NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – “It’s July 4th,” the speaker said to those assembled across Monument Park, “but is it really Independence Day for all?”
Her question cut straight to the heart of Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration.
About 300 people attended the event that brought together city residents, Rutgers students, Blacks, Whites, members of the LGBTQ community and others to celebrate freedoms won through struggle and those still in the balance.
Although Juneteenth is observed on June 19 – the day in 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, were told of their freedom two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation – hosting the program on Independence Day created an especially poignant and thoughtful flow of ideas and ideals.
The afternoon of music, spoken word performances and speeches was presented by the United Black Council at Rutgers and organized by Keith Jones II, the chief of staff in Mayor Jim Cahill’s office.
Middlesex County Freeholder Kenneth Armwood gave an impassioned speech and Rutgers professor Bill Davis led a libation – a ceremonial pouring off of water meant to pay homage to Black ancestors.
The names Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and James Arthur Baldwin were invoked, misrepresentation of Black people in popular culture was called out, gun violence was condemned and the need to root out systemic racism wherever it lurks was repeated.
One of those hard-fought freedoms, the right to vote, was a recurring theme throughout the program with election day coming Tuesday.
“Our power is in our vote,” Jones said. “So we start there. If you don’t like the elected officials that you have, vote them out or you put up people you want to be in office that speak to what you need. And then if the person is doing what you’re asking, you like that elected official, you like that government official, support that government office. Don’t just say, ‘Yeah, all right, we’ll see you in two years, four years.’”
The event focused more on creating unity and focusing on actionable steps to bring about more freedoms than the raw feelings that have marked several events since George Floyd’s death after he was pinned to the ground under a police officer’s knee for 8 minutes, 46 seconds on May 25.
However, one man who addressed the crowd directed angry words toward Jones.
“You have been in this position for a year,” he said. “You have direct control of what the (bleep) happens in this city. Why the (bleep) have we gone through a year of you being chief of staff and you want to keep telling these people we have to do better when you have the power to make Mayor Cahill do better?”
The event climaxed with a march, with the words “Black lives matter” and "No justice, no peace" echoing through the New Brunswick streets.
When the march concluded where it began – at the intersection of George Street and Livingston Avenue – several of those in attendance used duct tape to affix their signs to the statue of Col. John A. Neilson.
Neilson stood outside a tavern on Albany Street atop a table and read the Declaration of Independence to the townspeople on July 9, 1776. It was the third public reading of the Declaration of Independence.
The statue was unveiled in 2017 and is adorned with the names of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.