PARAMUS, N.J. — While George Floyd was laid to rest Tuesday, about 300 protesters who were gathered in the late afternoon at Paramus High School for its Black Lives Matter rally knelt down on one knee and observed an intense, 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence in the blazing, 90-degree heat.
The idea for the rally, said organizer Harsahej Anand, a senior at Paramus High School, was for students to get a feel for the time 46-year-old Floyd spent gasping for air and crying for his life while his neck was mercilessly pinned beneath the weight of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee during an arrest on Memorial Day until he died. The incident was captured by an onlooker with a smart device and Chauvin is facing second-degree manslaughter and murder, while the other three arresting officers have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.
“I may never experience what a black person may feel, but I know as a community, we can all stand together and support one another,” said Harsahej to cheering protesters who were congregated on the lawn. “Because if we have each other’s back, we can do anything!”
Harsahej and Paramus High School organized the rally not just to jump on the bandwagon of the protests held locally and throughout the country, but to address the school’s recent hullabaloo following a slew of insensitive racially and sexually-charged text messages — the content of which has not been divulged — circulated by a few juniors at the school following Floyd’s tragic death. The disturbing messages are currently being investigated by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, the Paramus Police Department, and the Paramus School District.
“Since the death of George Floyd, there have been a lot of racial messages which have been spreading around Paramus, and I feel like not that many people are very knowledgeable about the incident that has been happening,” explained Harsahej. “People are taking it very lightly. I feel like some people just don’t understand how sensitive this topic is to many people.”
He continued, “I just wanted to give this platform to the black community and speak out their thoughts, and other people as well, students who come out here and rally.”
Harsahej said after the ignorant messages “leaked” and were eventually reported to authorities, he had a few words with the offenders about this “learning experience” and even asked them to attend the protest.
“I think they just didn’t know what was going on,” Harsahej said of the messages which were exchanged in a group chat. “And when I was telling them about this incident, they just got a little tense.”
He said he explained to them that people were “very angry” about what they said and asked them to consider publicly apologizing for their derogatory words.
“It is the kids’ fault, but the parents play a huge factor,” he noted.
That message seemed to reverberate as signs reading “Racism Isn’t Born, It’s Taught” and “Racism Begins At Home” were held up high.
Before the hundreds of protesters marched in sweat-inducing temperatures, some lined the streets holding up signs reading “Love Thy Neighbor,” “My Color is Not a Crime” and “Black Lives Matter: Silence = Violence” as passing cars honked their approval.
The rally that day wasn’t just about demanding justice for George Floyd, but for all the lives lost to police brutality and racial profiling, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — both fatally shot, Taylor in her home following a “no-knock” warrant by police in Louisville, Kentucky, and Arbery while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia by armed white residents.
On a megaphone, Harsahej led the 300-some protesters up and down the hill on East Century Road by the school. Their cries echoed for all to hear: “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” “Say His Name! George Floyd!” Say Her Name! Breonna Taylor!” “No Justice, No Peace!, Prosecute the Police!”
When the herd returned to school grounds, they heard from African-American students who talked about their experience with racism and the insecurities they felt about how they looked, and at one point, even wanting to change their appearance which was prompted by certain peers. While it took them awhile to embrace their ethnicity and accompanying physique, they said they eventually decided to love themselves as is — skin color, facial features and hair texture, included. One speaker even mentioned the cruel names she said she’s heard her people being labeled like “monkeys and cockroaches.”
“This is the reality black people are faced with,” said Rachael Hurst. “But I’ll be damned if I don’t fight back.”
Hitting that point home was Eric Jones, from the Harlem Wizards, who paid a special visit to the district that afternoon. In his address, he asked the audience if they were uncomfortable kneeling on the ground for eight minutes, all of whom said yes.
“How could you, in your right mind, in your heart, in your spirit, keep your knee on somebody’s neck, and not have any regard to what they're feeling, what they’re saying, what the people next to them are saying? He asked. “If you watched that video and you weren’t outraged, you have to check yourself.”
He continued, “The reason why you guys are here today is because you want change. But the change starts with you. You have to be the change you want to see. And for me, there’s two sides of it. The first side is, I’ve never taken the opportunity to speak out because I was always taught as an athlete, you have to succeed in spite of. Don’t let that stuff get you down. I just had a ton of focus, and I didn’t see anything but a win.”
While the microphone gave out, Jones finished his speech a cappella.
“I understood that as an athlete I had to succeed in spite of the racism or the bias that I faced,” he yelled to the crowd. “But today, I get a chance to step out of my shell, speak out, be a part of a protest, and be a part of the change. So it’s sad that I wasn’t able to do that prior to today, but I’m doing it now.”
Before he left, he asked the protesters to start by engaging in active listening and to introduce themselves to someone they don’t know.
“That builds your community,” he said, “and that will be a place where everyone is welcome.”