MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Last Friday, as the country celebrated Juneteenth, the anniversary of Galveston, Texas slaves learning they were free two years after the end of the Civil War, so did Maplewood: With both protests and celebrations.
Teenagers gathered about 100 strong to march from the South Orange Starbucks to the Maplewood Starbucks, holding a rally at the end in Ricalton Square. The teen speakers talked about what companies to support with their disposable dollars, noting that although Starbucks reversed their decision under pressure, they originally told their employees last week that they could not wear clothing or accessories with Black Lives Matter designs. They also called out local businesses they felt had displayed racism.
Other teens recited poems and one young lady sang a passionate cover of Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn."
The protest was organized by Elizabeth Crofton and Guedalia Dalambert. They are both rising seniors at Columbia High School and members of Maplewood’s Youth Advisory Committee (YAC). They said they were pleased with the turnout and would continue their efforts toward racial justice.
Later in the evening an outdoor Juneteenth celebration was held in Maplecrest Park. Families came with their masks on to honor the past and offer hope for the future while socially distancing from each other.
In a Zoom panel that evening, From Awareness to Action, Mayor Frank McGehee and the Community Board on Police spoke about criminal justice matters both local and national.
There was a resistance "until very recently to name race as a factor" in what is happening out on the streets, said panelist Christina Swarns. "It is because people are criminal, it's because people are bad...but it's never ever ever about race even though it is overwhelmingly about race," she said. Swarns is Attorney-in-Charge of the Office of the Appellate Defender in Manhattan. There is this "deep reluctance to engage in the reality," she said. "As a country we've skipped over that and never really wrestled with that...on this issue."
Panelist Brenda Wheeler Ehlers spoke about the restorative justice program that the Maplewood Police Department engages in with teens to keep them out of the system. Ehlers explained the program brings together the student, the person who was harmed, a support person for the student, and community members. The impact of the crime is explored and some resolution is achieved. The teen then must stay out of trouble for one year. The program offers a way to keep a minor offense from becoming a criminal record.
Two Maplewood students, one current and one former, spoke about their experience with racism from peers in school. Sanye Phinn, a Maplewood Middle School student, said Black students who are scholarly are called Oreo or "white washed."
Sri Taylor, a 2018 Columbia High School graduate currently studying at Rutgers, said she encountered many microaggressions from both students and teachers. "It starts in the school system, and it starts young," Taylor said.
She faced backlash from a CHS teacher when she chose not to stand for the pledge of allegiance. In addition, she said, "I always had to tone police myself."
She said she also faced an attitude from white students that because of where in town she lived she must not have faced racism. "They think that wealth is adjacency to whiteness."
The last topic discussed was policing in the schools. TJ Whitaker teaches Language Arts at CHS. He said the district is calling the police too often and the Board of Education needs to take a stand to make it stop.
Mayor McGehee acknowledged that unions are an obstacle to police and education reform "where these unions are protecting bad teachers, [who] are impacting our community, impacting our children in Maplewood and South Orange. And also these unions are protecting bad police officers...there's no doubt about it. We need new accountability," he said. In corporate America, he noted, employees are at will. "We need an at will system for police, and an at will system for our school teachers."
Paul Williams, a member of the Community Board on Police, sees that in the Maplewood Police Department leadership he speaks with, "they are legitimately and sincerely looking for ways to improve community relations. While we recognize there are some systemic challenges that show up here," he said wanted to acknowledge that Maplewood has "officers who are interested in progressing this conversation."