NEWARK, NJ — Hundreds of demonstrators marched through downtown Newark on Saturday, part of a nationwide show of resistance against police brutality, in response to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.
Organizers used the display of solidarity with Minneapolis as an opportunity to call attention to Newark's own struggle for officer accountability, namely the city's ongoing fight for an independent civilian oversight board.
“The death of George Floyd was a lynching, and we want those police who were responsible to go to jail,” said Lawrence Hamm, chairman of People’s Organization for Progress and U.S. Senate candidate, who organized the march. “We want our people in Minneapolis to know, we hear you in Newark, New Jersey.”
The city shut down traffic from the Lincoln memorial statue at Market and Springfield streets to City Hall for the sign-bearing protestors to march, with Mayor Ras Baraka joining at the front of the crowd. Baraka called a press conference on the steps of City Hall earlier in the day to affirm the city’s support for the demonstration, calling the death of George Floyd an intentional murder.
Police presence was scarce and hands-off as organizers kept the peaceful protest in check. The Department of Public Safety released a statement showing support for citizen mobilization.
“We greatly respect the public’s right to protest. Our earnest request is that the gathering be conducted peacefully and in honor of the life of George Floyd and his family,” Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said. “Chief of Police Darnell Henry and I request that members of the Newark Police Division and other Essex County law enforcement agencies stand with us in solidarity to denounce police brutality and the senseless murder of Mr. Floyd.”
The death of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, sparked riots in Minnesota after video was released showing police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck while Floyd was subdued and pleading "I can't breathe." Three other arresting officers — Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng — were present at the scene.
Riots unfurled across Minneapolis throughout the week, with protestors setting fire to a police precinct and an unfinished affordable housing complex. All four officers have been fired, and Chauvin was taken into custody after being formally charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter on Friday.
Baraka, joining Hamm in front of the Lincoln memorial, harkened back to his own youth protesting the deaths of black people at the hands of police. His father, the poet Amiri Baraka, was beaten during the 1967 uprisings in Newark sparked by the beating of John William Smith, a black taxi driver.
“Every major city in America burned at least once or twice, and 50 years later we’re still in the same situation,” he said. “We have a consent decree in the city of Newark because of years of inhumane treatment of African Americans in our city. We are still atoning for our sins in Newark.”
Right now, Newark is embroiled in a state Supreme Court battle with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No.12 for the right of its Civilian Complaint Review Board to investigate public complaints against police via subpoena. The CCRB was established in 2016 after a 2014 federal report determined that Newark Police Department had a pattern of civil rights violations.
The same year, the city also entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. The DoJ's investigation also resulted in the appointment of a federal monitor to help undo the damage wrought by unconstitutional policing and internal failure to enforce officer accountability.
Hamm said that in a country where more than a third of the roughly 1,000 people killed by police each year are black, every city and town in New Jersey should have a civil oversight board. If the Supreme Court rules in Newark’s favor, it would set a precedent that many municipalities would likely follow.
“Whether you’re in a blue uniform or no uniform, if you kill a person, it’s still murder. If you murder someone, you should go to jail,” he said.
POP’s and fellow organizers’ list of demands included charges for all four officers involved in Floyd’s death, as well as an independent prosecutor. Hamm tied the support for Minneapolis back to action needed in Newark, saying those in the crowd must also focus their outrage on continued advocacy for the city’s CCRB.
Junius Williams, Newark’s city historian and the founder of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University-Newark, drew the same parallels to 1967, highlighting the recurrence of racial friction between black Americans and the police.
The one difference now, Williams said, is that justice can be more instantaneously demanded as a result of civilian cell phone footage and Internet activism.
“The police officer who had his knee on George Floyd’s neck was charged with murder because of video evidence and because the community in Minneapolis got mad and rebelled. George Floyd was no wild black man out of control,” Williams told TAPinto Newark. “What you see in Minneapolis now, like you saw in Newark in 1967, is the product of a long list of wrongdoing by the police. And despite the pandemic, people said this is enough, and we can’t take it anymore and went out into the streets.”
Mark J. Bonamo contributed to this reporting.