NUTLEY, NJ - Following George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Michael Chauvin a group of friends in Nutley gathered to discuss what they could do to be proactive. Nutley for Black Lives was the result of that conversation. Since then, numerous peaceful protests have taken place in the township.
 
Nutley residents Catherine Pezo, AnneMarie Reisch and Aria Jennings, discussed the goals of the group Nutley for Black Lives in an interview via Zoom. All three are alumnae of Nutley High School and pursuing college degrees. Pezzo graduates with a bachelor in arts degree from Montclair State University in August; Reish, a junior at Temple University, will pursue law school in 2021, and Jennings begins Ramapo College of New Jersey in the fall. Jennings works for a day care, which closed due to the pandemic. Pezo is a laid off substitute teacher for Nutley Board of Education, but is working with Pretty Handy in Nutley and has a virtual internship with the Montclair Art Museum.

Pezo said the mission at first was just to raise awareness and find people of color to follow their lead. To amplify the voices of BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) but the group has transformed into so much more.

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“It comes down to really resisting the political compliancy, which prioritized comfort over honesty in our hometown. Our advocacy emerges from the silence and denial of the entire community. The silence has permitted racial injustice in the community, as well as in the educational system, which we want to put an end to. Politeness cannot excuse the rhetoric of hate and fear that has become a commonplace and too many excuses are made,” said Pezo.

Nutley for Black Lives plans to hold conversations on race through peaceful demonstration. “We must facilitate these dialogues in our home as well as the greater community, so we can truly begin the process of reform and change for the betterment of Nutley,” Pezo said.

Pezo said the Nutley Board of Commissioners do not deny wanting change, however the group wants to see some action. Reish added, “Without action we just have empty promises.”

Reish said the BOC showed up in solidarity at the first major protest held on Sunday, June 7 in Yanticaw Park, organized by Nutley United, in which more than 1,000 people attended followed by a march led by Nutley for Black Lives.

Another protest “Rolling for Rights” led by Nutley for Black Lives on Friday, June 26, sparked an uproar in the township. The protest ended at the municipal building where police barricades and Italian Americans guarded the Christopher Columbus bust. Jennings said there was a lot of miscommunication. “When we communicated that we are there peacefully and the reason why we were ending our march at the town hall […] with the president of Unico (Lorraine Bini Kucinski) […] she didn’t reiterate what we told her,” said Jennings. Pezo added, “We found out later that she sent out an email rescinding her statement but there was nothing public.”

According to Pezo, many of the people who showed up against the June 26 protest were not Unico members. Kucinski initially sent out an email looking for defenders of the Columbus bust but did not ask Nutley for Black Lives the intention of the protest beforehand. “That was just very unnecessary because no one had asked us what was going on, and we were kind of put pressure on to release a statement that we were not even concerned about the statue,” Pezo said. Reish added, “To look at the positives we got a lot of traction from it, and way more support than hate.”

The group has no intention of taking down the Columbus statue in the future. “We support the legal takedown of the statue, someone else, not us, an individual made a petition about it. Of course, the mythology of Columbus contributes to the white washing of history in our schools, but the bust of Columbus is not our main focus,” said Pezo. Jennings added, “There are deeper issues we are trying to get resolved.”

Nutley for Black Lives has formed subgroups focusing on different issues. Reish is concentrating on education reform starting with the curriculum. She decided on education because of a racist video some Nutley High students recorded that went viral on Jan. 1, 2020 that she said the administration handled poorly. “I was disgusted by that, and I was not proud to be a Nutley High School alum,” she said.

Reish wants to change the student conduct code to protect students and teachers when they speak out against racism. “That way students, as well as teachers feel protected by speaking out against racism to their students, by facing racism by their peers, as well as including homophobia, transphobias, xenophobia in the student conduct code, because that is just something that shouldn’t be tolerated nor dealt with, with only a few days suspension,” she said.

Culinary arts teacher Tarik Huggins was Jennings' first Black teacher in her junior year in high school. Reish had a Black first grade teacher then Huggins, as well. Pezo never had a Black teacher until her junior year of college.

Jennings was hoping to learn something during Black History Month but her junior year high school teacher said she could not get to the Civil Rights Movement in February. “Black history isn’t all just Civil Rights Movement, its many people who make up Black history, to say that was very insensitive and culturally clueless,” she said.

Jennings, who graduated in June, said the school approached her on a project for Black History Month. “When they came to me it was the last week of February, so it’s an afterthought and that’s a problem […]. They say that we are important, but they don’t show it,” she said.

Jennings said the township should appreciate every cultural holiday. Jennings and Reish both just learned about Juneteenth because the Nutley school system does not teach about it. “A lot of Black people may not even hear about their own history until they get to college, because whatever the case may be they don’t seem themselves represented. We put [Martin Luther King] on a pedestal and act like that’s the epiphany of Black history,” said Pezo.

“Everyone likes to act like racism are isolated incidents that don’t represent Nutley. The problem isn’t that the video exists it’s how it was handled. Some of the things they cited during the Board of Ed meeting were student forums and a student equity team but you cannot expect, nor is it right to expect for students for being responsible for educating their peers and teachers. They need adult advocates […] obviously BIPOC advocates,” Pezo said. 

The three, although are too young to know the late John H. Walker, former Yantacaw principal personally, have heard of him and call him a legend. “I do know about Mr. Walker’s impact and that was great, but we can’t say everything is okay just because he existed,” said Pezo.

Nutley for Black Lives is also seeking to reform the police. Pezo said Nutley police might be proactive just that people are not aware of it and that some things may need tweaking such as accountability and transparency. The group realizes that some of these changes may have to come from county or state.

“We want sort of reinvestment of funds to mental health services and I think the police officers that we talked to seem to be on board with that. It’s impossible to ask police officers to wear many hats and it’s impossible to be an expert in everything,” said Pezo.

“I know the mayor has a lot of initiatives with drug and alcohol abuse but the thing that is lacking is why people turn to drugs and alcohol. It’s usually linked to some mental health issue that is not addressed. […] I think nationally there is still a big stigma with mental health, and sometimes it’s hard to see how it all connects because our culture glorifies alcohol, and drugs sometimes. I think we all know somebody who overdosed,” said Pezo.

Pezo is upset that the township cut funds to Nutley Family Service Bureau. In 2017, the township cut $65,000 in fundsing for NFSB down to $25,000. This year due to the pandemic, the township gave the non-profit organization an additional $25,000.

Jennings said schools should make mental health services available to the students, that giving students a list of referrals is not good enough. “I think that having somebody in the school to really be there for people and hear people, because some families don’t believe in going to a therapist,” she said.

“It’s considered a privilege to go to a therapist,” added Pezo.

Nutley for Black Lives is holding meetings this month and planning more events. Reish said they are receiving a lot of support and are going to talk to everyone that they can and anyone who will listen to them, including people in power in town and people in similar organizations who are willing to lend a hand.

Nutley for Black Lives currently has 30 members, and has over 500 followers on Facebook and 600 on Instagram. They are also active on Twitter. For more information on how to support the group or to join, email NutleyforBlackLives@gmail.com.

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