SOUTH PLAINFIELD – About 75 people participated in the South Plainfield Juneteenth March on June 19, which began at the South Plainfield Middle School at 2:45p.m. Proceeding down Plainfield Avenue to Veteran’s Park Memorial, the crowd paused at South Plainfield Borough Hall for nine minutes in silence to kneel and observe the passing of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis on May 25th after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
After the march, speakers addressed the crowd at Veteran’s Park Memorial to honor Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated annually on June 19, or “Juneteenth,” to commemorate the emancipation of slavery in the United States under the terms of the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth was first celebrated in the state of Texas in 1865 just after the Civil War.
“Juneteenth is the real black Independence Day,” said Cairo Santiago, South Plainfield Juneteenth March organizer. “It was 155 years ago on this day that the last slaves were freed from the confederacy.”
Santiago graduated from South Plainfield High School (SPHS) in 2018. Now a student in at SAE Institute of Technology in New York with a major in Audio Engineering, Santiago said he wanted to hold the event to observe the holiday of Juneteenth and says it’s important to celebrate in peace, love and unity while bringing awareness to the issue of racism.
“Juneteenth is actually very important to a lot of people,” Santiago said. “It just doesn't tend to get a lot of coverage. It’s overshadowed by other holidays such as 4th of July. And that is also due to people not being educated correctly, especially in the school systems. Even in the black community itself, it's almost overlooked. So, I'm very happy that I'm able to participate in something on such an important day.”
Santiago’s grandmother, Olivia Armstrong, came from upstate New York to support her grandson, and his mother, Olivia Leach Nunez, South Plainfield resident since 2014, said she is proud of her son.
“It’s just amazing to see him take time out of his teenage life to put back into the community and express himself when he felt kind of powerless,” said Leach Nunez. “I'm really proud that he took the initiative to coordinate something like this, and he worked with friends so not only did he do it individually, but he made it a collective effort. He crossed many barriers to do it, so he just pulled everybody into work together. I'm really proud of that. I'm really proud of them.”
Santiago’s 10-year-old brother, Giovani Nunez, also took part in the march saying, “It’s very sad what's happening in this in the world that we live in right now.”
Santiago addressed the crowd that gathered on the front lawn of the Middle School, megaphone in hand.
“We’re going to bring awareness to an issue, especially to a community that is silent about it.” said Santiago. “I want to thank all of you for coming. We're going to be respectful. We're going to be peaceful. I have the mayor. I have the Chief of Police and I have multiple people who are on the same page, so nobody needs to feel unsafe. Just make sure that you guys do your part and do not compromise this beautiful opportunity we’ve been given.”
Many of the participants were high school and college students.
“Our generation is definitely the change,” said Jaydn Serrano, SPHS Class of 2018 and Rutgers University student. “You have our parents and people that have experienced lynching and all that like stuff in the past. Then you have right now currently we're experiencing basically a recurring cycle of things that are happening almost the same way as they've been happening in the past. I think that's crazy it's been decades.”
“I've had a lot of friends that have been victims of this and it’s really important to use my voice even though I'm only a teenager,” said Melissa Leon-Tamara, SPHS Sophomore. “As a Hispanic I’ve seen racial inequity and prejudice, but I do not know what it’s like to be black because I still have privilege because my skin is not as dark. I think that it's really important that everybody in this town learns about what's going on and learns about privilege and advantages that some people have that others don't.”
“I’m out here because there’s a lot of systematic racism going on,” said Elijah McNeill, SPHS Class of 2018. “I feel like we just need equality. Everybody needs to come together. It's like the government keeps looking past it, and they don't do anything to change what the police officers are doing. I feel like I'm marching for the injustices.”
“You are all strong,” shouted Santiago as they began the march. “You are powerful, and you stand united no matter what shade of skin or where you come from. This is the time to spread awareness.”
As the group marched behind police cars, they chanted.
“We are the change, ain’t playing, no games,” shouted the crowd as they walked. “Fight for the truth, unite yes we do!”
At the Municipal Building, while Mayor Matthew Anesh, Police Chief James Parker and members of the staff stood before the building, the group paused in reflection while Santiago reminded march participants that the chants they shout must be understood.
“It’s no justice, it’s no peace. It’s no justice, no release,” said Santiago. “I need you to feel everything that you say. I need you to understand that people died. Your privilege was built on pain and that’s no longer being overlooked. I need you to understand how blessed you are to be able to be here right now. To be able to understand the struggles you go through, understand what you know. We are entitled to nothing…I need all of you to appreciate all that you have. I need you to understand that love is what powers everything in this world. You can’t let the hatred that’s flooding this world get the best of you because you are the future.”
They paused for nine-minutes to remember Floyd and the injustices they were taking the stand for, after which Santiago shared his gratitude for everyone taking part.
“I want to thank everyone who cooperated with me through this,” Santiago said. “I want to thank the town of South Plainfield. I want to thank the South Plainfield Police Department for allowing me to express myself and to allow others who want to express themselves. I want to thank Mayor Anesh for standing in solidarity with us on the sidelines. I really want to thank everyone who is genuine and has real intentions involving the pain of people.”
The march continued to Veterans’ Park Memorial to listen to speakers addressing the issue. Along the way they sang Bob Marley’s “One Love.”
Santiago invited three women speakers to take the podium, whom he said are powerful and deserve respect.
“Respect the black woman,” Santiago said. “The woman most constantly desired but never loved all the way through. The most disrespected woman but even the Black community itself. Yet at the forefront of this movement fighting for our life, our rights. You scream Black Lives Matter, but your voice means nothing until you scream Black Women’s Lives Matters.”
Speaker Amivi Sogbo graduated in 2018 from SPHS and currently attends New York University. She is majoring in Individual Studies with a concentration in Decolonizing Education.
“I think it's very important for us to come together, especially in a suburban town, and really educate people on why this is important and why they should care about it,” Sogbo said. “I feel like my role here is to get people as passionate as I am about this cause. Specifically, for Juneteenth, I feel this holiday should be a nationally recognized one. It's just as big as celebrations are for July 4th Independence Day. I think it should be the same for Juneteenth.”
“Everybody is making it about racism when it's solely black lives at this point,” said Speaker Marriam Rizvi, SPHS Class of 2018. “As non-black and non-white allies, it’s important to talk about how it's not just white people that have privilege which is just a point that I wanted to get across today.”
Santiago’s mother also spoke and says it’s important for the youth to attend local meetings and get involved in issues that affect their lives.
“I want more of this young generation to get involved with local politics and go to the City Council meetings, go to the zoning board meetings, go to these meetings that impact the community that they live in so that they can know what's going on in the community,” said Leach Nunez. “A lot of them may not know that they should be sitting in those different meetings because that's the stuff that’s impacting their school financing and the things that are going on in their everyday lives. They need to be involved at the local level they can be that change and pull up the ladder.”
Participants say they felt the day was a success and felt they are doing their part to invoke change in the world.
“As a white person, who is also Hispanic, my skin is my shield and I have a privilege that most people don't,” said Maggy Mogollon, 2019 SPHS graduate and current University of South Carolina student. “It’s not about just black people having to fight for this. It's about the whole community and everyone being a part of this change because we have to be the change we wish to see in the world.”
“I’m mainly out here to support the cause,” said Serrano. “I’m a black male myself and I think there’s a lot of ignorance and hatred in the world too. Being that I think it’s ignorant that people say ‘All Live Matter’ because that’s obvious, all lives do matter, but on the topic of discussion that black people are being treated poorly and our lives matter as well. I’m just going to keep marching.
“Basically, I’m here because I’ve also seen the injustices firsthand,” said Mekailah Degruttola, SPHS Junior. “I'm not black, but I'm Hispanic, and we always say, ‘your fight is my fight.’ We're all humans. We all need to fight for this because it's been going on for way too long. Black people have been discriminated for over 400 years. It's insane and it's just disgusting. No one deserves to die. It's clear that skin color is still looked as a weapon, and we need to change now.”
Santiago’s mother expressed her gratitude that the day went smoothly, crediting her son for making sure to gain the support of others in his endeavor.
“When you're going into somebody's backyard you want to get permission and even though this is our backyard, we still want to make sure that everybody is on the same page because it is a hot button topic and you just want everyone to be in a positive space,” said Leach Nunez. “I love the fact that he incorporated the police chief and the mayor and got everyone to just see that he's coming out just for a form of expression and wants to use his First Amendment right to express themselves and say how he's feeling just about the turmoil is happening in the world. I'm very proud of him.”
Participants of the Juneteenth march felt they started the conversation and raised awareness and say they will continue to use their voices to make a change in the world.
“There's a bigger question about race relations in America,” said Sogbo. “There's a bigger conversation to be had there and I want people to start being comfortable having that conversation with each other. If I can be that activator for people, then I want to do that.”
“So, it's about us speaking up and us taking charge and doing what we need to do to make progression,” Mogollon said. “The world is filled with a lot of hatred and a lot of no progression. We just want to see love and positivity and get things moving so that's why I'm out here today and I'm really happy to just be marching taking a knee doing anything I can.”
“This is supposed to be the land of the free,” Serrano said. “It’s a very diverse country in itself, so I just can't see why like the color of somebody’s skin should make somebody feel uncomfortable. I'm really proud of my generation for being the ones to stand up and make a fight.”
The day ended as peacefully as it had begun. Santiago’s young brother closed the event saying to the crowd, “Thank you for being here. Thank you for supporting everybody that are colored. I love all of you!”
Santiago’s mother said her youngest son was greatly impacted by the event.
“My youngest feels energized and charged because he wants to stand up, and he wants to express himself,” said Leach Nunez. “I love that. I see the seed that's planted already and hopefully my husband and I will be able to nurture that seed and I hope he has questions because I want to answer them.”
Leach Nunez said she wants her son and others to understand that it’s important to not categorize every police officer as bad and says she is teaching her sons important life lessons.
“I do need him to understand that what's happening with the police, it's not everyone,” said Leach Nunez. “You can't judge everyone by those specific individual ones. That message is something that's near and dear to me because I feel like that happens a lot. You have one bad incident and it's like everybody that represents or looks like that potential suspect or issue or circumstance all get characterized and judged under that umbrella. I think you have to judge that individual police officer on how they're treating you. Once you get that then you'll know how you need to handle yourself.”
Leach Nunez says talking to children about how to interact with the police is important.
“The hope is that our children will always handle themselves respectfully and the person that you're dealing with handles you respectfully,” said Leach Nunez. “Unfortunately, the fear for a parent of an African American Hispanic child, is that even though you've trained them, and that's what it is, it's training, and we teach them to be respectful and use their manners and be polite, if you get that one person, and they don't care about your respect or your manners because they don't really see you, they see the superficial you, and it doesn't matter what you taught them. You just have to pray that they make it out of that.”
Santiago said he was very moved by the event and how everyone joined together.
“I am overwhelmingly satisfied with the cooperation, with the unity and with the understanding that everyone displayed and with the respect that everyone had for one another,” Santiago said. “That love and that respect is what will take this world into a different place. That’s where we can get the wheels of change rolling and it starts with the youth, but it starts with you. It’s doesn’t matter young or old, you can always learn from somebody. I think a lot of people have a problem admitting that they can learn from our generation. I really am thankful and grateful that you know there are so many people that are willing to listen.”