PHOTOS BY KATE ALBRIGHT
By REBECCA JONES
For Montclair Local
It brought an estimated 1,000 students together, many for the first time, and many of whom will be leaving their Essex County homes to head to college towns in the fall.
In an precedented event, students from Montclair Kimberley Academy, Newark Academy, Seton Hall Prep, Kent Place School, and Montclair, West Orange, Livingston, and Columbia High Schools joined forces on June 19 for the Juneteenth event. They marched from Montclair Kimberley Upper School to Rand Park to show solidarity with the victims of police brutality and to celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States.
On June 19, 1865, slaves in Texas were finally freed, two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The date has become known as Juneteenth.
Also marching were alumni of those schools, Black Lives Matter activists, parents, teachers, Montclair officials and community leaders. The march, which began at 1 p.m. was part of the New Jersey Student Blackout, in which students Essex-wide marched.
“We’re standing in solidarity against police brutality but we’re also voicing our frustration with what’s going on in our schools,” said Nahome Hagos, MKA class of 2020. “This march is about applying pressure on administrators to be less tolerant to direct aggressions and microaggressions black students face. We want them to give more support to black students who feel marginalized.”
Hagos and fellow MKA 2020 organizers AJ Christian, Alina Smith, Arnelle Larose, Madison Green, along with Shayla George from MHS 2020, reached out to students from other schools in the greater Essex County community and beyond, and found they were not alone in their frustration.
Students from eight different high schools helped plan the march; students from at least 10 participated. They gave speeches, read poems, performed dances, showing — what Hagos later called, “braveness and vulnerability” — when sharing difficult stories about the racism they have encountered from teachers, administrators, and fellow students.
“We see the issues in our schools as a microcosm of what’s going on in the larger world,” Hagos said. “Change happens on the local level and we’re here to enact that change.”
Jordan McCray Robinson, Newark Academy 2021; Kelsey Freeman, MKA 2021; Janyia McGainey Rodgers, Montclair High School 2021, Zellie Imani (activist and organizer from Black Lives Matter – Paterson), Petal Robinson (MEA), and Clay Hudson, MKA 2023; and Julian Hudson, Seton Hall Prep 2021, spoke to the crowd gathered at 6 Lloyd Road.
Then students marched down Bloomfield Avenue where they were met with supporters and non-supporters alike.
Several Whole Foods employees came out onto the sidewalk to join in with the chanting. But not everyone was a supporter. Benito Stravato, working construction on a new hair salon on Bloomfield Avenue near Park Street said he didn’t understand why the protestors were marching.
“Black Lives Matter is not a movement, it’s a party. We can’t end the police over a few bad apples,” Stravato said.
The protestors list of demands did not include “ending the police,” but did include updating school curriculum to include “a comprehensive and untainted education about the American police force; its roots, origins, triumphs, and transgressions,” as well as “seminars on how to deal with police brutality.”
They also want to see a more accurate depiction of black history within the curriculum.
“There’s more to black history than M.L.K. and Malcom X,” students said reading from a statement in front of the Montclair Municipal Building on Claremont Avenue. There are “empowering men and women who have paved the way in fields such as STEM, politics, business, music and so much more,” the student organizers continued.
“There is so much black history that has taken place right here in New Jersey that we don’t even know about,” MHS 2019 grad Julia Maskin said, as she marched today down Bloomfield Avenue with a sign reading “More Black History in Schools. “I didn’t even know that the incident on the highway involving Assata Shakur happened so close to my town,” about the shootout with police that landed the then-member of the Black Liberation Army on the FBI most wanted terrorist list.
Another demand, as read before the Montclair Municipal Building, was “an anonymous formal reporting system for racial incidents taking place within schools.”
Students also pushed for giving racial incidents reporting anonymity.
Hagos and Ruqaiyyah Lucas-Caldwell’s from Newark Academy will be attending the University of Pennsylvania this fall. It is one of many universities that have an option for students to report racial incidents anonymously, but Hagos does not know of any high schools that do this.
Research conducted, such as the study by The Steve Fund and Jed Foundation, found victims are more likely to report if they have the option to do so anonymously.
Students like Freeman gave evidence to this assertion, saying in her speech that speaking up is hard because you don’t want to fall into “the angry black girl stereotype”.
“If you look at @blackatmka on Instagram, a lot of those incidents aren’t reported because minorities don’t feel like they receive support from others,” ” said Hago. MHS, Mount Saint Dominic Academy, Kent Place, and Newark Academy also have student created Instagram sites with similar handles where students have started anonymously reporting incidents.
“I’m hoping these stories being shared will inspire change,” said Mount Saint Dominic Academy 2016 alumna Chelsea Greene. “Our administration has known about these issues for years. A letter was sent by the class of 2016 offering strategies for change and they failed to respond. We just want our voices to be heard.”
Other demands, as read before the Montclair Municipal Building, were:
- Professional development specifically geared towards non-Black and White teachers regarding racism in the classroom.
- In school mental health programs geared towards Black students, providing them with an outlet to restore damage done by racism.
- Established connection between Black student groups and school administration—specifically between black students and the Headmaster/principal.
- Increased collaboration between Essex County schools, primarily Black student leaders collaborating to continue improving race relations amongst an extremely divisive Essex County educational system.
“As an alum, something this large scale is not something I’m used to seeing at MKA,” said 2008 grad and current MKA Pre-K teacher Breanna Jones. “These students have strong voices and they are asking to be seen. And the administration is supporting them.”
The students plan to send their demands in letter form to those administrators in the following days.
The protest ended in Rand Park with readings, speeches, and dance performances by Ruqaiyyah Lucas-Caldwell (Newark Academy 2020), Matt Eid (Kinnelon 2021), and Sharon Miller Academy of Dance alumni: Hannah Howell (Bloomfield 2019), Michael Ellis (MHS 2021), Cece Mitchell (MHS 2018), and Olivia Lowe (MHS 2017).
Gabrielle Narcisse (Kent Place 2019), another Sharon Miller alumna, performed a piece mixing movement and personal narrative with music and audio recording clips of Malcolm X speaking about oppression against black women, a voicemail left by 19-year-old Oluwatoyin Salau who was murdered in Tallahassee on June 12, and George Flyod telling officers holding their knee to his neck that he could not breathe. She said she plans to study “art as a form of resistance” at the Gallatin School of NYU this coming fall.
“’I’m really proud of how this was one step in kind of bridging the MKA-MHS cross-town rivalry,” said blackout organizer Larose after the event.
Those tensions were exacerbated at a cross-town basketball game on Feb. 28, when words considered classist and racist were used by an MKA student under the guise of competitive taunting.
“MKA kids and MHS kids worked together to organize, and seeing as the march was a walk between those two schools, it felt very unifying,” Larose said. “I’m very happy I got to graduate on a hopeful note regarding that. Now I have new friends from all over the area, all of which are interested in the kind of work that still needs to be done.”