NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Tormel Pittman stood in the middle of a field with his speaker slung over his shoulder and called to the hundreds of people around him to come together on Sunday.
“Are you ready to make a change?” he beckoned. “Are you ready to make a difference? Are you ready to make history?”
Pittman is seizing this chance to help make history, becoming the impassioned voice of the moment and the movement against racism and injustice.
He has led and/or organized protests like this one in Roselle on Sunday, as well as others in Somerville, Phillipsburg and South Brunswick. He’s even had to turn down offers to lead other marches because he has yelled himself hoarse.
In his hometown of New Brunswick a few weeks ago, he led more than 300 people down Paul Robeson Boulevard, across George Street and up Albany Street.
“I want people to know you can get out and that’s why I get out,” Pittman said. “That’s why I get out as much as possible because I don’t want people to think, ‘Well, all right, I did one demonstration and it’s over.’ Meanwhile, Tormel is here, here, here and here. So, I know I can get out more than I planned to. So, I guess I’m trying to stay active and inspire others.”
Protestors have taken to the streets of cities here and across the United States in the wake of the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. Floyd, a black man, was pinned to the ground underneath the knee of a white police officer for 8 minutes, 46 seconds.
Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and three other police officers are facing charges.
It has been a painful reminder of the deaths of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and others for the thousands of protestors who have poured into the streets in cities from Philadelphia to Phoenix, from New York to New Orleans to restate that Black Lives Matter.
Pittman invokes the names Garner, Brown, Martin and others, and it’s part of the way that he creates protests that are part history lessons, part social commentary, part peaceful pleas.
“I always look at the person who’s never been to a demonstration before and their first demonstration is one that Tormel Pittman is at,” he said. “They either expect things to get torn down, windows broken, looting. Or, people just walk through the streets very fast with no real purpose. So, I try to come in the middle of that.”
The activist, advocate and humanitarian in Pittman emerged when Barry Deloatch, an unarmed security guard at New Brunswick High School, was shot twice and killed by police in 2011.
Pittman went to Radio Shack to buy a bullhorn and the plan was for him to hand it off to the rally leaders while he collected signatures on a petition in front of City Hall.
As the protest proceeded through the New Brunswick streets, the bullhorn was passed from person to person. Somehow, it arrived in Pittman's hands.
“So, I yelled a little, did my little piece or whatever,” he said. “It kept coming back to me. So then they were at the point like, ‘Listen, we just want you to keep.’ So, I kept it for the rest of the walk.”
Pittman had literally found his voice, and he used it to lead the protest the next day.
In fact, he’s been denouncing police brutality, speaking out against gun violence and trying to change New Brunswick and places beyond ever since.
Pittman hopes this is a moment where the protests and rallies change hearts and minds, policies and systems.
Only then can he put his microphone and speaker away and settle back in his home with his wife, Di Shonay, and their three children, ages 20, 17 and 12. He would like nothing more than to spend a few weekends relaxing after a hard week repairing trains for Kinkisharyo, a railcar design and manufacturing corporation.
Until then, he will be the impassioned, if not sometimes hoarse, voice at the front of the protests from Newark to North Brunswick.
“I’m so passionate because I’m like, ‘Maybe if I give it my all, this will be the last time we’ll be out on the streets for this reason,” Pittman said. “That’s where I draw my energy from, trying to make sure this is the last time.”