Hundreds of protestors – both in cars and on foot – gathered on Woodbridge Avenue in Highland Park to peacefully protest the killing of George Floyd.
The protest, titled “Take Charge and Charge Them”, was organized by Ashton Burrell, the Chairman of the Highland Park Human Relations Commission, Director of the Zone 6 Teen Center, and Founder and CEO of the Live Mentorship Program (LMP).
“The public lynching of George Floyd … it hit a nerve of continued built up pain, hurt, and suffering that have been traumatic to a lot of people,” Burrell said before the protest. “A lot of people are fed up and have had enough of the continuous systematic racism that has continued to oppress people of color.”
Burrell explained that his intention is to ensure that the Minneapolis Police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd receive appropriate convictions by empowering local communities with the passion and information they need to take action.
“The changes that … need to be made is to make sure all of those officers in Minneapolis, all of those officers throughout this nation, all of the officers throughout this world are held accountable for the pledge that they take, which is to serve and protect,” Burrell said. “If they violate it, they should be held accountable the same way that someone that's a regular citizen is held accountable for their actions.”
Before the protest, Woodbridge Avenue was lined with protestors carrying signs and taping posters outside of their cars as upbeat music played through speakers on the organizers’ Jeep. Organizers and residents offered masks and water bottles to fellow protestors while giving elbow bumps to community leaders, Council Members, and police officers.
“It’s important what we’re doing today because Highland Park is not immune from having a history of aggressive and unjust policing,” said ex-Councilman Mark Hersh, who later volunteered to drive the stick shift Jeep to allow organizers to continue leading chants during the march. “We’re not unique. What you watch on TV can easily happen here, so we’ve got to raise awareness and make sure our home is protected.”
Just after 6:45pm, with guidance from the Highland Park and Edison Police, dozens of cars proceeded down Woodbridge Avenue onto Raritan Road while honking their horns, flashing their lights, and hanging signs from windows and sunroofs.
Hundreds of walking protestors surrounded the cars on both sides of the sidewalk down Woodbridge Avenue and onto Raritan Avenue. As chants of “I can’t breathe!” and “No justice, no peace!” rang through the streets, neighbors held signs from their homes and popped their heads out of their homes to express their solidarity.
In addition to directing traffic and blocking off roads where necessary, members of the Highland Park Police Department marched alongside the protestors.
“Our role as police officers is to protect and serve,” Highland Park Police Department Captain José Curbelo said. “Marching with our residents today is one way the Highland Park Police Department served our community by standing with them against injustice. What happened to Mr. Floyd undermined the public’s trust of law enforcement all across the United States. It’s our job to now rebuild that trust and that starts with letting our community know that we stand with them.”
Walking protestors proceeded to turn onto North 5th while the drivers turned onto Lincoln Avenue, a system which allowed both sets of individuals to safely arrive at the common destination of the Highland Park Football Field.
Burrell’s focus on community engagement became apparent as the march poured into a rally on the lawn surrounding the Highland Park High School football field. From the back of the Jeep, speeches were given by organizers, community leaders, council members, and cultural and religious leaders – all of whom stressed the need for community engagement beyond the date of the protest. The phone numbers of the Minneapolis Government Offices, Police Department, and Investigators were also shared aloud for community members to call to demand justice for George Floyd.
Highland Park Mayor Gayle Bill Mittler addressed the crowd, expressing awe and appreciation for the number of residents who participated in the protest.
“Change is hard,” Mayor Mittler said. “We have to fight every day for what is the right thing that we want … November is coming. We must make change in November.”
Subsequent speakers echoed Mayor Mittler’s point, including Middlesex County Freeholder Deputy Director Kenneth Armwood who stated that “the fight continues beyond just marching … we need people who believe in what we believe in to serve in office and make decisions.”
“At some point, you gotta get up off the ground and fight,” Armwood said. “We as a people don’t want ‘free’. We don’t want anything that we haven’t earned. Don’t give us a free check. Give us justice. Don’t give us a job. Give us justice. Don’t give us housing. Give us justice.”
Bruce Morgan, President of the NAACP New Brunswick Chapter took time to distribute voter registration forms to protestors.
“Vote vote vote, census census census,” Morgan said to the crowd, before explaining new legislation that expands voting access. “If you’re going to be 18 by Election Day, you may vote. If you’re a former felon, you may vote. If you’re on parole or probation, you may vote.”
CEO and co-founder of AllHipHop.com Chuck Creekmur, Councilwoman Elsie Foster-Dublin, Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D - 18th dist.), Rabbi Esther Reed, Reverends Stephanie and Seth Kaper-Dale, Board Member of the Highland Park Chinese Association Hayden Hsiung, and a member of the Puerto Rican Action Network also spoke at the rally.
Attendees, organizers, and the police represented practically every corner of the Highland Park Community, and many described the protest as action-oriented, diverse, and peaceful.
“The Highland Park PD strives to be a department focused on the people and will always listen to our residents,” Captain Curbelo said. “Today’s rally was outstanding to see, This is the power of Highland Park, all of us coming together in a peaceful way so our voices are heard.”
There was an overwhelming message of love, respect, and simply trying to do better.
As a counter-protestor was voicing his opinion and interrupting speakers, Burrell explained that he still had great love for the individual, and later took time to pull him aside to talk one on one. The two eventually shook hands.
“We not going nowhere, and our police not going anywhere, and if we want this justice to go somewhere, all of us is gonna have to go to a place that we probably never even been before,” Burrell said. “Some of us going to have to dig deep inside of ourselves to try to find a new perspective and a new outlook for how we look or life and how we look on each other.”
The events of the day brought protestor and African immigrant Adama Fofanah to tears.
“I’ve been in America since I was less than five years old, and I have always seen police brutality,” Fofanah, a Highland Park resident, said. “What goes on is really heartbreaking, especially as someone who comes here willingly as a black person for a better life. It can be discouraging, but today was a beautiful day and it was amazing to see people from all walks of life, different colors, different genders, different everything just here to fight one fight.”
Burrell plans to follow up with all protestors by emailing them community action plans with concrete next steps for action, and encourages all residents to use their gift to get involved in their local community and affect change from the ground up.
“Everybody here … I love y'all, and I look forward to continue to build with every single person here,” Burrell said while concluding the rally. “Please get in involved in your towns. [Get] off the computers, [get] into the communities.”