BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - When Rheaa Cordillo posted on the Berkeley Heights Community Forum to inquire of interest in a March for Black Lives in Berkeley Heights, she couldn't have expected in her wildest dreams that 2,000 people would turnout to Sunday's march in support of this movement in Berkeley Heights.
Within 48 hours of her Facebook post, the event was set. Cordillo was in touch with Mayor Angie Devanney, who then coordinated the conversations with the Berkeley Heights Police Department and with the Berkeley Heights Diversity Council to work out the logistics. Cordillo and her fiancé Manny Alexandre planned the program along with Gov. Livingston graduates Kenedi Facey, Tara Prabhu, Mikayla Sanchez and Noah Brogden.
About 2,000 people gathered at the new YMCA on Locust Avenue on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and peacefully walked with their signs with messages of "Black Lives Matter", "41 Shots Killed in American Skin", "George Floyd -- Say Their Names", "Silence is Betrayal", "I Can't Breathe", "Enough is Enough." The original plan to walk 2.1 miles to Memorial Park switched to Columbia Middle School to accommodate the size of the crowd.
When they arrived to Columbia, the marchers listened to a program of speakers that enlightened the sea of people of what it was like to be a black person growing up in Berkeley Heights and that black lives do matter.
The crowd took a knee and stayed silent with an arm in the air for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Officer Derek Chauvin kept a knee pressed on the back of George Floyd's neck. A memory that will forever linger and serve as a reminder to keep moving forward with the eradication of racism.
"It's so nice to be here and see the turnout that we have here," said Cordillo. "I cannot believe that there are so many people -- I'm so inspired. -- I just wanted to thank everyone who came out to support this cause." She is passionate about equal opportunities for everybody. "We all need to rise to the occasion to speak up when we know that something is wrong, and someone is being treated unfairly. I believe our biggest issue is that it's hard to see the opposite perspective when it does not personally or directly affect us. I challenge, those who lack knowledge of the history of the black community to accurately and inform themselves before casting judgment. I challenge everyone to put themselves from a different perspective before dismissing a person's feelings. And I challenge everyone to be a better version of themselves."
Alexandre said that today is the first time he has felt at home in Berkeley Heights. Today, "we stand up and tell everyone, we can no longer endure the pain and suffering for our fellow man just because the color of their skin. We [need to] teach our sons and daughters that their actions and how they treat people will dictate how other people treat them." As a Veteran, Alexandre said, "I hope that because I defended this country for you that you will defend my right, to have the same rights you do."
Mayor Angie Devanney thanked Rheaa and Manny and all the young people that helped to organize the event. "You are our hope, you are our future." She added, "To the Police Department and Diversity Council, I offer my deepest gratitude. Together, we marched to call attention to the work that needs to be done here at home because working collectively is the only means to effectuating real change. As an elected official, we try to represent every part of our community, and in particular those who feel marginalized by our society." She added, "But, I also feel everything through the lens of a mom
and I am standing here today, not only as the Mayor of Berkeley Heights, but more importantly as a mother. I also march today so another mother will not feel the suffering and pain of the loss of her black children."
Kenedi Facey, a 22 year old graduate of Gov. Livingston High School and current senior at Rutgers University, thanked the crowd for coming. She has worked among protest leaders in nearby Scotch Plains and Westfield and spoke of her own experience as the only black girl in her high school class.
She said this march is only the beginning. "We are here to recognize the life of George Floyd and the many more lives that had been lost to police brutality. But we're here to acknowledge the injustice and racism that black individuals have faced within the country for over 400 years and the need for serious change and reform," said Facey. "When we look while many of us are free -- some of us are only free-ish. Racism still plagues the country which hinders true freedom for all."
"There are numerous instances that caused me pain -- might not have been a knee to my neck -- but it was my heart," she said. She named a few of her experiences. While it doesn't hurt as badly today, it does reveal the community's flaws and shortcomings in regard to making this community a welcoming and safe space for all, she said. "This moment in time, black lives do matter."
Gov. Livingston graduate Jakada Khalfani, a junior at North Carolina State University, also experienced bias growing up. He wanted to clarify what the Black Lives Matter movement is about. "It's not about saying that we don't all matter. Of course, we all do. But there's a group of people right now who are hurting. There's a group of people right now, we're taking special care of," said Khalfani.
"The biggest dangers to the Black Lives Matter movement -- that danger is performative activism -- or slacktivism. This is activism which is doing the bare minimum. Now, what is the bare minimum. I'll tell you what the bare minimum is -- 120 million people put the black squares on Instagram for #Blackout Tuesday and #BlackLivesMatter. --- The bare minimum is when you say, '#BlackLivesMatter,' to make yourself feel better. But you don't speak up at the dinner table when your uncle, sibling, or parent says, 'well, but you just need to stop being criminals.'" --- "Minimum is when you say you want change, but don't attend the rallies, don't sign a petition and don't donate to the cause if you're able, the bare minimum is not being racist, and I'm here today to tell you, that's not enough. It's not enough to just not be racist. You have to be actively anti-racist. --- You have to actually take the action to make sure that black lives matter. It is not enough to say, end police brutality without actually holding the police accountable for their actions."
He went on to list when it will be enough.
It'll be enough when I can walk into a store and not be followed around because of prejudice and fear that I might steal something.
It'll be enough when my parents don't have to tell me not to wear my hoodie or do-rag around, it will make people think I'm a thug.
It'll be enough when I can get pulled over, and not shake and fear for my life, knowing that one wrong move might be my last.
It'll be enough when we learn more about black history in school than just you're slaves, then we can free you.
It'll be enough when a teacher doesn't threaten to fail me for an essay I wrote, claiming it had to be plagiarism because there's no way I could write at such a complex sophisticated level.
It'll be enough when I can explain to my children as an old history lesson instead of a reality that I have to prepare them for.
"We are on the right path, but nowhere near the end," he said. The change we want to see will happen at "our dinner tables, in our schools, and in our hearts," he said. Concluding, he told the crowd to "realize your [privilege], and use it for positive change, and make a difference."
Gov. Livingston senior Victoria Vanriele spoke for justice. "We as a community, as a state, and as a nation must mobilize and unite to combat the dehumanization of black Americans. This is only the beginning. The protests, petitions and monetary support are the initial steps to change. We have seen them effective already as all four of George Floyd's murderers have been arrested and charged."
"It is so critical that we use our voices, speak out, educate ourselves and others, and vote for officials who will pass reforms to hold everyone with a position of authority accountable for their actions," she said.
"Protesting is the easy part. Recognizing that many black communities are unfairly plagued with education, health care and job opportunities that are far inferior from what we take for granted here in Berkeley Heights can be uncomfortable, but the reality is that our lives are all intertwined. And when one suffers we all pay the price. The question is, when do we pay, and how much?"
"We all have a shared humanity and need to be each other's keepers. Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while he cried out that he couldn't breathe. There are George Floyds out there with knees on their necks -- for years -- being suffocated by the system that has failed them on countless levels."
"Black Lives Matter today, tomorrow, and every day after that, we have to be an active part of the change we want to see, we have the power to change the system, change the future for our later years, our children and for generations to come," she said.
After the students spoke, the adults had their chance to tell this huge crowd of the reality of being black in Berkeley Heights. A long time resident said he has marched in many parades in Berkeley Heights and never thought he would see this today and he emotionally thanked the community.
Blenda Alexandre, who had interned as a counselor at Columbia Middle School, urged the crowd to join in and continue this movement. "We cannot do this alone. We need everybody. We need whites, we need blacks and Asians, we need allies. And especially, we need our police. We're not against you," she said. "We want to support you as much as you want to support us. --- We're with you. We need to change for you."
The Berkeley Heights Diversity Council closed in saying that they will be educating the community to open their eyes to racism. "Racism is not always openly visible. A simple conversation opened my eyes," said Michelle Greco. "We look forward to speaking with our local church and schools to figure out the right programs to build this education for our children to open up their eyes as well."
Damian and Toiya Facey were last to speak. "Racism is real. -- I want to say to the young people, you did a fantastic job. You give me hope -- there is so much love. When people ask me if I can handle it in Berkeley Heights, I can default and say we can handle it. We can because you were here today -- look at you. Congratulations Berkeley Heights."
When the Facey family moved to Berkeley Heights 10 years ago, they thought they escaped the racism of the South. But, "it's right here in this town as well," said Toiya Facey. "And people are silent about it. I need us to stop being silent. I need us to speak up and speak out. It is critically important. You better make sure that you are continuing that message. Do not stop here. --- This is not a moment, it is a movement. --- You give me hope, thank you." Lastly, she reminded the young crowd that this "March for Black Lives" was not anti-police. -- And, go register to vote.