Justin Rich says the Chauvin verdict is a small victory but not enough. April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By KATE ALBRIGHT and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Justin Rich grew up in Montclair. And he wants to feel like he belongs here.

Rich, who is Black, saw April 20’s conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd as “a small victory.”

“But it’s still not enough,” he said. “I don’t want to be scared walking around town. … I want to feel like I belong everywhere.”

It’s that sentiment that brought Rich to a gathering April 21, a day after the verdict, to Nishuane Park — where about two dozen people joined one another in solidarity at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Corretta Scott King statue. Montclair Beyond Policing, the police abolitionist group that organized the event, had urged attendees on social media: “Let’s take comfort and care in community.” All were welcome, but Black and brown members of the crowd were prioritized when those attending chose to speak.

And Rich’s sentiment was one shared by many — the verdict was welcome and necessary, but not nearly enough.

Montclair Beyond Policing, formed after Floyd’s death, goes further than some other local activists in seeking a change to the role of policing. Its goals are largely aligned with national calls to “defund the police.” It would, for instance, shift police out of Montclair schools and have traffic management handled without them. It would like to see a 911-like emergency line that sends unarmed mental-health workers and medics trained in crisis intervention rushing to help. (Montclair’s police chief, in a discussion with Montclair Local on the role of policing earlier this year, has argued instead his officers are well-trained for crises and work with other groups on providing care.)

Anneliese Scherfen said that as she awaited the verdict, “I sort of already knew how I felt — because I knew that regardless of the outcome, George Floyd would still be dead and police would continue to kill disproportionately Black and brown folks.”

She’d seen a pattern in published police use of force figures of more force being applied against Black and brown individuals, in communities throughout the state — “and we like to think that we are special here in Montclair, but we’re not.”

Scherfen said many people believe policing needs to change — but think police violence won’t happen here. 

“But it can happen anywhere because policing as a system, is a violent, death-making system. And I’m brought to this work by the instances such as George Floyd and the long, long list of names before and after his death.”

Caleb Levine talks about how he initially felt good when hearing the verdict — before reflecting further. April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

Attendees and speakers reflected on other deaths of Black and brown people in deadly encounters with police — such as that of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, fatally shot by a Columbus, Ohio police officer in a disturbance outside her home April 20, just minutes before the Chauvin verdict. Police have released body camera footage that appears to show the teen holding a knife and charging toward someone before being shot. Family members have told media they don’t understand what prompted what they saw in the footage.

“Ma’Khia was named after a prophet in the Bible,” Purbita Saha said at the Montclair gathering, quoting Ma’Khia’s mother, Paula. “She was a very loving, peaceful little girl. She was just 16 years old. She was an honor roll student. Ma’Khia had a motherly nature about her. She promoted peace and that’s something that I want always to be remembered.’”

Mark Joseph said that 10 months ago, as residents in Montclair and elsewhere protested in the aftermath of Floyd’s death under Chauvin’s knee, he couldn’t have explained the phrase “defund the police.” For some groups, the term is a call for outright police abolition; others use it to advocate partial defunding. Broadly, proponents are seeking many of the functions usually associated with police to instead be handled by unarmed individuals other than law enforcement.

Joseph said his own ignorance of the issue was a part of his privilege as a white male — that he had to learn about the movement for police abolition, while some others live in fear of police every day. He pointed to the deadly police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago late last month. 

“So I had that luxury to learn while other people do not, and that really infuriates me and I’m going to hopefully do whatever I can do to help be a part of something,” he said.

Caleb Levine, a high-schooler, said when he first read the verdict, he’d been in a good mood. He felt hopeful “it might be the start of a time when police officers can’t murder people, Black and brown people, in cold blood in the middle of the street with impunity.”

“And I thought about how pathetic that this is the glimmer of hope, how pathetic it is that something so ridiculously obvious is what I grasped on to for hope,” Levine said.

Lily Cui, of Montclair Beyond Policing, called on attendees to think past their own instincts to think punitively. She asked them not to see violence as a solution.

“Or even if somebody had done something horrific, to think about how they got there, right?” she said. “[Think about] what institutions, what systems made that possible instead of let’s, you know, rally around this kind of instinct for revenge, right? We’ve been told that that system is the only thing that can give us justice. And I think that’s part of the problem, that we’ve been told to want something that’s fundamentally violent, that we’ve been told justice is a violent thing … [that] justice is like somebody being incarcerated for the rest of their life.”

Many of the goals those attending discussed could apply in any community — as debates over the role of police continue nationwide. But some of their observations and asks were explicitly local.

Lily Chiu invites attendees to share their thoughts at the megaphone, while prioritizing Black and brown community members, April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

Joseph, for instance, figures over the next 30 years, his own tax dollars would amount to $50,000 in payments for policing in Montclair. 

“And [I] was just thinking about me as one person in Montclair. So then I’m thinking about more people in Montclair, and I’m like — that money can go to parks, housing, healthcare,” he told Montclair Local.

Montclair has a reputation that “everything is perfect,” he said.

“Montclair has more resources,” Joseph said. “That’s why we have less crime. And yet there are other places that have way less resources. And I feel like Montclair needs to lead the way and help in that regard.”

Maddie Hedgepeth, a high school student, told Montclair Local she was originally from Chicago and has lived in the South. When she came to Montclair, she said, “it was a reality check.” People think “of this bubble, kind of, [that] we don’t have racism, we don’t have homophobia, etc. And that’s just so far from the case.” 

She spoke of the case of Natalie Hackett’s daughter. In a tort claim filed last year against the Montclair school district, the family alleges the then-seventh-grader was targeted in online chats with racial insults and threats for nearly two school years. The family says she was called “blackie,” “tar baby,” “burnt stick,” “shadow” and other slurs referencing her race and skin color. 

“So the Chauvin case reminded me of how things seem like they’re getting better because it’s brought to light and then it’s just shoved under the carpet again, because we don’t do anything about it,” Hedgepeth said.

The Kings monument in Nishuane Park was the gathering spot for members of the community and Montclair Beyond Policing to gather on the evening following the Derek Chauvin verdict, April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

From left, Mark Joseph, Purbita Saha, and Justin Rich, April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Purbita Saha, here with her dog Jolene, reads the words of Paula Bryant, the mother of teenager, Ma’Khia Bryant, who was killed by police on the same day as the Chauvin verdict, April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Anneliese Scherfen says she was brought to activism by use of force numbers published almost two years ago, showing disproportionate use of force in New Jersey against Black and brown people, April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Mark Joseph recalls meeting at the Kings monument for a protest in June, and not yet knowing what defunding the police meant, April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
From left, Purbita Saha and Anneliese Scherfen listen to the speaker, April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
People gather at the Kings monument, April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Purbita Saha, with her dog Jolene, April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Justin Rich thanks everyone for coming out, April 21, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
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