SOUTH PLAINFIELD – The South Plainfield Black Lives Matter March, organized by South Plainfield High School (SPHS) alumni, attracted a crowd of over 300 participants who convened at 2p.m. on June 8 in Veteran’s Memorial Park. Under the hot sun, protesters of all ages and ethnicities marched up Maple Avenue, carrying signs and chanting in unison for the cause as South Plainfield Police blocked traffic and closed streets to ensure participant safety. After reaching the Police Athletic League (PAL), protestors marched back down Maple Avenue to the Municipal Building, where they paused in silence to remember George Floyd for 8 minutes 46 seconds. Floyd died in Minneapolis, Minnesota after now former police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd lay handcuffed face down on the street.
“I saw that every other town around us had been doing something like this, but no one had gotten the ball rolling here,” said Co-Organizer Savannah Storm, SPHS Class of 2013. “Nothing like this has ever been done in South Plainfield before, so I put it out on social media to see if there was interest, and to my surprise, I actually had a bunch of people step up to help me.”
Storm, an employee of Lush who handles social media for the company’s charitable work, said she first reached out to Mayor Matthew Anesh to get permission to hold the event and then spoke with South Plainfield Police Chief James Parker. Storm says they were both very supportive.
“I greatly appreciate the coordination and collaboration between the organizers and our police department,” said Councilman Derryck White. “The day was peaceful, an outcome brought about by working together from the beginning to ensure voices were heard and everyone remained safe during the march.”
Storm reached out to Christopher McNeil, SPHS Class of 2015, to organize the event with her. A teacher in Dallas, Texas, McNeil is part of a four-year program called “Urban Teachers” and is also pursuing his masters at Johns Hopkins University. McNeil says the protest was to give a voice to those who are not usually heard.
“What Savannah started is how white people should really be doing it,” said Co-Organizer Christopher McNeil, SPHS Class of 2015. “Use the structure that we have easy access to. Use our privilege to provide it towards people of color that don't have the ease of access to it. As a teacher in a low-income urban community, I’ve seen how black children don’t have the same access to assistance as Hispanic children do, so I really do think the message of Black Lives Matter cannot be said enough.”
The two publicized the protest on social media to other alumni of SPHS and word continued to spread.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect the turn out to be so large,” said McNeil. “We’re a very small community, at about 25,000 people roughly who live here, but we also have neighbors that experience issues of racism, the people we gave the platform to talk. I want to say at least roughly 300 people were definitely on Maple Avenue, so I was extremely proud that the community came out.”
People of all ages, backgrounds and races gathered in Veterans Memorial Park.
“Today is about my 12-year-old daughter, Sabrina, who wanted to come, but she has cerebral palsy and it's too much for her to walk,” said Kattlin Diaz, South Plainfield resident since 2006. “I’m here so that she doesn't have to witness these injustices for anyone. We're all human beings. It doesn't matter the color of our skin and it makes me sad for her to see this happening as a mom. I’m here, so she knows that when people stand together it makes a difference.”
Pastor Ronnel Howard from Christ United Methodist Church in Piscataway said she came to listen and support the youth who are creating this movement.
“As an older adult among all of these young adults, this means that something precious is happening right now,” Christ United Methodist Church in Piscataway, Ronnel Howard said. “Part of the reason I wanted to be here was just to be silent and support them and their leadership in this movement because I think so often we think of this generation as disengaged and not a part of this process. It’s wonderful to see them leading us and so excited about it and energized that we have these people of multiracial, multiethnic all looking at each other and saying we are going to make a better world. I'm inspired by it.”
Howard said seeing so many races come together is extremely moving.
“When I was their age, a lot of the protests that I went to were almost exclusively black and brown,” Howard said. “So to now see this coalition being built just around everyone's humanity is precious. We’re in a precious time. It seems like everything is blowing up and going crazy, but actually beautiful things are happening.”
“We all need to support each other,” said Sandy Doyon, First Grade Teacher at John F. Kennedy Elementary School. “We need to stand up for the people who need us, always.”
South Plainfield resident Tara Porcher brought her 7-year-old son, Sean, to the event, who carried a sign reading, “Black people should LIVE!”
“I'm glad to see so many people out here because it's going to take everyone to get justice for everyone,” Porcher said. “We all need to come together and to work for this. It's unfortunate that George Floyd had to lose his life for everyone to realize that black lives matter. Kids are listening and watching even when you think they aren’t. My son wanted to come out and do this and the words on the sign are his words. Those aren't my words.”
“I believe that black people should live,” said Sean Porcher, first grader. “When George Floyd died, he was a great man.”
Monroe resident Mandy Avere brought snacks and water to distribute.
“I’m here because I believe that black lives do matter,” Avere said. “We need to stand up for our black brothers and sisters. They're being killed by police officers. There's this excessive force being used and that's not acceptable, so I need to use my voice, my power, my privilege, to speak out for them, but I also would need to give them the platform to speak for themselves. I just feel like it's my civic duty, it's my right as an empathetic person to be here for them and fight for them.”
With megaphone in hand, Storm opened the protest saying, “Welcome everyone to South Plainfield’s first ever march for black lives! My name is Savannah Storm and I’ve been a resident of this town for 25 years and I want to say this is a very long time coming. First of all, I want to thank everyone who helped me with this. But most importantly, I want to thank everyone who came out to show their support. This is amazing. The South Plainfield mayor and police have been very cooperative in helping me get this together as well. Most importantly, I want to thank everyone who came out to show their support because this is amazing that we all here in South Plainfield come together as a community.”
“As a white woman, I do not know your struggle personally, but that does not mean I’m not going to use my voice and that privilege to fight for you every single day, so we don’t have to do this fight anymore,” Storm added.
McNeil introduced himself to the crowd and went over protesting etiquette.
“The reason I’m here is that I teach at a Title One school, low income, diverse education,” McNeil said. “I’ve been active for a while and I want to go over some protest etiquette in order to make sure this is as racially competent as possible. This etiquette is for people who are not black. Rule number one, do not start chants. You may join them, but you may not join all of them. Listen to the messages the organizers want to share instead of sharing your own. Some chants are not for you. ‘Hands up, don’t shoot, I can’t breathe.’ Not everything is for white folks, even those who chose solidarity.”
McNeil went on to say that the protest is for black people to have a voice, explaining that the march is meant to be a peaceful protest. However, he prepared protestors for the worst case scenario.
“Follow the organizers’ lead and be willing to put yourself in front of things,” McNeil said. “Allies to the front. There may come a time in the protest where you need to put yourself between a black person or person of color and someone who is vulnerable and law enforcement. You are privileged so use it. Grab other white folks and make a human chain. It’s going to seem scary, but this is what we need to be willing to do if it comes to that. I expect this to be peaceful, but if it comes to that we need to use our privilege to protect the people here.”
Holding the American flag before them, protestors marched across Veterans Memorial Field and crossed Hamilton Boulevard while police held traffic while they crossed. The crowd then marched down Maple Avenue towards the PAL Building and back, chanting the whole way.
“Say her name!” shouted the chant leader into the megaphone.
“Breonna Taylor!” screamed protestors in unison.
“Say his name!” shouted the leader.
“George Floyd!” echoed the crowd.
Other chants included, “No justice, no peace!” and “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
The protestors made their way to South Plainfield Borough Hall and paused at the entrance. Gathering on the lawn and into the street before the municipal building black speakers were given the floor.
“I just want to say, growing up in South Plainfield, I would have never thought that we would have had this many people turn out to something like this,” said Malcolm Keith, SPHS Class of 2014. “So give yourself a round of applause. Right now, we're going take a knee for George Floyd who died at age 46 because of a police officer who restrained him. So please join me in a moment of silence.”
As protestors kneeled, Keith continued to speak.
“Growing up as a black man in America, shouldn’t be seen as something you should be afraid of,” said Keith. “We don't want to wake up and feel like we are threats in society. We just want to go out and live our lives like everybody else does. We're all here taking a knee because we want to show the world that we're not trying to be violent. We're not trying to cause any harm. We're not trying to hurt anybody, but we also raise our fist into the air because we're also here to tell the world that we're not going to stop fighting for what we believe in.”
Keith then expressed his love for the United States of America and the need for change.
“I love this country,” said Keith. “I love this country, but it's because I love this country so much that I want to see it change. I want to see everybody smiling. We all cry when we're sad. It doesn't matter if you’re black or you’re white or you’re Spanish or you’re Muslim or Indian or Asian. I look out into this crowd and I see everybody's race. Do I care what it is? No! I don't care. We're all here together. I'm just tired. I'm tired. I'm tired. I'm tired of having to wake up and think that I might get stopped by the wrong police officer and my life could be over.”
“In order to solve a problem, we need to make them your equal,” said Keith. “We're all in this together. Let's stop acting like we're enemies and start making a change for a better future.”
Everyone rose to their feet and applauded at the words of the speaker. They then stood in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in solidarity for Floyd.
“This protest is not over,” said Jason Worthem, SPHS Class of 2015, breaking the silence. “It doesn’t end here. You have to take it home, that thought that George Floyd was killed innocently. Take that thought with you. Treat everybody equally. It doesn’t matter their skin tone. You teach your children equality. I see a lot of familiar faces out here. I see a lot of kids. Teach the kids equality. Teach them that everyone is alike. We’re all human. Every one of us is human. We hurt the same. We smile the same. We laugh the same. We’re all human. Keep that thought with you. Don’t let it stop here just because everybody’s here. It’s what happens behind closed doors. Confront your friends. When your friends say something out of line, you confront them right there. Understand something, that grows. Stop letting things slide under the rug because they grow. They grow to become hateful just because of the way you look. That should not matter, black lives matter. Black lives matter.”
Protestors marched back to Veterans Memorial Park to listen to speakers. As they marched, they chanted loudly, “Black lives matter!”
“It was encouraging to see so many young people share their voices,” White said. “It was peaceful and addressed looking at each other as human beings. Jason effectively conveyed those thoughts. At the end of the day, this is a heart issue. Instead of hurling statements at another, we need to have meaningful dialogue, which includes clarifying questions to make sure we understand one another. And when someone says something that’s wrong, let them know. Starting those relational conversations with those we know will help open eyes and change hearts.”
Pastor of IMPACT Church De’Andre Salter was the first to speak on the field of Veterans Memorial Park.
“I’m so proud of you guys,” said Salter to the protestors. “I’m so proud to see that you, the generation behind me, refuse to inherit a web broken by your forefathers. I’m glad that you are standing together beyond race, creed, brother, sister, whatever it is and say, this is not the world we want. I have good news for you. The good book agrees with you that when there’s injustice, you should speak up.”
Salter called on everyone present to find the strength in their voices.
“Stop playing the diplomat, stop playing nice,” Salter said. “Stop trying to make everybody your friend. You’re going to have to disrupt some people. You have to call out truth. This is not about racial truth, it’s about truth. Truth is truth. speak the truth…Last thing, stop saying you don't see colors. There’s an incrimination of your ignorance. We are made with different colors and creeds for a reason. I’m a musician, to make a chord, you need three notes, each note is different. That's called harmony.”
“If we want harmony in America, we have to stop saying silly, stupid, ignorant things like, ‘I don't see color,’” Salter said. “I’m a human being and I stand for human rights. You’re the next generation, you keep this up. I love you. You’ve encouraged me. I’m proud of you.”
Among the many SPHS alumni and students to address protestors were Khalil Faraid (Class of 2015), Olivia Payne (freshman), Lovely Hills (Class of 2017), Obinna Ibeku (senior), and Lanae A. Ali (Class of 2017).
“I want to thank everyone for coming out,” Faraid said. “You made your impact on the community. South Plainfield has never seen anything like this, marching on Maple Avenue, screaming ‘Black Lives Matter,’ screaming, ‘say his name, what’s his name, George Floyd!’ Screaming, ‘what’s her name, Brianna Taylor!’ They’ve never seen anything like this. This is history. Take it in, take this moment to recognize you made history. In this town, to hold the municipal building, to kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd was historical.”
“I want to thank Mayor Anesh,” Faraid said. “I want to thank him for allowing us to do this. He cooperated and let us peacefully demonstrate and protest. We have to respect those who hold office and are going to work with us, because we’re going to work with them. You know we can't do it just on our own, but we do have to come together on our own. Come up with what we want, and when we want it, hopefully we can meet somewhere in the middle, which is what happened today...This protest was put together by South Plainfield High School alumni and students. This is huge, and we also have the help of all of our elders who have been teaching us and guiding us, giving us the courage to come out and have these platforms and speak these words.”
Students stood up for the first time as advocates for their generation.
“I know I haven't been the perfect activist for Black Lives Matter and people in color in general, but starting with this movement, starting this year, starting today right here right now, I know that I'm making a change,” Ibeku said. “I want this community and this country to be better for the next person of color. In the preliminary stages of planning this protest, a lot of people were afraid and said we just want to protest and riot. They thought we wanted to riot and destroy the town. Those people are honestly just ignorant and don't know what we stand for as a black lives matter movement and just protesting in general. They don't know the meaning behind protests and the true history behind protests. If you look in American history, protests are in our blood and DNA. People protested for everything from the Boston Tea Party to because the Eagles won the Super Bowl.”
“Not in my wildest dreams would I think that this would ever happen in South Plainfield,” Ibeku said. “We are a part of a change here and we’re starting something different in this community. We’re starting a new legacy in South Plainfield, accepting everyone for who they are no matter what skin tone, color race, belief, sexuality, no matter what.”
Nadira Foster Williams, an actress from Plainfield, addressed the group, stressing the importance of knowing where funds are going.
“De-funding the police sounds radical until you take into account that they’ve been de-funding education for years,” Foster Williams said. “This when just two years ago, they were petitioning for schoolbooks to tell you that the footnote about slavery was actually a bunch of helpers that were on a boat, on a cruise. It’s that radical, that crazy and you need to be that radical with your politics, with your beliefs…A friend of mine said to me, white people don’t know how to carry pain the way people of color have been bred to carry pain.”
“People need to be asking questions and aware of where budget allotments are right now and in what ways South Plainfield is still enslaved,” Foster Williams added.
The emotional day came to a close in song and prayer. Sidney Dick went to Union Catholic Regional High School and on to study music at University of the Arts. She says she uses her degree in musical theater to invoke change in the world and sang a song that is close to her heart called, “Lift Every Voice.”
“I appreciate giving back to my community in any way that I can,” Dick said. “’Lift Every Voice’ is the black national anthem. It’s an anthem that not many people even know exists and I wanted to bring it to life today especially in the times that we are in. I learned that song first before the national anthem because I went to a school that was a predominantly black elementary school.”
The day came to a close and protestors left peacefully, closing the door on a day to add to the South Plainfield history books. And opening the door to new opportunities for growth and change.
“It is important for us, as residents, to understand that these demonstrations are not implicating our community, they are a means for demonstrators to show solidarity for voices crying out in other communities,” said White. “I truly believe that hate is taught. The way to unteach something is to teach something different.”
“Trust in these young people because they know,” said Howard. “I think part of what is so inspiring about the young is that they haven't yet been jaded as some of us older adults have been by the world and still have that sense of possibility that they can, and they will, change this world together.”
“I’m very active in advocating for what I believe in,” said Storm. “I've gone to different marches around the world. I’ve gone to one in New York and one in Philadelphia, a couple in Dallas as well. I just try to get out there as much as I can to show my support for all kind of causes that I think need to be heard. I never thought I’d be a part of something like this in South Plainfield.”
“We really wanted to give the platform to the youth, especially the young people of color because they always feel left out of the conversation, and they definitely have insights on how their generation perceives their government, how the info structure's working,” McNeil said. “I'm just happy that this event was accessible for all kinds of people. We hope to continue this every year.”