as she returned to her seat and even spoke to her after she was seated. During the evening, he was positioned near the area where her group was seated.
The audience exploded--questioning the board on whether or not this was an act of racism--having a police officer present at the meeting. Many expressed outrage stating that his presence and actions, were that of intimidation.
"You never know how it will go when police are called to the scene. I was fearful for Kellia. It was a stressful situation,” DeFreece added.
They alleged that this was an example of white people calling the police on black people for conducting everyday activities such as attending a Board of Education meeting to protect and look out for their children.
According to the New York Times article, May 11, 2018, by Victor, Daniel, entitled, “When White People Call the Police on Black People.” The author indicates, “50% of African-Americans surveyed by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chal School of Public Health said they had personally experienced racial discrimination in police interactions."
Ironically, before the police officer approached Sweatt, the meeting was a very peaceful, almost celebratory--one where teachers, parents, and organization leaders one-by-one took center stage to praise the Restorative Justice Initiative Program that is being implemented in the district and heavily promoted by those involved to make sure it remains in the budget.
The purpose of the Restorative Justice Initiative Program is designed to teach effective conflict resolution where mediation and agreements are used more so than discipline, police and punishment. Another topic on the subject of racism that evening was the School-to-Prison pipeline discussion where an alarming amount of students of color are being criminalized by the school system. The speaker discussed ways to help elevate such programs in order to help with the racial tension increasingly present in the school districts and in the community.
DeFreece added, "We [the NIBPA] may speak loudly because we are passionate about our stance on zero tolerance when it comes to racism towards children of color. We may speak loudly only because we never get any response from the BOE, we feel they obviously can’t hear us. We have never threatened anyone and feel that the police security is an excessive response to free speech. They [the BOE] have never acknowledged any of our concerns. They totally ignore us and never respond to our request or statements.”
Sweatt stated that when she turned around and saw that the police officer, armed with a firearm, was standing behind her, she was “...surprised, alarmed and felt both threatened and disgusted at the act of trying to criminalize me at the podium and then following me around and watching my every move.”
DeFreece said when she saw the police in the meeting, she “...felt threatened by that. Especially growing up where black people are continuously terrorized by the police in our community. Where white people call the cops on us for the slightest thing because they understand how the police may kill us for no reason. It is a threat and it is definitely an intimidation technique created by the Board to pretty much just shut us up."
“Immediately I felt fearful,” states Robinson.
When asked how it made her feel when the police approached Sweatt, she said, ” You never know how these types of things can turn out. You never know what the reaction from the police may be. It is always stressful and fearful when you see a police officer approach a black woman, or any woman, cause you never know how these things may turn out.”
When asked if they had ever witnessed any situation where a BOE member was threatened or had to be escorted to their car for fear of retaliation, none of the parents have ever witnessed any such situation. None of the parents recall ever hearing any violent or threatening statements made towards any board members and do not recall any situation where board members had to be escorted out to their cars.
During the February 5, 2020, BOE Meeting, the Board of Education introduced another barrier for the parents whereas parents were asked to state their names and addresses on the microphone before speaking.
These parents felt this was another tactic or barrier to intimate black parents because a lot of people are skeptical of putting their information on record. Mostly because members of the community who may not agree with them may show up at their homes, and/or their children may be retaliated against if their beliefs are different from others, and/or police may begin to harass them.
“We have justifiable reasons for showing up at these meetings and letting them know our stance against racism” says Sienna Robinson.
“It is very hard to be calm when you are discussing racism and especially racism geared towards children. Perhaps the BOE believes that having police officers present at the meeting will make it more calm. But when you are passionate about something it is hard to be calm,” she added.
Sweatt summed it up by saying, “In recent days, under the leadership of Nathan Parker, and under the leadership of the current board, they have represented the epitome of black oppression. Rules have changed. New and additional barriers have been incorporated. Disregard and disrespect to speakers have been shown regularly. Removal of structural protective factors for our children has taken place. And the environment has definitely been hostile."
She continued, "The only thing people have witnessed the NIBPA doing at the board meetings is resisting racism. Nothing we have ever done should have required a police officer to be present, unless your intention is to intimate black parents from showing up at these meetings.”
Parents are now asking if the Montclair Board of Education is trying to create intimidation tactics and initiate barriers that may discourage black parents and the black community from attending the Board of Education meetings.
Here is a link to the video of the Feb 19 Board meeting. Sweatt begins speaking at about 2:31:15. After Sweat concludes, the officer proceeds to follow Sweatt back to her seat and begins speaking with her as she's seated (off-camera).
NOTE: While Dr. Parker spoke at length to the reporter, he maintained that it was off-the-record and declined to comment on the reasoning for inviting an officer to the meeting. Instead, he wanted to clarify that he believes his alleged statements made during the Montclair NAACP meeting, that has sparked outrage, have been misunderstood. He would not elaborate further.