NEWTON, NJ—Hundreds of people flooded the Newton Green over the weekend, coming together in what organizers said called a peaceful Black Lives Matter vigil.
Organizers, including Joshua Bastin were not sure it was going to happen. “We were facing some very real scare tactics from multiple angles," Bastin said. "People did not want this to happen.”
Ultimately Bastin and his fellow organizers and Naomi Zoko, Deon Williams, Evan Chrustic, and Scott Paul decided, after a video chat “basically F*** *t, we’re doing it anyway.”
Most of the organizers are Newton High School alumni.
“We worked hand in hand with Newton Police Department to ensure a safe environment for everyone,” Zoko said.
On Friday, a vigil was organized from 4 until 6 p.m. where the green was filled with approximately 200 people, all abiding by social distancing guidelines and wearing masks.
They were there to hear from officials, clergy and others. Newton Councilmen Matthew Dickson and Jason Schlaffer addressed the crowd.
The text of Dickson and Schlaffer’s speeches are at the bottom of this article.
Olivia, Dickson’s stepdaughter read “The Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou.
“We are fortunate in this town,” Schlaffer said. “The Newton Police Department stands as a shining example of what law enforcement could and should be… Unfortunately, those virtues are not shared by all law enforcement officers across the country.”
According to Sparta resident Heather Acker, people “read names of black people who died innocently at the hands of police.” She said there were a few people chanting “all lives matter” but they were “drowned out with Black Lives Matter signs.”
On Saturday, approximately 500 people marched from Memory park to the Newton green, starting out at 11 a.m. The crowd rallied around the green with signs until 2 p.m. according to organizers. While on the green, nearly $3,500 in donations were collected, according to Zoko.
According to Zoko, the donations will be split equally between two organizations: Campaign Zero, for police reform and Color of Change, to end unfair practices specifically affecting African Americans.
A few of the organizers shared their insights and impressions of how the event came together and what it meant to them personally.
Bastin said, “Something incredible and beautiful happened today. We came out and took over the whole square to say ‘enough is enough.’ It felt like a movie.”
Chrustic agreed that, until the day of the rally when people showed up, he was not certain it would happen.
He was pleased with the people in the crowd and the opportunity to be “able to show anger and frustration while showing how we can move forward together.” He was proud of the impact of “a few young people from Newton could rally an entire town in a matter of days.”
Dickson said, “We should not allow the criminal acts of violence and vandalism being conducted by a few, to overshadow the message of tolerance and societal change.”
Bastin refers to the video chat where they agreed to go ahead with the vigil as something he "will remember for the rest of his life."
Williams also felt the event might not go off. She said when she got to the park and saw all the people ready to go at 11 a.m. she was “in shock and could have cried right there.”
“It gives hope that maybe one day we really will be able to end systemic racism and racially motivated police brutality,” William’s said. “I’m grateful to everyone who showed up yesterday and to those that spread the message.”
“What actually transpired yesterday was an out-pouring of support from the community,” Zoko said
“The support we got from surrounding residents and the town of Newton was overwhelming and reminds us why we put in the work all week to make it happen,” Chrustic said. “When we saw how many people showed up on Saturday morning, we knew that this event would mean more to us than we could have ever imagined a week ago.”
Chrustic said the rally was to build on the idea of peaceful protest that needed to happen. He said Newton is a town of diversity and was a community that needed to have the rally to unite where the country is divided.
Zoko said seeing the video “of a man having his life taken away by someone who had sworn to protect and serve that very life” angered him. He said he was angry because “it wasn’t just a rare occurrence” and that it was “normal, at least to us Americans.”
“This was not normal. This was not okay,” Zoko said. “America and the world were not okay with this.”
Zoko said when the country and the world came together to protest George Floyd’s murder, the five were motivated to hold a rally in Newton.
“We recognized that our county, in addition to this country, needs change so that people from all walks of life will be treated equally,” Chrustic said. “We’re just five kids who wanted to be the change they wish to see in the world.”
“We marched, we chanted, we danced, we cried, and we became stronger as a community,” Zoko said. “We heard from members of this community, students to politicians, young and old, black and white, sharing their testimonies of how race has impacted them and what steps we can take for a better tomorrow.”
Dickson’s speech: “The tragic and brutal death of yet another African American serves as an important reminder that individual, structural and systemic racism has been, and continues to be, a present-day reality of this country. Clearly, the actions of a few members of law enforcement cannot be taken as an indictment of all members of the profession. Undeniably, however, the death of Mr. Floyd suggests there are two sets of rules for Americans – one for Black and Brown communities, and another for everyone else.
This is completely unacceptable and can’t be tolerated. True equality cannot happen, until we address the barriers that are rooted in disparities of economics, housing, education, healthcare access and violence – in all of its forms. We should not allow the criminal acts of violence and vandalism being conducted by a few, to overshadow the message of tolerance and societal change.
To say white privilege doesn’t exist would be an inaccurate statement. I have the privilege of not having to worry that my boys might seem out of place while walking down the street. I have the privilege of knowing they won’t be judged or viewed differently based on the color of their skin.
For my biracial stepdaughter, that is not the case. She worries about her father and black family members. She herself has had her race used as a source for a bully. The conversations with her about racism are eye-opening and emotional, and I had to realize that if this was happening to my friendly, smart, funny, outgoing stepdaughter then this must be more prevalent than we think.
As white Americans we need to sit back and listen. We need to not submit to divisiveness; this is an opportunity to learn and come together. Leaders in government, and in business, neighbors to neighbors, we need to have real meaningful conversations that can result in constructive solutions.
Newton is the county seat and has a black population double the county’s. Let’s come together as one and be a example for the entire county.”
Schlaffer’s speech: “We are fortunate in this town. The Newton Police Department stands as a shining example of what law enforcement could and should be. Our officers display a great deal of humanity. They consistently treat our citizens with respect, dignity, and compassion. Unfortunately, those virtues are not shared by all law enforcement officers across the country.
As we have watched the events of the past two weeks unfold, it is clear that systemic racism still infects our society. People of color are disproportionately the targets of police brutality. That should offend every American.
When we first declared independence, our forefathers wrote the framework for our beliefs. Our nation declared that all people were created equal and they had certain inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet the ugly truth can be seen day after day, year after year, generation after generation.
Too often people of color are robbed of their right to life. As a result, they live in fear and are robbed of their liberty. How can they possibly pursue happiness? How long are we going to allow this to continue? Perhaps because of technology, the world has become smaller and more familiar.
People are finally starting to wake up. They are realizing that the prejudice they grew up with were founded in fear of the unfamiliar and hold no weight. People across the country are opening their eyes to the injustices that fear creates. When we allow fearmongering, prejudice, and stereotype to guide our decisions, we allow systemic racism to persist.
This country was founded by great people, but they neglected to include those who didn’t look like them in the systems they created. More people of color must be involved in rebuilding these antiquated systems, more people of color must be involved in shaping the frameworks that are meant to reflect the society they serve in order to provide equal footing for all. Most importantly human life must be preserved at all costs, we must evolve to live up to the words of our forefathers.
America must evolve together, in unison, in equality and with compassion. The greatest moments in human history were when people of all walks of life came together to change their collective world for the better. That’s what we are proposing today.
To truly achieve equality, we must start by standing up for the most marginalized among us. Audre Lorde once said ‘The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.’ Today I urge all Americans, but especially white Americans, to begin the hard work of removing that piece of the oppressor planted within us.”