MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Five SOMA teenagers put out the word on social media last week to join them to protest racial injustice and police brutality. They had no idea how many people would actually show up on Friday, June 5. It was close to 1,000.
The Columbia High School students — Samuel Berry of South Orange, Aalia Qawiy of Maplewood, Catherine Valentine-Martins of South Orange, Cephia Reid of South Orange, and Annali Doyle of South Orange — banded together to take action after George Floyd’s death.
Annali, 15, said she found recent events “very hurtful,” and decided with her close friends that “we need to do something about this. We need to make a change because there is so much systemic racism in South Orange [and] in general, and we need to go against police brutality.”
“I was not expecting this big of a crowd,” said Aalia, also 15. Just before the event began, as about 100 people streamed into Spiotta Park with many, many more to come, she said “I was just expecting a few people. Looking around, I don’t even know half of these people.”
The friends led the protest calmly but vociferously along Valley Street from Spiotta Park to the steps of the Maplewood Municipal Building. South Orange and Maplewood police officers were along the route to direct traffic.
Even with a much larger crowd than expected, the march and protest were peaceful.
“There were no issues that I'm aware of,” said Maplewood Police Chief Jimmy DuVaul, who also was on the scene and said he estimated the crowd to be between 800-1000 people. “What happened to Mr.Floyd was a tragedy. I was glad so many people participated.”
The students took turns speaking once assembled. They listed the names of Black men and women who have been killed at the hands of the police. They spoke about the systemic racism they see in the Maplewood and South Orange communities and how it has affected them, their education, and their friendships. They relayed the personal impact racism has had in their lives, both in the South Orange Maplewood School District and out in the world at large.
“Thank you to everyone of all different races for coming to this protest,” said one student; not many speakers identified themselves by name. And yet she noted that “you hung us by ropes without any clothes on, you whipped us, you spit on us, you beat us and you expect us to be silent after he said ‘I can’t breathe’” to which the crowd returned the chant ‘I can’t breathe.’
“So what do you think, I’m going stand here and be silent? I’m not going to be silent. I won’t be silent,” she called out passionately. Cheers came up from the crowd.
One young female speaker said, “I’m afraid every time my father and mother leave the house because I don’t know if they’re going to return home or not, because of the color of their skin. Because there are bad cops out there.” And if a police officer kills someone, she said, “A gun and a badge shouldn’t save you from getting charged with murder.”
“We live in a town of injustice and ya’ll don’t even see it,” said Talia Rose, who said she’s been followed home by local police. She said she won't stop fighting for justice. “I’m gonna scream Black lives matter till my voice gives out,” and the crowd chanted with her for nearly two minutes.
Amir Brown followed. “We’re tired. We’re very tired” of hypocrisy, he said. “This is a ‘stigma free’ town? Stigma free? Diversity everywhere? Yeah, it’s diverse but it ain’t stigma free,” he said to cheers. He called out those in the crowd who didn’t seem to be paying attention. “Right here, right now, you don’t care. You’re here because you feel you like you have to be, you don’t want to be here. And we see it. We see you. So it’s f**k the hills, f**k Trattoria, f**k Bunny’s,” — both restaurants have been accused of bigotry. Brown said one way to get change is to shift where Black dollars are spent. “When y’all money is on the line, that’s when y’all care.”
In all, more than a dozen people, students, former students, and local adults spoke to the crowd. They read poems, exhorted each other to register to vote, to see Black Americans' pain, and to stand up and take up anti-racism as a long-term cause. This reporter can only hope that the energy and eloquence they possessed that day will continue to propel them forward to be change-makers — locally, nationally, and around the world.
Protesting in the Time of COVID-19
The protesters were almost all masked, but the protesters, largely teens, were not social distancing to a strict six feet apart. For future protests, Maplewood Health Officer Candace Davenport said to be vigilant in protecting oneself and others from coronavirus. “It is equally important to keep social distancing and wearing the face masks to prevent more cases of COVID-19, while also protesting against social injustice. But the way we used to protest, all close together, needs to change to the times we are living in, which is still a global pandemic. The threat of illness from the virus COVID-19 is not over.”
And afterward, she noted, “If you do go to a protest, or any large social gathering, then I encourage people to get tested for COVID-19 so that if you are positive, we can address that and reduce the community transmission quickly.”
COVID-19 and antibody testing is being offered in Maplewood all this week.
Read More: BQLM March and Rally in South Orange
Read More: Family Protest
Read More: SOMA Testing Sites for this week
Read More: Mayor McGehee's Community Update
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