Black Lives Matter Banners Adorn Maplewood, South Orange Public Spaces

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Local residents may have noticed that new banners appeared in Maplewood and South Orange last week emblazoned with the words “Black Lives Matter.”

One banner is posted in Spiotta Park in South Orange and the other flies over Maplewood Avenue in Maplewood Village.

The banners are the work of the group SOMA Addressing Race and Inequality which was formed last July by local resident Khadijah Costley White after racial incidents in Maplewood and South Orange

A local member of the group, Nina Essel, said that “Prior to the election it was a group where people shared articles for the most part.” However, she noted that “due to the current political environment the group has become more action focused.”

The group had its first meeting on January 27 at Inkosi Cafe on Irvington Avenue in South Orange.

Then, in early February, Costley White posted about a banner she saw on social media in Fayetteville, Arkansas supporting Black Lives Matter and Black History Month and had a similar idea for SOMA.

“I had always intended for the virtual group to meet in real life, but assumed it might be for a book club or for specific targeted issues (i.e. racial discrimination in schools, racial discrimination in parks or playgrounds, etc.). I think, though, the election has really mobilized folks and helped them feel the urgency of matters of racial injustice,” said Costley White.

Immediately after Costley White brought up the idea, “several community members got to work and contacted the two towns for permits and specs. Another started a Go Fund Me and another created the design and completed the ordering,” said Essel. “In just a few days we had raised $600 to cover the costs of the banners and permits.”

In addition, North Jersey Pride stepped up as the group needed an organization to sponsor due to the need for liability certificates.

“North Jersey Pride being the sponsor is really important, because it shows how important and vital intersectional solidarity is to social change,” said Costley White. “There are plenty of queer people affected by racism and inequality, and vice versa. We can’t wait to use our group’s resources to reciprocate the show of support. They were immediately willing to offer support and we couldn’t have done this without them.”

Members of the group who assisted in getting the banner from idea to reality included Kathy Pichat Greenstone, Colleen Breslin, Cathleen Mitchell, Jan Kaminsky and Anita Gundana.

“The incredible thing was that so many folks in the group got it immediately and jumped in to make it happen,” said Costley White. “What I’ve learned from this action is that there are passionate, generous, and committed people in South Orange and Maplewood who are willing to work to put our energy where our mouth is.”

She added, “So often these online spaces can display a lot of ugliness, racism, and hate, even in SOMA groups, so this group feels a bit like an oasis. And this is only the beginning.”

Costley White explained why banners were the first effort of the group: “Public space is vitally important — it’s how we understand ourselves as a community, it’s how we tell each other and strangers what we’re about, and what we value. So when I saw the somewhat tongue-in-cheek challenge in the tweet about the banner in Arkansas, I thought — yes. We can and should use our community space to declare that we believe black lives matter, that racial discrimination, disparities, and abuse are wholly rejected in our towns.”

Finally, Costley White said that it was “really important to us that the signs not say ‘Black History Month’ [instead they say ‘We Celebrate and Honor Black History’] because this isn’t just about celebrating February, but understanding that black lives matter and black history matters all the time. We’re not putting brackets around the value of people of color. That’s why our banner is different than the one that inspired us in Arkansas. Black lives matter is a deeply sacred call for an institutional, philosophical, personal, and interpersonal change — it opposes the violence black people experience that has become built in and acceptable to our society. And so we chose to give that the most space here.”

The next SOMA Addressing Race and Inequality group meeting is will take place on February 24 (you must ask to join the group here). In addition, the group is holding a vigil for Trayvon Martin and other victims of racial violence on the 5th anniversary of his shooting death by George Zimmerman — February 26 — at 6 p.m. in Spiotta Park in South Orange. The group will gather at the park and then march to Inkosi Cafe for an open mic session and to make postcards to send to the Trayvon Martin Foundation.

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