Maplewood Opinion Police and Fire Schools / Kids South Orange

Letter: Community Leaders Must Not Be Silent in Wake of July 5 Incidents

The following is from TJ Whitaker:

What a difference a year makes!

With the recent release of the audio/video recordings from the post Fireworks incident on 7/5/2016, everyone from the local political leadership, to the police, to clergy and community organizations are scrambling to make up for lost time. They are late to the justice party.

Some might argue “better late than never”. However, it took over a year to force the Town Council and police department to release the recordings; a year of disrespect and dismissal of legitimate concerns. During that same period of time the South Orange Maplewood School District, the Community Coalition on Race, and various religious institutions not only supported and worked closely with the police, but none of them filed an opra request, and they never uttered a word of concern or demand for the release of the recordings. This inaction must be acknowledged and condemned.

The VIllage Green article from Sunday 7/30 describes an utterly shameful display of excessive force by police officers. It paints a clear picture of the chaotic scene at Elmwood and Boyden that ensued when a Maplewood youth was maced and assaulted, then arrested. While this snapshot is significant, the overall picture remains incomplete.

In order to fully understand what occurred at Boyden and Elmwood, concerned citizens must see what transpired on Midland Avenue. A closer look at those video clips reveal the youth walking on the sidewalk, while officers are walking in the middle of the street with Chief Cimino who is brandishing his night stick. Picture a group of black teenagers on a dark Maplewood side street at 10:20pm, with 20-30 officers herding them into Irvington while their weapon-wielding chief participates.

Additionally, when the audio and video are aligned, the corner of Midland and Boyden becomes crucial. It appears that many of the children wanted to go left, up Boyden Avenue into Maplewood where they live, but they are forced down Boyden toward Elmwood Avenue. One can hear Cimino’s orders on audio saying “We’re not going that way, we’re going this way,” and “Elmwood to Boyden”! Clearly the youth were given no options. Perhaps the most damning evidence is actually after the herding, assault, and arrest. In full view of a dashboard camera Chief Cimino and his officers can be seen returning to the vehicle in a celebratory mood laughing and congratulating each other. This was not Hollywood; this was Maplewood.

Given this audio/video evidence, the Maplewood Police statement in the Village Green leads one to believe that the incident was caused by “a few bad apples,” while leaving those in charge that night, Cimino and Cummis, untouched. This is unacceptable.

It is important to note that a year ago on July 12th, the Community Coalition on Race, along with a few clergy, and a police representative sponsored a community forum entitled “Not In Our Two Towns”. An event intended to be a youth-led performance and discussion was co-opted, taken over by the adults, and turned into a celebration of the police. The youth who were marginalized eventually spoke out against those adults and confirmed their experience. That event was one week after the July 5th incident, and we founded the MapSO Freedom School specifically in response.

We brought the story to the attention of the SOMSD Central Office, Board of Education, and Community Leaders meetings. My comments were, at best, acknowledged privately, but never acted on publicly . The only visible and ongoing support for the students from the beginning of this journey has been the MapSO Freedom School, Walter Fields and The Black Parents Workshop, Paula Bethea and SOMEA Teachers Union, and Johanna Wright on the Board of Education.

Throughout our various forums, documentary screenings, rallies and assemblies, no other school official, clergy member, or community leader made any public condemnations or demands on behalf of the youth from the July 5th incident. It is for these reasons that many of the recent statements ring hollow for the MapSO Freedom School teachers and many students in the community.

The fact of the matter is that many people never saw this day coming, and they chose to remain silent. But we are here now, and those who have been silent all year can not now claim to lead. It is disingenuous and unfair to the adults and students who have led this fight for the last year. This time the movement will not be co-opted and derailed. All Power to the People.

TJ Whitaker is a Columbia High School Teacher, and Co-Founder of the MapSO Freedom School. He can be reached at [email protected]

[email protected] Contact: 973-738-2205

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