BLACK LIVES MATTER
Raise Your Voice: Small Town Students Speak Out For Change
Originally Published Medium
online version can be viewed here.
Published: June 08, 2020
There was an eerie anticipation that blanketed the air as residents of Flemington, New Jersey woke up on Saturday, June 6, 2020. Change would be made at 12 pm in downtown, and it could be felt echoing like a heartbeat down Main Street.
That very heartbeat was once painted blue but had been stripped back to black where protesters of every color would soon stand.
“This morning, before most of you probably woke up, I had the blue line painted over,” Flemington Mayor Betsy Driver was met with applause at her declaration during her speech on the Historical Hunterdon Courthouse steps.
Flemington’s blue line is one that was painted between the yellow lines on Main Street in October 2016, ordered by then-Mayor Phil Greiner and then-Council President Brian Swingle in support of the town’s police officers.
Similar blue lines were painted in other New Jersey communities, but even after being declared illegal by a letter from the Office of Transportation Operations Director Mark R. Kehrli noting that the markings are not in accordance with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, Flemington’s line stayed right where it was for over three years.
The action of removing it, some say, is long overdue.
“The first thing that caught my eye today when I came out here was the blue line that was removed from the middle of the street…” Richard Anderson, a Flemington resident for almost 20 years and a member of the black community, said. “The blue line was put up in support of ‘Blue Lives Matter’ and to come up here today and see that the blue line has been removed was quite impactful.”
This move was just one of many that was met with great support during the event organized by a passionate group of local high schoolers, most of whom could not even drive themselves to their own protest because of their age. That did not stop them from imparting wisdom and a fire within the community for change.
“It’s our right (to protest),” 17-year-old Jordyn Caldwell, a black female student of Hunterdon Central Regional High School, said. She, along with a group of her young peers from local high schools, organized the protest that would soon fill the streets. “If the government is seeing that all of this is happening and people are coming together, there is no reason why you shouldn’t make a change. If you don’t, you’re stuck in ignorance.”
The Earth looked down on the students and smiled as a perfectly sunny day lit up the town just before 12 pm as protesters banned together in front of the Hunterdon County Courthouse on Park Avenue.
Julia Tereko, 16-year-old leader of the Black Lives Matter group of Hunterdon County, spoke of the roots of the protest.
“It was originally (planned) in memorial to George Floyd,” Tereko said. “We started at a peaceful origin of wanting to commemorate him.”
Nearly 1,500 people came together in downtown Flemington in peaceful protest to stand against police brutality and do just that.
“At times like this we should come together,” Caldwell said.
While Hunterdon County is a predominantly white community with Caucasians making up over 86 percent of the population of 125,000 residents according to the United States Census Bureau, the courthouse lawn was filled with people from every race and background, supporting one common goal.
“Our mission is to do a peaceful protest,” Karen Garcia, 17, one of the high schoolers who organized the protest, said. “One big misconception is that it is going to be blacks versus whites, and it’s not. It’s just anti-hate and anti-racism.”
NJ.com reports that Hunterdon County was just named the “safest place in America to raise a child” and with a median income at over $100,000 a year according to the United States Census Bureau, it can be easy to forget about the strife of others.
“We live in beautiful Hunterdon County,” Patricia Campos-Medina, an immigrant and ally of the Black Lives Matter movement, said. “We can sometimes believe that we are in a bubble. That if we do the right thing, our kids are going to be okay. If I don’t mess with those people creating trouble, I will be okay… This (police brutality) does not care if you live in Hunterdon County or you live in Newark or you live in Minneapolis. This is the system that puts value of some people over other people. And as Americans we all have value.”
The clear gap in diversity in the area has done nothing to squelch the community’s belief that change needs to happen. At the encouraging of humans younger than most of the attendees, protesters began to march through town from the Hunterdon County Courthouse to the Historic Courthouse located on Main Street where the Lindbergh Trial was held over 80 years ago. Officials marched side-by-side with community members as Flemington Chief of Police Jerry Rotella headed the march.
“Flemington Borough stands in solidarity with you and we will always stand in solidarity with you as this goes on,” Mayor Driver said. “We will be the change you want to see here in Flemington and elsewhere.”
As the march reached Main Street, chants broke out through the crowd, creating a new pulse this town’s heart would beat to.
“No justice, no peace, no racist police” was just one of many chants that echoed around the historic town. “This is what Democracy looks like” was another that the crowd made heard as they walked through the center of town.
Signs were carried above the crowd as protesters exercised another one of their rights, using their freedom of speech to make their thoughts known. One attendee gave a kernel of wisdom as she described her parents regret at not bringing signs to carry.
“My mom was upset that we didn’t make signs,” 14-year old Peyton, who is black, said. “But we are the signs.”
The crowd was a unified front as they gathered in front of the Historic Courthouse steps, just feet from the town’s police department.
“It all starts here,” Tereko spoke in regard to the location of the protest. “This is where the community’s heart is. All the change has to start with us where we grew up.”
Congressman Tom Malinowski of New Jersey’s 7th District was in attendance and marched with protesters through the heat.
“We are here for George Floyd,” Malinowski said during his speech on the Historic Courthouse steps. “We are here for all the men and women whose names are written on the signs that you see. We are not just here for one man or for 10 or for 100. We are here for every man and woman in the United States of America.”
He was unafraid in his condemnation of the Executive Branch of the United States’ handling of the current social climate in the wake of riots and protests calling for police reform.
“I saw what happened in front of the White House on Monday night,” he passionately began. “This is not America. We do not use the military to violently put down peaceful protests so that one man can have a photo-op with a Bible that he never read.”
Pledging to back up his words with action, Congressman Malinowski then vowed to make sure the world does not move on and forget about the changes that need to be made on both local and Federal levels.
“I am demanding that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense come before Congress and explain what the hell they’re doing…” His declaration was met with thundering applause from the audience. “You are going to see in the House of Representatives, real police reform legislation that is acted upon this month.”
He was not the only speaker who expressed a deep need for immediate and plausible change. Another high school student who assisted in organizing the protest, Sierra Willis, 16, spoke during the rally about her frustration at the length of time it is taking to fully eradicate racism in America.
“We say black lives matter because we do,” Willis, aged 16, said during her speech. “We marched side-by-side just like Martin did… We marched with him 60 years back, and the fact that we still have to do it to this day is blowing my mind.”
Nalahjia Gittens, 16, made it personal by speaking about her struggles as a black high school student in a predominantly white community.
“When I moved here, it was hard for me to really feel accepted,” Gittens said as she fought off tears. “And even now it’s even harder with everything going on. It’s hard being the only black kid in every single one of your classes. It is hard finding out that some of your peers don’t support you the way you would support them if their life was in danger. It’s hard hearing these kids around you say the ‘n’ word with their hard ‘r’ and full chest and when they notice your presence, they laugh like it’s a joke. But it’s really not a joke because it hurts.”
People of all ages stood in solidarity with black Americans, fighting for a different tomorrow, like 13-year-old Eli, who attended the protest with his family.
“I know that people who are black have it harder than people with white privilege,” He said. “So, we need to change that so that black people don’t have to live in fear.”
One theme of the day was the need to acknowledge the privilege Eli spoke about.
“Some of us can encounter law enforcement and have not a care in the world and some of us, because of the color of their skin can’t…” Congressman Malinowski said. “It (white privilege) is a form of denial. It’s a belief that our job is done because we got rid of segregation and slavery.”
“As white people we don’t really see it because we are not dealing with it all the time,” Amanda Mancusi, a white adoptive mother of a black young man, said. “So, I think it’s easy for us to think that there’s not a problem because it’s not happening to you. White people need to stand up and use their voice to amplify others.”
The heart behind the day was never forgotten as speakers constantly reminded the crowd of why they were gathered, not than anyone could forget.
“It is overwhelmingly apparent that existing while black in America is still a crime punishable by death,” Historian and activist Hailey Rounsaville, who organized her own local protest the week before, said. “The most patriotic thing you can do is criticize a country when it fails its people.”
Police officers were also in attendance, peacefully standing and watching the protest as members of the crowd.
“I feel really strongly about this,” Congressman Malinowski said when addressing police reform. “We have got to make sure we stop this transfer of military equipment for our defense department to police departments. When I look at our police officers here in Flemington and across New Jersey, they look like police officers. They should. I don’t want them looking like the 82nd Airborne parachuting into Iraq… This is about trust. This is about peace. I respect police officers. I respect anybody who decides ‘I’m going to spend my life, risking my life for very little pay to help other people stay safe.’”
While local and state officials were given the opportunity to speak to the crowd, it was the hearts of the high school students who organized the protest that evoked the most emotion among those in the audience. They imparted just as much, if not more wisdom than their older counterparts and stood equal to each other, making sure everyone’s voice was able to be heard.
“I feel that we are in good hands,” Campos-Medina said of the younger generation. “The next generation of leaders is standing right here for us in New Jersey.”
Their wisdom and words spoke not only to the older community that gathered, but related race-related issues in America directly to their peers.
“I’ve always looked forward to driving,” said Gittens. “But now I’m anxious that I’ll end up on the wrong side of town with no help. God forbid I had been born into a family in Texas or Alabama where sundown times are still very prominent.”
Looking out to the crowd, she asked the simple but powerful question, “would it be better if I just bleached my skin?”
The students also spoke out against bias they see in American society today.
“It hurts me seeing little Gianna Floyd not having her father by her side,” Caldwell said. “It crushes my heart. Every little girl needs her father. Every child needs their father. And due to the unjust systematic structure of this nation George Floyd can’t go home to his children, mother, brother or fiancé.”
Using art to elevate the day’s message, some of the student turned to performance pieces.
Sylvana Lavecchia, a white local high school student, sang a cover of the song Rise Up by Andrea Day after speaking about what an ally of the Black Lives Matter movement should look like.
“Being an ally, a true ally, means that all black lives matter,” she said. “All of them. And, in order to be anti-racist, you have to stand up against racism that happens in your everyday life, not just now when people are dying. It is our responsibility. Anti-racism cannot be equated with silently believing in equality.”
Alexa Suric, 16, reminded the public that taking charge for social issues is not a choice.
“We must stand with people of color and not above them…” Suric said. “We must speak with them, not over or for them… People do not get to have an opinion when talking about racism and police brutality in America.”
Jordyn Caldwell also led the crowd in a performance of Amazing Grace.
The day’s emotions came to a head when Jadon Black, 16, another local high schooler who assisted in organizing the event, sang his rendition of Stand Up by Cynthia Ervio.
Michaela Hutchinson, 17, read a piece of poetry before stating “rest in power, Breonna Taylor.”
What followed was a moment of silence honoring all those who had lost their lives in America at the hands of racism and police brutality. In an almost haunting eight minutes and 46 seconds, Flemington kneeled quietly to honor George Floyd and every second he spent dying at the hands of another.
The Fields family of Readington, NJ said a prayer over the audience as the rally came to a close.
One lingering question was left as people put away their signs and started to disperse from the streets: where do we go from here?
“It starts with educating yourself and really learning a true history of our nation,” Mancusi said. “We don’t really get a good education in school right now. They kind of whitewash what they’re learning so for me personally, I can say that’s where I started. I started joining some different Facebook groups and was able to get educated and have a more diverse conversation.”
Keeping the unity of the day flowing through the community going forward was also a goal of local leaders.
“We want to keep that unity so we can keep the pressure on our elected officials to do what’s right and stand up for what’s right,” said Malik Johnston, 43, a member of the black community who is running for Flemington Borough Council in November.
Bhakti Curtis, a bi-racial longtime supporter and activist of the Black Lives Matter movement echoed this sentiment.
“If you would have been here 30 years ago, to see this now, it’s unbelievable,” he began. “I truly believe that the only way we can get through this is through unity, understanding, compassion and love. That’s it.”
Looking forward, the students called out for better education, not only for whites, but also for people of color to understand their origins.
“We need to start educating both students and people who lack understanding on the subject about the roots and layers of black history. Because black history is American history,” Gittens said. “Schools don’t teach us about the summer of 1967 or the MLK assassination riots or black wall street or the Tulsa race massacre despite the fact that history seems to be repeating itself. It needs to be understood that racism is a voluntary mental illness that clouds the judgement and thought process of those who practice it.”
Jordyn Caldwell called for not only accurate and robust education of the history of oppression, but also wanted education to highlight the contributions to society that blacks have made.
“Let us teach them their history and their worth,” she said during her powerful speech. “That they are beautiful from their melanated skin complexions all the way to their hair. That there is power in our roots. Let us teach them about colorism and that it was built on a mindset to make the darker of us feel lesser than. It is important that we not only teach on the oppression of our people but the accomplishments of African Americans in the U.S. such as Black Wall Street and our accomplishments in fields of science, economics, beauty, art and how we helped shape this country.”
Above all else, the call to vote was present throughout the entire day. A table was set up next to the courthouse steps with information and forms laid out for attendees to register to vote, and multiple speakers spoke out about the important of exercising that right.
“In a few months we are going to have a chance to fix a lot…” Congressman Malinowski said. “There is no more powerful weapon against injustice in America than the power of the vote. If every young person in America voted, we wouldn’t have to be out here today.”
At these words, the crowd erupted in yet another chant. This time, repeating the word “vote” over and over again in agreement.
“You can give us a united Congress and a united Washington, ready to take action,” the Congressman said. “Ready to solve these problems that have been festering for way too long.”
Karen Garcia expressed a similar sentiment.
“If they (America) want a change,” she began. “They should go vote and make a change.”
The crowd was reminded that the battle does not end at the polls, though.
“Simply voting is not enough…” Rounsaville said. “This is not a partisan issue; this is a human issue.”
When speaking of the importance of continuous activism, Tereko said, “we want everyone to realize that there is still progress to be made and we are the ones who are going to make it. We just want to be heard.”
Connect with the Hunterdon County Black Lives Matter movement on Instagram at @BLMHunterdon
To view more photos from the day’s events, click here.
All photos property of Kimberly Marie. Please credit any reposts.
copyright 2020 Kimberly Stefanick
designed & created by Kimberly Stefanick