by Andrew Garda
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
For eight minutes and forty-six seconds, more than 1,000 people from Montclair and beyond knelt in the street or held their fists up in front of the Montclair Police Department.
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the amount of time George Floyd was struggling with the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin placed on his neck, unable to breathe.
It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t comfortable, but that discomfort was only one of the many things the more than 1,000 marchers who attended the “Black Lives Matter-Crack the Blue Wall” march and rally on Saturday, June 6, 2020.
The march, which was organized by the Montclair Citizens for Equality and Fair Policing and the For The People’s Foundation and led by activists Abraham Dickerson and Alexandria Kerr, moved peacefully through the streets of Montclair in a call for accountability from local and national law-enforcement agencies in the wake of the recent killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
It’s a very personal topic for Dickerson.
Back in 2016, when the deaths of Philando Castile and Micheal Brown were fresh in his mind, Dickerson was driving in Montclair with his daughter when they witnessed Montclair police pull over a black woman.
“And I see like four to five officers surrounding her on Glen Ridge Ave,” he said. “We drove over to the parking lot of the Pathmark, and decided we would record it from [there].”
Dickerson said officers kept looking over at his car, but he thought nothing of it, and eventually he and his daughter pulled out and went on their way.
His daughter thought they were going to get pulled over, but Dickerson was not worried.
His daughter was right. The police pulled Dickerson, who was in a new car, over citing a broken taillight. IPhone in hand and running, Dickerson asked to get out of the car to confirm there was no broken light.
“And that’s when I went into a little tirade with them about how “this is why Philado Castile got killed, because of a fake traffic stopped, blah, blah, blah,” said Dickerson.
Dickerson went into the police station a short time later and began working with them to eliminate traffic stops like his and begin working with police to improve community relations.
“So, this is very, very personal,” Dickerson said. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of solutions out there too.”
Alexandria Kerr, another of the organizers of the march said it all came together quickly.
“This was heat of the moment,” she said. “But everybody came together and banded together for a cause, for George Floyd and to pay tribute to his life.”
While Floyd was killed in Minnesota, for Kerr and many others, the issues which resulted in his death are ones which resonate in Montclair.
“[We want] the police department to recognize the systematic injustice that is going on, to speak out against it,” Kerr said. “To take a vow that they are not part of it, and that they’re going to fight it. [And] to get across that black lives do matter, and that’s okay to say that.”
Prior to the march, people gathered in Nishuane Park at the Martin Luther King Jr. monument, which was itself surrounded by multiple tables holding water and, more critically to the organizers, information.
It was clear that to them, action is important, but smart action is equally critical.
“We want everybody to be educated on the census, how registering for the census counts, how every vote counts, and learning how to register,” Kerr said. “And to learn about this system, the government system, checks and balances, the judicial, executive and, legislative branches.”
That was what former Montclair High School quarterback Elijah Robinson was tasked with.
“I’m explaining to people each portion of the government,” Robinson said. “At times, it seems like one is over powering the other, but checks and balances have been in place ever since the [start] of our government and it’s just procedures [and] a set of rules in place to limit the power of executive, judicial and legislative branches. You’ve got presidency that thinks they have more power than they do.”
Robinson said it’s important to vote, not just for the presidency, but every election.
“You need to vote for senators, you need to vote for the House of Representatives, because all that matters,” he said.
At the end of the day, Robinson said people need to come together and care for each other.
“For me personally, I’m out here to spread love. That’s the most important thing,” he said.
As they waited, people also had music, a karate demonstration and more to occupy their time.
Then it was time to march.
Eight minutes, 46 seconds
The group moved out of Nishuane, heading north on Harrison Avenue, onto Orange Road, then turning south down Bloomfield Avenue. The march then stopped in from of Montclair Police Headquarters, where activist Larry Hamm, founder of People’s Organization For Progress, took the stage for a passionate speech.
Hamm began his remarks by saying as a resident of Montclair for thirty years, seeing people of all races gathering together made this was the proudest day of his life.
However, it was not a day of celebration, he pointed out, but one of needed action.
“We are angry. There’s nothing wrong with being angry,” he continued. “We are outraged. There’s nothing wrong with being outraged. We are furious about the death of George Floyd, Breonna and Ahmaud. But we’re going to take our anger, take our fury, take our outrage and turn it into energy, to end the scourge of police brutality in this country.”
Hamm went on to say that while the arrest of Chauvin and the other three Minneapolis officers was good, it wasn’t enough. That the charges of third and second degree murder Chauvin faced should be first degree charges.
He pointed out that while Taylor had died in her bed due to a no-knock warrant which wasn’t even for her, the police who shot her twenty-two times were still not charged.
And he said the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was no simple murder.
“Ahmaud Arbrery was hunted down, like a dog in the street,” Hamm said. “They literally went hunting. They used the weapons that they used in hunting. They use the techniques that they used in hunting. It wasn’t murder. It was a lynching.”
Hamm finished by calling for MPD officers to wear body-cams, and for a civilian oversight.
According to data from MappingPoliceViolence.org, which gathered data of all the police killings in the United States for 2019, black Americans were nearly three times more likely to die at the hands of police than white Americans and one-and-a-half more likely to be unarmed before their death.
The database said that ninety-nine percent of killings by police from 2013-2019 did not result with officers being charged with a crime. Statista.com broke the information down, and pointed out that in 2019, twenty-four percent of all police killings were of black Americans, despite only being thirteen percent of the population.
He also spoke of the rise of White Supremacy in both the law enforcement community and the military, citing a 2019 report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and recent concerns from the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security.
“A month ago, the State Department of Homeland Security for New Jersey, declared that the biggest threat to civil society in New Jersey was not the Taliban, was not a terrorist group from abroad [but] was white supremacist organizations.”
Hamm finished by urging the crowd, especially the youth in it, to keep focused and keep fighting to end “the unequal distribution of wealth and power in this country.”
After Hamm’s speech came the call to kneel. Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti and Deputy Chief Wil Young knelt with the crowd, and Conforti moved on with the march to Crane Park.
The crowd fell silent as they knelt, even as they clearly grew uncomfortable.
When the crowd reached Crane Park, they gathered around a stage for speeches and music. While pastors and a rabbi made impassioned speeches, it was the youth who brought the most energy and fire.
Kerr kicked things off with a speech urging not just action like the rally, but action at the polls.
“Before you start a riot and throw a stone and burn something, ask yourself, did I vote? Before you start a riot and throw a stone and burn something, ask yourself, Did. I. Vote?” she said, pausing the second time to emphasize each word. “Either way, put the stone down. We’re not burning buildings, but I understand your pain because that’s my father…I want to do something with my pain, too, and be heard, but that’s not the solution.”
Olivia Chipepo, who will be attending Morgan State in the fall and was one of many young black women who helped organize the day, also stood to speak. She said that the thousands coming out during a pandemic shows how important the problem of systemic racism is. She urged people to continue to fight, to not let up just because they were at a march.
“I am sick and tired of seeing a hashtag followed by the names of my black brothers and sisters on social media. I am sick and tired of seeing horrific videos of black people being murdered by the hands of police and racist individuals,” she said.
“I am sick and tired of black women and the LGBTQ+ community being left out of the conversation. I am sick and tired of seeing murderers get arrested, but never getting jail time. I am exhausted from it all, and I hope you are, too, but just because I am tired does not mean I will stop. I will not rest until every police department in America is held accountable for their disgusting treatment against the black community.”
Mayor-elect Sean Spiller, took the stage to wrap things up, saying that confronting racism is critical in all aspects of our society, from policing to health care and education.
Spiller called on the people of Montclair “to not be silent, to not whisper but to speak up, speak out and say enough is enough. We each have a job to do, and we will not eradicate racism unless we are as committed tomorrow and the day after and the day after that as we are today.”