SOMERVILLE, NJ - Hundreds of protestors gathered on the lawn and steps of the Somerset County Courthouse on Saturday evening, the second in a series of three back-to-back peaceful demonstrations.
“Today, we’re coming out here to represent our people, you know, Black Lives Matter,” protestor Alexander Chiwele said before the protest. “It’s not by inciting hate, necessarily, it’s about bringing people together to fight more for our rights.”
Just before 5 p.m., local residents began trickling in on foot from Grove Street and North Bridge Street, masks and signs in tow. Many individuals carried in cases of water bottles and Gatorade, along with boxes of granola bars and other snacks to ensure the health and safety of all protestors.
The lawn was filled with a multicultural array of protestors that included local residents young and old as well as local community and religious leaders.
“I am here for a peaceful protest, and I am most importantly here to stand alongside my black and brown brothers and sisters and especially for young black men who have given up hope or wonder if there is hope for their future,” said Father Ron Pollock pastor of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Somerville. “We want some meaningful change to happen in our community and our nation.”
Many protesting parents made the decision to bring their children to the rally.
“I am just really happy for [my children] to see what it's like to be part of a democracy and to get to voice what’s in your heart and what’s on your mind,” said local resident Natalie Quense. “We’re outraged at the police brutality that’s happening and systemic racism, and we want them to know about it.”
The protest, which stayed confined to the front lawn of the Courthouse, was a truly grassroots effort. Showcasing the community vitality of Somerville, there was no sole organizer of the event. Rather, individuals independently shared the date, time, and location of the protest on social media platforms and made the decision to show up in support. Heather Pierre, a Bridgewater resident, took the initiative to begin leading the protest herself with powerful, passionate call-and response-chants.
The crowd continued to grow as chants of “No Justice, No Peace”, and “I can’t breathe!” filled Main Street. Together, they called out the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, among other black Americans who have been killed during or have died following confrontations with police.
Driving down Main Street, cars honked, motorcycles revved their engines, and tractor trailers laid on their horns in support. Dozens of passengers held signs and fists outside their window in solidarity, to the outpouring of cheers of protestors.
Following a series of chants – many of which brought her to tears - Pierre, whose parents are Haitian and Filipino, invited the crowd to take a knee and raise a fist. The silent memorialization of George Floyd’s death lasted a total of nine minutes, coinciding with the length of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck.
Chauvin was fired the next day, along with three other officers involved in the arrest of Floyd; Chauvin faces second degree murder charges; the other three officers face aiding and abetting charges.
At the conclusion of the nine minutes, the protestors stood up and held their signs high once more as Pierre and other protestors broke into a series of speeches addressing police brutality, the intergenerational struggle of black Americans, and the need for every person of every background to listen to and support their black friends and neighbors.
The speakers emphasized giving voice to anger and taking meaningful action, but never resorting to violence.
“We have to listen to our brothers and sisters, but fighting with fire will never work,” Pierre said while addressing the crowd. “It will burn the building down. Violence with violence will never work … you have to be peaceful. You have to have love in your heart. No matter what they say to us, no matter what they call us, we have to forgive.”
The speeches left the protestors with a number of peaceful action items, including the need for residents to pay attention to local politics and to vote locally.
“I know many of y’all think that your voice doesn’t matter and I know some of y’all think that your vote doesn’t matter,” Pierre said. “But … how are we supposed to plant a tree if we don’t have the seeds? You have to plant your seed … You can’t just blame Trump. It starts here.”
Led mostly by young people, the protest served as an emotional inspiration to Somerville’s older residents.
“You are ushering in a whole new generation of peace and love, and I am so proud of each and every one of you,” Lorayn Allen Castillo, lifelong resident of Somerville said. “Continue and do not let anybody try to put out your fire. It only takes spark to get the fire glowing. Continue to fight for peace, for Black Lives Matter, for justice.”
The event concluded without incident. Two Somerset County Sheriff officers were parked on either side of the Somerset County Court House, but there was no other police presence. The protest remained on the Courthouse side of Main Street, leaving all businesses facing the Courthouse undisturbed.
Mayor Dennis Sullivan and other members of the Borough Council were in the crowd. Sullivan applauded the peaceful and respectful protest.
“Not only as a Mayor but as an American, I welcome legitimate protest,” Sullivan said. “People that exercise their rights to assemble and have their point of view come with the responsibility of respecting the same in others, so as long as personal rights and property rights are respected on both sides of the political spectrum, welcome to Somerville.”
He went on to explain his appreciation of diversity of ideas.
“We’re at a critical time in our Nation’s discussion of the kind of society we want to have,” Sullivan said. “We thought we fixed it in the '60s and we obviously didn’t, and there is always room for fresh thought and new ideas, properly debated.”
A third protest is planned for 3 p.m. Sunday.