SPARTA, NJ – The March for Black Lives event at Dykstra Park on Saturday showed the possibility of having peace and a protest, discussion of race without riots, a police presence and positive messages about police officers. Two young girls, in the space of a week, put together a clear expression of the first amendment.
“People don’t think things can change,” organizer Rachel Young said addressing the crowd. “You are evidence that we are change and can change the world. This is what change looks like. This is what love looks like. This is what democracy looks like.”
Soon-to-be Sparta High School senior Young and 2020 graduate Olivia Finkeldie spoke of the responsibility that comes with the right to free speech in a way that belied their age, on a hot Saturday afternoon. According to Sparta police approximately 300 people attended.
Before the group marched down Main Street, they heard from the organizers, Young and Finkeldie along with people of color who live in neighboring towns.
One of the speakers, Anthony Alexander of Jefferson Township said Young and Finkeldie accomplished what he could not. He said if he, as a black man, had tried to put this together he would not have gotten the support the girls did.
“When I see these you girls, when I see all the people who don’t look like me here it makes me feel good…This lets me know the future is in good hands,” speaker and Vernon Mayor Howard Burrell said.
Speaker and Jefferson Township resident Keith Peters said what the girls did, “gives me hope for my daughter.”
“I’m proud of you for leading us,” Saskia Brown said. “You are the dream of my ancestors.” Brown, Supervisor of Pupil Services for the Sparta school district wanted it to be clear that she was not speaking as a representative of the district. She said she was speaking because it was “an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
“What courageous loving leaders you are creating here in Sparta,” Speaker Teddy “Mr. Newton” Sibblies said.
Young gave an impassioned speech making her purpose clear. She is certain attitudes about race need to change and is equally sure it can happen. She is not worried about making people uncomfortable; prodding people to give up their comfort for people who have never been comfortable here, she said.
“We’re not allowed to be kids in a small town who can’t get involved because it doesn’t involve us,” Young said. “When a person in America dies because of the color of his skin it involves us.”
According to the afternoon's Master of Ceremonies Scott Paul, in Sparta only about .1% of the population is black “and they are sitting right here” pointing to students sitting nearby. “I’m happy you’re all here behind us.”
Paul, Alexander, Harris, Burrell and Brown, who all live in the area, shared remarks that both highlighted their positive experiences while sharing personal experiences with racism.
Paul said he played sports in Sparta “a great town” and said he always felt he was treated well. He said while some of the “best people I’ve ever met in the world” are in Sparta, as a bartender at a local restaurant racial slurs have been levied at him and people have even waited to be served by another person, “sometimes for 10 minutes.” He said he shared his experiences to explain, racism “is not a myth. It’s real.”
Speaker and Sparta High School student Katherine titled her remarks “Why Am I Here.” Having moved to Sparta about a year ago she said the lack of diversity added to the challenge of changing schools in the middle of the year.
She said she was able to join together in school with a “powerful group of people with stories and passions to share.” That group continued to grow, share stories and become an official school club she said.
“We’re fighting for the 'liberty and justice for all' that we pledge every morning,” Katherine said. “We are here because we can make the needed change.”
Sibblies addressed her thesis in his remarks. “I believe we’re here simply to say, ‘no more, not today, not on my watch.’” Sibblies said he has lived in Newton for 40 years.
“I’m a very white girl from a very white town,” Finkeldie said. “I’m happy to see all the white faces here to learn.”
Finkeldie and Brown and others told the crowd “it’s not enough to say you are not a racist you have to actively become anti-racist,” explaining it is the difference between knowing something is wrong and actually doing something to right the wrong.
“I’m not asking you to pay for the sins of your forefathers or hold on to white guilt,” Brown said. “I’m asking you to have compassion.”
“I don’t want you not to see I’m black,” Newton resident Paul said. “I want you to see I’m black and not have it matter; not tolerance but acceptance.”
While most of the speakers on stage were black men and women years out of high school, the young white people in the crowd were equally articulate in expressing their opinion about recent events. Although most did not have personal experiences of bias to share they expressed informed reasons for attending.
“I thought it was important to be here to show support and learn,” Zoe Canzeniero said, standing with her family. Her sentiments were echoed throughout the crowd.
“I thought it would be a good idea,” to attend the rally Luke Gasper-Markel said, standing with his dads.
“We’re here to show our support locally, nationally and, of course, for our family,” David Markel said.
The young Takacs sisters sat with their signs. “Black Lives Matter is not a new movement or a new moment,” Alex Takacs said. “Recent events have been a tipping point. No group should be marginalized.”
Her sister Bayleigh agreed, “We’re not free until everyone is equal.”
Several speakers spoke about the “albatross around the country’s neck” of not having all citizens able to participate and contribute, “posing a serious threat to the stability of our nation.”
“Use love to conquer hate,” Brown said.
“Our motto is ‘peace, unity and understanding’,” Sibblies said.
Many were proud the event was happening in their town of Sparta.
“I would never have expected this many people to show up in Sparta,” Sparta alumna and current Hofstra University student Taina Brantley said. “It’s heart warming.”
“I wanted to support the movement,” Amanda Canova said. “I’m glad Sparta is standing up.”
Katherine said in her remark she has seen the “stigma free signs” in Sparta and the county “but I’ve witnessed we’re not.” She said her family taught her “charity starts at home. We have to reach the unreachable.”
Liana Ferrigno said, “What happened really angered me.”
“I’m here because I’m African American and it’s a problem that’s been happening for a long time,” Nikira Dixon said. “It’s time for it to stop.”
“I see hope,” Alexander said in his speech. “I’ve never seen this kind of protest sustained with all kinds of people. Those of you are here, thank you, we need you.”
Burrell in his remarks said another reason for hope for change was because the “protests have been the broadest and most racially diverse in United States History. It’s equally important that it’s happening in small white towns with few African Americans like Sparta, Newton and Jefferson.”
“We should do this everywhere,” Alexander said. “So people can leave and say ‘it wasn’t Antifa’.” Brown alluded to that as well when she said “don’t let the looters distract you from the message.”
It was not just young people. Burrell noted the “kids were bringing their parents and their parents were listening.”
“We think it’s important to be here,” the Clifford family said. “We have to do something to make a change.”
“I’m a white grandmother,“ Jane Kraus said pointing to her children and grandchildren. “I never worried about my son or grandson leaving the house.” Kraus said she has four family members who are police officers, two who are teachers and two who are social workers and she is “proud of all of them.”
A few of the signs carried by the attendees during the march had negative messages about police including “defund the police” and “Who are you ‘Serving’ and 'Protecting'" but comments from the stage were not anti-police. They were “against bad police.”
“We’re not anti-anybody,” Paul said. “We’re pro people. We hate a system that allows a few bad apples to be bad, unless there’s a video."
Brown said she was speaking as a “woman, an immigrant, a Jamaican, a mother, a sister, an educator, a friend and a mentor who loves a man that gets up every day and puts on his blue uniform to serve his country.”
Good people are good people, regardless of what they look like Burrell said.
“Black Lives Matters does not mean you have to choose,” Brown said. “It doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter or all lives don’t matter.” Brown said they are not saying the problems have been perpetuated by all rich people, all white people, all conservatives… they just want to hold people accountable “if they are vicious.”
His profession has allowed Burrell to live in several countries and he believes, “we do live in a great country.” He said looking around he could see that what has been labeled a “black problem is becoming understood to be an American problem. There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
“We may have come to this country on different types of ships,” Burrell said. “We’re all in the same boat now; the United States of America.”
“We are the future,” Young said. “The next generation of voters and elective officials.”
“Vote, not just at the national level,” Alexander said. “It starts in your backyard.”
“I don’t care who you vote for,” Brown said, “just vote.”
Before the crowd left Dykstra Park to march down Main Street, Sibblies announced his candidacy for Newton Town Council and Paul announced his candidacy for Sussex County Freeholder.
Sparta Police Chief Neil Spidaletto said, “The march was peaceful and went smoothly. The event coordinators reached out and thanked us.”
"I am incredibly thankful for everyone who helped make the day possible," Young said, reflecting on the day. "I am also incredibly proud of this community for participating, showing support and keeping an open mind. The process was a tiring, difficult one but absolutely necessary as it allowed the extremely important messages and experiences of the black community to be shared with the primarily white majority here in Sussex County. The work doesn't stop here and I'm hopeful that we can all keep working together to keep educating and spreading important messages to anyone we can."