Felisha George, Emanual Grant, Cory Hardy, Alfonso Spottswood and Sydney Scruggs put some images on Instagram and Facebook on July 7, asking friends to join them at the Maplewood Police Station for an impromptu protest march in the aftermath of the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota.
Five days later, they stood before hundreds on the stage of the South Orange Middle School auditorium for an evening of honest talk and alliance building involving South Orange-Maplewood residents of all races, ages and creeds — including police from both towns.
Their movement, dubbed #NotInOurTwoTowns, now has a website and pledge form, as well as a future.
The Rev. Sandye Wilson started the evening off by asking attendees not to have “compassion fatigue” and invoked President Obama who earlier in the day had quoted Ezekiel: “I will give you a new heart.”
“We hope by the end of the evening you will have said hello to a neighbor you did not know,” said Wilson.
Then the five organizers performed an original tableau in which they each took on the role of a black citizen killed under questionable circumstances, starting with Oscar Grant (Fruitvale Station) and moving through the stories of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner. After each story came the refrain, “Welcome to my funeral.”
The organizers stated their goals for the evening, before those under age 25 split off from the older audience members for a separate (and private) conversation.
Left in the main auditorium, the adults shared their experiences, fears and dreams for a better future.
One woman spoke of growing up in South Orange in the 1960s when she was one of only 56 Black students among 1,500 Columbia High School classmates. She noted that there was an incident in the ’60s where a black teenager was shot by a police officer. “We got through it,” she said, noting, “It’s different now and we should celebrate that.”
Others questioned how police were trained. “How do you train officers to look at our children and not be afraid of our children?” asked one parent.
Some other speakers worried about children and youth not knowing how to behave around police and not having “the talk” with their parents.
A young woman provoked loud applause by saying, “Pro black is not anti-white.” She apologized before telling the audience she had strong words for them. “We don’t plan on making you slaves for 400 years,” she said. “We just want to unify and be great. Why does that threaten you?”
Another speaker challenged her white peers, saying many white community members leave the conversation when it gets uncomfortable: “Get uncomfortable, people, because people are dying!”
“What you have here is not common,” said a recent transplant from Brooklyn. “This diversity doesn’t exist in Irvington and Newark…. You have to take advantage of the diversity you have.”
Columbia High School teacher T.J. Whitaker extolled the efforts of a local group Strength for Their Journey and its spin-off, the MAC Scholars. Whitaker chastised the audience, noting that Strength for Their Journey was formed after Michael Brown’s killing and had never attracted more than 30 adults at its monthly meeting. “Five cops are shot and this is the turnout,” he said, gesturing at the hundreds gathered in the room.
After the public spoke, Maplewood and South Orange Police answered questions and explained outreach programs, such as Coffee with a Cop, National Night Out, and Positive Behavior Citations. Sgt. Joshua Cummis of the Maplewood Police took audience members through a detailed explanation of police training and echoed something that South Orange Police Sgt. Adrian Acevedo had said earlier in the meeting: “Training never ends.”
Nonetheless, both South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca promised more training. “The training you are looking for absolutely needs to be done,” said Collum.
DeLuca provoked a roar from the audience by saying he attended the meeting to show “there are other mayors beside Rudy Giuliani.”
“Whatever Rudy Giuliani thinks, I think Black Lives Matter,” said DeLuca, who added that he wanted to ensure that institutional racism was eradicated and that “we get guns off our streets.”
DeLuca echoed what many thought was the major takeaway from the evening.
“We have to take our lead from young people.”
Another major takeaway: Get to know your police officers.
Both Acevedo and Cummis brought officers from their respective forces to the stage and introduced them to the audience — to tremendous applause.
“We are not that different,” said Acevedo told the audience. “We are people.”
“We are mothers, fathers, husbands, wives,” said Cummis, who invited citizens to come up to police and introduce themselves when they see them on the street or in the local diners. “We eat a lot,” added Cummis, jokingly, before turning serious: “Each and every one of us would put our lives on the line for every one of you.”
In the end, the young organizers sounded a positive note.
Emanual Grant said, “We are aware these problems are outside these two towns, but we can change what happens outside these two towns if we come together.”
Felisha George related that, when she and the other organizers began their protest outside the police station on July 7, a police officer approached them and said, “What can we do for you?”
“We’re lucky to have the police officers that we do,” said George.
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