MILLTOWN, NJ - Around Middlesex County, the "Greatest Little Town in the Land" is known as 'Milktown' for its deep-seated roots of systemic racism. Protesters took to the streets on Saturday to try to bring about change in the borough, one step at a time. Today's march began in Crabiel Park and made its way down Main Street to Albert Avenue Park. The site of the ending point of the march was symbolic for organizer Katty Velez.
The Albert Avenue Park is the spot where Velez's 12-year-old son Christopher was told by a passerby to "go back to Africa with your dirty ass self" back in May. The incident was the catalyst for the We Are One rally held in Borough Park in June. Velez, who has lived in Milltown along with her husband Eric for the last 15 years, is also a business owner in town. When the couple moved into the borough more than a decade ago, they were the first black family in town.
"We are so happy to see so many people for the historic march through Milltown," Velez said at the march's starting point in Crabiel Park. "Milltown is an awesome place, but like any family we have our problems. We are not okay with racism here anymore."
About a hundred protestors including Velez, her family and fellow We Are One organizers made their way along both sides of Main Street. Many sported Black Lives Matter and Hate Has No Home Here signs. All the marchers wore face coverings and adhered as best they could to social distancing guidelines. The protestors ranged in age from youngsters to seniors. A few marchers pushed babies and toddlers along in carriages while others brought their dogs along for the peaceful march that concluded with anti-racism discussion groups in the Albert Avenue Park.
The Milltown Police Department was on hand at two points in the march to assure the protesters safe crossing, but the road was not closed for the entirely of the one-mile plus walk through residential and business districts in Milltown. Velez instructed marchers to stay on the sidewalks at all times during the walk down Main Street. The march paused briefly on the Main Street bridge for a moment of silence. Chants included "No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police," "Black Lives Matter" and "This is What Democracy Looks Like."
Many homeowners came out of their homes with cell phones to take photos of the historic moment in Milltown's history. Some residents held signs of support while others watched silently. Numerous drivers driving along Main Street beeped horns in support of the marchers' message.
Once the march arrived in the Albert Avenue Park, discussion groups were set up to talk about systemic racism and anti-racist triggers.
"That's what we are talking about," Velez said using examples like being fearful of black teens walking down the street without knowing why. "Those anti-racist triggers that we don't realize are in all of us. We want to have these conversations because what we are realizing as a nation, as a country, is that these things are putting black people, especially black men and black boys, in danger. So we have to figure out what is going on."
"We have an anti-racist committee or community group that we put together," Velez continued. "There is about 60 of us in Milltown who are meeting together on a weekly basis to plan events like this march."
The committee is also planning a series of outdoor movies to be shown in the parking lot of Velez's real estate office on Main Street. Titles include "Glory," "Harriet" and "Hidden Figures" that are based on actual events in American history.
"We are doing these things because we feel our community is worth it," Velez added. "We love our community. We love you guys, but we don't love the racism. We (the town) have a really bad reputation."
Velez spoke about being warned by friends 15 years ago not to move into the borough because of its racist history. She also brought up how many people avoid driving through or stopping to spend time in the borough because of the systemic racism that persists today.
Protestors splintered off to discussion groups that included Be Willing to Unlearn in Order to Learn with author Vernae Taylor, Committing to Anti-Racism Strategies to Start Your Journey with Valerie Hearns and One Nation Under God, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All with NAACP Executive Committee Chair Diane Hawkins. Former Milltown District Librarian and member of the Milltown Historical Society participated in the march and spent the remainder of the afternoon taking down oral histories of residents who like Velez's son had been victims of racism in the borough over the years.
Before the We Are One event concluded, a pink balloon was tied to the tree where Christopher Velez sat that May afternoon enjoying some outside time during the coronavirus stay-at-home. It was the same day George Floyd lost his life in a fatal arrest in Minnesota. Floyd's death triggered a series of Black Lives Matter protests and marches across the nation including local ones in Spotswood, South River, Monroe, East Brunswick, South Brunswick, North Brunswick, New Brunswick and Milltown.