SUMMIT, NJ - More than 1,500 peaceful, concerned citizens from Hilltop City and surrounding towns gathered Tuesday afternoon at Summit's Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School (LCJSMS) to show their support for the 'Black Lives Matter' movement and, in the process, set a high bar for respectful, organized gatherings.
The event was the brainchild of 18-year-old Summit resident Ethan Russo, and was attended by elected state and local officials, students, a chief of police who had been on the job for just one day, City employees, families with young children, and community members.
Russo said that after seeing national response to the George Floyd murder, he came up with the idea for the Summit protest and texted a friend with the plan. They thought there was a chance that they would be the only two attending, but after a late-night Instagram invitation garnered hundreds of messages of support, they realized the event had legs.
“We joked that we might be the only two people who show up,” Russo said. “I told him even if that is the case, this protest is necessary.”
He explained his reasoning for organizing the event.
“I”m tired. I’m tired of seeing innocent black men and women murdered at the hands of those sworn to protect them. I’m tired of seeing bad officers desecrate the badge for those who do their job exceptionally well. And I’m tired of stories like George Floyd’s being a headline that will be forgotten. The time to end this vicious cycle is now,” Russo said.
Russo said, “When George Floyd was murdered, I felt powerless. But then I realized that I have a voice and that I could do something -- that is why we are all here today. We all have voices and the ability to give our energy to a movement, to something that’s gonna change our community, change our state, and change our country.”
This march, which left LCJSMS, and weaved through downtown Summit, “signals to the rest of the world that we stand together,” he said, “united with Black Lives Matter to campaign against violence and systematic racism towards black men and women.”
Russo said that the peaceful demonstration shows that racism is not an option, and that all four officers involved in George Floyd’s death should be prosecuted to the highest degree.
Russo told TAPinto Summit that “as a white person,” he could never understand “the struggle of African Americans,” but he could bring awareness and put energy into the movement and help people change.
Congressman Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) was the first speaker.
“We are united. We are for peace,” he said.
He talked about those people who are trying to “pit us against each other,” and who are “trying to take advantage of this moment to start a war.”
They are “pouring gas on the fire, rather than throwing the water” that it needs, he said.
“We need leadership right now,” he said. “It’s not a Republican or a Democratic thing.”
Malinowski said that he was so happy to see so many young people come out to support this cause. “Sometimes out of crisis, out of anxiety, and out of fear we can make progress,” he said. “We can’t trust our leadership to save us, but we can save ourselves.”
Reverend Gladys Moore, a pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Summit, and the Summit Interfaith Council anti-racism committee, told the crowd how proud she was of Russo for organizing the event.
“He had the foresight to see that we need to come together,” she said.
She told the crowd that it is important for them to express their wishes in the elections.
“Martyrs are fine,” she said, “But we need people who will vote.”
Moore said that everyone must “learn, grow, and teach one another what it means to fight against racism with every fiber of your being.”
Summit Mayor Nora Radest also told the crowd how important it is for them to vote to get their voice heard.
“That,” she said. “Is speaking out," adding, “Let’s make a difference."
After the event, she told TAPinto Summit, “I am incredibly proud of the Summit High School students who organized this peaceful protest march.”
“It was amazing to look out over a sea of more than 1,500 determined young faces,” she said. “I am very proud of them and all of the Summit residents who raised their voices today, and urged them to continue to voice their opinions as voters.”
Summit Police Chief Andrew Bartolotti, who was sworn into the position just yesterday, told TAPinto Summit, ““We are thankful to the young organizers for working with us to create a safe venue for the protest march and a peaceful way for these voices to be heard.”
“As a department, we value the strong relationships we have in the Summit community, and remain committed to protecting each citizen equally with the respect and dignity that all human beings deserve,” he said.
The peaceful crowd -- virtually all wearing masks to protect themselves and others from the COVID-19 virus -- left LCJSMS pushing strollers, riding bicycles, and carrying signs, and marched down Morris and Springfield Avenue, through downtown Summit, and back around the Village Green to reassemble at LCJSMS.
As they walked, choruses of “No justice, No Peace” and “Black Lives Matter” and “Dump Trump” could be heard throughout the Summit streets.
Store owners lined Springfield Avenue in downtown, and photographed the paraders as they passed their establishments.
Once the crowd had reassembled outside the school, Jaeden Osei and Trey Richardson, two black Summit High School students, asked for a moment of silence, and the crowd got down on one knee.
Osei said, “We may look and sound different, but we are all brothers and sisters of the human race.”
“A house divided simply cannot stand,” he said.
Richardson quoted President Lyndon Johnson, who said, ““The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”
Susan Hairston, a Summit Common Council Member representing Ward I and the first -- and, to date, only -- African American to sit on the Summit governing body, told TAPinto Summit, ““These are difficult times in our country with the pandemic, the economic effects of it, and the rising social unrest. I am an avid believer in the right to protest for a better society and it’s this type of engaged citizenry that has always resulted in positive change.”
“We are so fortunate to live in a community filled with open-minded, engaged neighbors and a supportive police department. I have no doubt that Summit will rise to this challenge as we have all others: together, with purpose, and towards a better future for our children,” she said.
Summit’s Courtney Bevilacqua attended the protest with her husband Patrick and their two young children, seven and four. She said that she has been bringing her kids to protests “since Trump was elected.”
“It’s important to teach them the difference between right and wrong,” she said.
Summit’s Esther Dijkdrenth told TAPinto Summit that she attended the protest because she feels “a duty now to no longer stand on the sidelines, to not remain silent in order to keep the peace, or avoid offending anyone, or avoid awkward situations or be branded a radical. At some point we have to take a stand for what's right.”
Chris Bonner, who sits on the Summit Board of Education, told TAPinto Summit, “As a member of Common Defense and a veteran, I am proud to stand with the people of Summit as we use our power and privilege to demand change for people of color in our country. I, like all veterans, took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and when we see our fellow citizens denied those rights and literally killed in the street for simply being the wrong color, many of us wonder what we risked our lives for.”
“We stand united in supporting citizen’s rights to protest and we stand up for those who are and will continue to be oppressed. The foundation of our country, and all our freedoms for which so many have fought, hang in the balance,” he said.
The protest was a draw to people from neighboring towns as well.
Rupa Kale, chair of the New Providence Democratic committee, said, “My heart is hurting along with our country. I stand in solidarity with my black brothers and sisters. I am here with my children to teach them what civic engagement looks like.”
“We need a change in this country and I want to be part of it. But protesting alone is not enough. We need to hold our elected officials accountable, and we need to push to elect leaders that will bring our country out of this darkness,” she said.
Summit-based HTTV assembled the following video: