CALDWELL, NJ — As the global reaction to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin continues to mount, many protests have been peaceful while others have succumbed to violence and vandalism.

However, the citizens of Caldwell organized a peaceful and respectful protest this past Tuesday that was organized by students and recent graduates from James Caldwell High School (JCHS). 

Organizers of the event were Annie Bulik, Christopher Rizzi, Mai Chiaet, Alexa Vastola, Zoe Vandergast, Maddie Chelak, Sam Mulick, Jackie Li, Morgan Vibyhal, Chandler Reagan, and Sydney Korlishin who began planning the event Monday. 

Sign Up for West Essex Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

As word spread across social media, preparations included planning a route with the Caldwell and West Caldwell police departments, that included closing Bloomfield Avenue for two and a half hours for westbound traffic. 

It is estimated that approximately 1,500 supporters attended the rally beginning their march in Grover Cleveland Park in Caldwell, walking along Bloomfield Avenue and eventually marching to Crane Park’s gazebo in West Caldwell where speakers articulated their points of view in light of the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s murder. 

Bulik who graduated JCHS in 2018 and currently attends Loyola University of Maryland, stated the driving force for planning the event was because “Caldwell is a predominantly white community and I felt that it was absolutely crucial to start a conversation here. If the white suburbs are not speaking out against racism, we simply are wasting our privilege.

Bulik continued, "I have lived in Caldwell for 11 years and have witnessed the prejudice that some members of this community still have in their hearts, so I definitely wanted to organize something here. While we of course received some negativity, the overall response from Caldwell residents was absolutely beautiful.  I was touched to see people of color from our town and the neighboring area standing alongside hundreds of white protesters in unity.” 

In addition to planned speeches from organizers, impromptu speakers were given an opportunity to address the crowd.  At the request of the organizers Detective Paul Mazzeo of the West Caldwell Police Department, who is the School Resource Officer for the school district, sung the national anthem.

Caldwell Chief of Police James Bongiorno who was one of the planned speakers stated: “First and foremost, my thoughts and prayers are with George Floyd and his family and friends.  As a law enforcement officer, it is our job to protect and serve, and as I watched that horrendous video of Mr. Floyd being murdered, I was disgusted and angered at what had happened.  Law Enforcement failed at their job and it resulted in an unacceptable ending.  I was also extremely disgusted with the other officers on scene who did nothing and completely failed at their job; as stated earlier police officers protect and serve, and they failed horribly at their job and need to be held accountable for their inaction.  Law Enforcement is held to a higher standard where we are trained to treat everyone with dignity and respect at all times, no matter the circumstances, no matter the person, as all lives matter.  Leaders in law enforcement need to work to ensure this never happens again as we work to earn the trust of the community we serve; trust is earned and not just expected because we wear a badge.  A step towards regaining trust is for police leaders to question and denounce actions that are wrong and hold those officers accountable to ensure they do not happen again.  As the Chief of the Caldwell Police Department, I can assure you that every police officer will continue to be guided by the three initiatives associated with Excellence in Policing, Professionalism, Accountability, and Transparency.”

Bulik commented that she was “am astounded by the overwhelming support from the community that we saw last night. I am so glad that we could all come together peacefully to make such a powerful statement and hope that this is just the beginning of something much larger in the West Essex area, where solidarity is so urgently needed during this moment in history.”

Caldwell Mayor John Kelley issued the following statement: “The Borough of Caldwell strives to be a welcoming, inclusive and just community.  The Borough of Caldwell, represented by the governing body, denounces the actions of the four Minneapolis Police officers and decries George Floyd's murder as a tragedy.  As Mayor of Caldwell and resident of the state of New Jersey, I recognize that police brutality is a manifestation of the systemic racism to which Black Americans - Mr. Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among countless others - fall victim each day.

The Borough of Caldwell, affirms that accountability is essential for all public services, including policing.  The death of George Floyd should be cause for sorrow and anger for all Americans.  These historic times are pivotal in our nation's history.  The Borough of Caldwell stands in solidarity with those who fight for a more just world.”

West Caldwell Mayor Joseph Tempesta, who was in attendance, noted: "I am very grateful that the protest was well organized and peaceful as this represents American democracy at its best.  Kudos to all of the police agencies involved as there were over 170 police officers from 20 municipalities in Essex County that assisted the Caldwell and West Caldwell police departments in making this a safe event for the marchers, the general public and our business owners.  

The cost of the overtime for the officers was approximately $75,000-$80,000 and along with the unexpected costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, compounded with the decrease in revenue the municipalities have experienced, the financial impact of this event was unforeseen and unfortunately not budgeted for.  

Although the police departments discussed the event, the West Caldwell administration was not consulted from either the organizers or the Borough of Caldwell as the plans for the event took shape. I wish to commend Officer in Charge Dennis Capriglione, the members of the West Caldwell Police Department, West Caldwell Volunteer  Fire Department, West Essex First Aid Squad, the Public Works department for their professionalism that ensured that the event was safe and successful."

Officer in Charge of the West Caldwell Police Department Captain Dennis Capriglione stated: “A march and vigil was organized by a group of local students in response to the in-custody death of George Floyd, which occurred in Minnesota on May 25.  The West Caldwell and Caldwell Police Department, in conjunction with agencies throughout Essex County, provided a safe and secure route from Grover Cleveland Park to Crane Park in West Caldwell.  Over 1,000 participants attended the event and by all accounts it was an overwhelming success.  We would like to thank all organizers, participants, and assisting agencies for creating a peaceful and safe environment to honor George Floyd.  The West Caldwell Police Department will never tolerate police brutality or abuse of police power by any police officer.”

Caldwell Councilman Jonathan Lace who introduced a Resolution “that condemns racism and systemic injustice” during the borough’s council meeting that was in session while the march was taking place stated:  “The asphyxiation of George Floyd on May 25th at the hands of 4 police officers in Minneapolis was an all-too familiar failure of justice for Americans because of the color of their skin. The racist attitudes that give rise to that injustice are, sadly, evident among a very small number of people in our community. Over the past 3 years, I have spoken previously on the record about my friends’ children in Caldwell being bullied in our schools, about a neighbor being accused of being a “terrorist” because of the color of his skin, and about swastikas on local playground equipment. I have drafted, introduced, and voted in support of resolutions that make a point that cannot be overemphasized and about which I want to be absolutely clear: racism has no place in our Borough or in our Country.”

One of the attendees, Marielena Andre, a North Caldwell resident commented: “My husband and I have lived in North Caldwell with our twins for seven years this August. Over this time, we have happily seen our neighborhoods become more diverse. As a biracial family this peaceful protest was an important initiative for our young children to be a part of. While it breaks our hearts that our parents’ generation were not able to break the patterns of systemic racism; it is imperative now that every community comes together and does the hard work to heal this country. If there were ever a time to build a better nation when so much has collapsed around us; today is the day. We cannot wait any longer!”