Newark, NJ — Driving, dancing, dialogue and distribution were just a few of the forms of celebratory resistance engaged by Newarkers on Juneteenth 2020, the annual commemoration of the day in 1985 when a group of slaves in Texas received news that slavery had ended. 

Two years following the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, those still enslaved in parts of the American South finally received their long-overdue liberation following the end of the Civil War. This year, Juneteenth, cherished by Black Americans but not otherwise widely recognized, feels especially relevant amid international protests against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. 

But for all the reasons to mourn on this Juneteenth, Newark was defiantly joyful, turning the past month’s indignation into opportunities to convene around and celebrate Black liberation.  

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On Thursday, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka signed an executive order declaring Juneteenth a day of remembrance and education for all municipal employees. Instead of their regular schedules, they attended a virtual teach-in focused on the historical significance of the holiday. 

Employees heard talks from the mayor, City Historian Junius Williams, Rutgers-Newark Professor Melissa L. Cooper and poet Sonia Sanchez after participating in discussions with department directors and staff. 

“’Juneteenth’ is one of the most important days in American history and it has never been made more significant than by the recent racism evidenced across the country. In Newark, we will use this Day On (not off), to learn, observe, honor and respect the day that defined freedom for millions and ended chattel slavery in the United States,” Baraka said in a statement. 

Elsewhere in the city, various groups and organizations hosted their own initiatives and invited the community to join. 

Jannah on Grafton’s Juneteenth Produce Pantry 

TAPinto Newark previously reported on a North Ward couple trying to raise funds to turn a vacant lot into a community garden, Janah on Grafton. They not only have seeds in the ground, but formed partnerships with La Casa De Don Pedro, Table to Table, Civic Association Inc. and North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos to distribute food to the community. 

For the volunteers and leadership of Jannah on Grafton, there was no better way to celebrate Juneteenth than by helping to create sustainability and eliminate food poverty in Black and Latinx communities. Flagging down passersby on foot and in cars, the Jannah crew handed out boxes of goods and knowledge. 

“Black and brown communities are twice as likely to be food insecure as their white counterparts,” said Bilal Walker, co-founder of Jannah on Grafton. “We believe that in order for us to be a liberated people, we need to have access to our own fruits, vegetables and things that we can maintain on our own. We can’t be passive in our decision to liberate ourselves, we can’t ask permission, we can’t wait for someone else to do something for us.” 

Drawing on the wisdom of Muslim adage “do for self,” Walker espoused to his crew that when communities have access to their own resources, collaborate and support local business, they promote sustainability. 

“When we take our money and spend it where people don’t care about us, and police officers don’t respect us, we know historically, it tends not to work out for the best,” Walker said. 

Juneteenth Drive to Justice

A motorcade consisting of the Arc of Justice, SEIU 32BJ, Until Freedom, The Gathering For Justice, The Indigenous Peoples Movement, and other public officials and activists drove through downtown Newark on Thursday, bearing signs reading “Essential Workers for Black Lives Matter.”

“We’re outraged at the ongoing police brutality and murders of Black people around this nation,” said Kyle Bragg, president of 32BJ. “This type of brutality and injustice must end.”

The coalition released a list of demands, including demilitarization and defunding of police departments, census completion and voter registration for all elections and economic sanctions against government and corporations that support white supremacy. 

Protest in the Park

Local organizers from The Maroon Project and Young, Black and Gifted invited the community to a socially distanced celebration in Military Park, where people danced to music, waved protest signs and took part in breakout workshops. 

“We want to celebrate, but we also want to bring awareness to what’s going on in the world about how we need to defund the police, stop police brutality and stop racism and social inequality in the world today,” said Nyjee Coram, founder of Young, Black and Gifted, a mentorship program for at-risk youth. 

Around the outskirts of the park, people lined up to write down their answers to prompts about COVID-19, defunding the police and de-gentrification on poster boards. Organizers encouraged participants to consider who Newark really belongs to, and why. Shouting “Whose city?” into a mic, the crowd chanted back, “Our city!”

Resident Yhoshua Adama, who attended with his two daughters and their new puppy, said working in social justice opened his eyes to the importance of Black Americans educating one another about their shared history. 

“I feel it’s important to celebrate Juneteenth because my family grew up with an awareness of the history and a connection to it, but as I started to work in the field, I started to realize how many Black people are disconnected,” he said. “If we don’t take the initiative to encourage each other to understand what freedom is and what it should look like, as Black people in America, other people are going to define what it looks like for us.”