WEST ORANGE, NJ — Some held hand-crafted signs emblazoned with messages such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Enough is Enough.” Many raised their voices in an emotional chorus of defiant chants, breaking up the stillness of late afternoon Main Street with refrains of “No Justice, No Peace” and “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” Most were people of color, though many were white.
But if there was one thing that united each of the hundreds who participated in the West Orange Human Relations Commission’s July 13 peace march outside Town Hall, it was this: the desire for the nationwide conflict between police and black people that has already claimed so many lives to end immediately.
That was exactly the message the event intended to send in the days following the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, as well as the murders of five Dallas police officers. HRC acting Chairwoman Jane Gaertner said the commission felt a responsibility to open a local dialog on race relations in response to the outrage many people feel. Speaking with the West Orange Chronicle before the event, Gaertner said holding candid conversations on diversity is the way to bring about social justice for all people.
And while Gaertner acknowledged in her opening remarks that white people can often be reluctant to talk about race relations, she stressed that matters will only get better if they do.
“White people need to talk about race,” Gaertner, who is white, said to applause from the throngs of people gathered on the steps of Town Hall. “It’s important for us to engage with others in the struggle for equality and to change hearts and minds.”
Akil Khalfani, representing both the HRC and the West Orange African Heritage Organization, echoed the need for change during his speech. Khalfani said the subject of blacks being treated unfairly by the criminal justice system has been discussed for more than 60 years without anything substantial being done to stop it. While relations between police and civilians may be good in West Orange, he said residents still have a moral responsibility to stand against injustice found in other parts of the nation. The only way to do that, he said, is to demand “peace, justice, dignity and respect” with conviction.
“Tomorrow you have to do something different than you did today,” Khalfani passionately urged the audience. “Tomorrow you have to think differently than you think today. And if you don’t think differently, we can’t do differently. We all have to collectively come together to work for a different tomorrow than it is today. Otherwise, we will see that the things that we are seeing happening across America will happen again.”
Khalfani’s call for action comes as an ongoing Washington Post database shows that 381 black people have been shot and killed by on-duty police officers from Jan. 1, 2015, through July 10, 2016. While more white people — 732 — have been killed in that time, the database found that black victims accounted for 24 percent of those killed despite the fact that they make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Whites represented 49 percent of those killed but make up 62 percent of the population. In other words, according to the database, black people are 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white people.
Additionally, a 2014 ACLU report found that black males are sentenced to prison terms nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males for similar crimes. It also found that 65.4 percent of prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses are black, and that blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession despite comparable usage rate between blacks and whites. Forty-two percent of those sentenced to death are black although they make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, the report stated.
To see so many people of all races come out for the HRC peace march in light of such statistics was moving to Khalfani. But he told the Chronicle after the event that this is only the beginning. In order to combat what he feels is the underlying racism that has led to so many police shootings, the HRC commissioner said open dialog truly inclusive of all voices needs to continue happening in West Orange and elsewhere. That way, the police and the community can collaboratively address the tensions that are keeping people on edge and causing incidents of violence.
“I fear for my own sons,” Khalfani said. “So, either I can allow something to happen or I can be proactive and work with the police and the people in town to bring about change. Otherwise, it won’t happen.”
Khalfani was just one of many people at the event who want to see an end to the conflict between police and minorities. Joseph Velazquez said it is “terrible” to see so many people of color being killed by police on the news. That is why it was important to him to take part in an event like the peace march — to send the message that the violence cannot continue.
“It’s a really big problem, and it needs to stop as soon as possible,” Velazquez told the Chronicle prior to the event. “It is unnecessary for us to keep losing people like we have been because there have been just too many police shootings. So we need to stop it.”
Justina Anyanwu and her daughter, Chioma, also wanted to lend their support to the peace march in an effort to raise awareness for the issue. Justina Anyanwu said she believes many police officers treat black people differently than they do whites, which is what has led to police shootings. In order to stop the problem, she said police need to be held more accountable for their actions. Chioma Anyanwu added that all lives matter, but black lives are the ones that currently need to be protected.
For Hector and Angie Albizu, the event was a chance to show their young son that everyone deserves to be treated fairly. And Hector Albizu pointed out that there is no better way to send that message than by showing him the people of many different races and cultures who came out to support the march. He said moving to West Orange was the day his eyes opened to the beauty of diversity, allowing him to become friends with people of all different backgrounds. He said coming together for the march shows that this eclectic mix of residents wants a better future for everyone, regardless of color.
Angie Albizu added that having such a diverse community gather to promote a message of peace gives her hope that change will come in her son’s lifetime.
“I want him to grow up knowing that everyone is equal, that he’s safe wherever he goes and that we’re all the same,” Angie Albizu told the Chronicle while waiting for the march to start.
Hector Albizu, who said he has had both good and bad experiences with police in West Orange, said hiring more police officers who grew up in town or who are familiar with residents would be a great step toward eliminating barriers between the WOPD and residents. He also thinks holding more community events like the peace march would further promote open dialog between the two sides.
Greg Boyle, a retired WOPD sergeant who now serves as pastor for the Unconditional Love Christian Church, said he is all in favor of an open dialog — as long as everyone has the facts. That is why Boyle disagreed with some of the rhetoric used in the speeches given during the event. Specifically, he said references to black people being “murdered” by officers are objectionable since many police shootings are found to be justifiable uses of deadly force. He also stressed that police officers do not view minorities as “criminals.”
“I know that people have had unfair experiences at times,” Boyle told the Chronicle during the event. “But that doesn’t mean that there’s an inherent, systemic, silent code for cops to target or go after black people. Cops go where the crimes are.”
Boyle’s point is backed up by the most comprehensive crime statistics collected recently, which show that black people committed more crimes than other races. According to 2009 Bureau of Justice data, blacks were charged with 62 percent of robberies, 57 percent of murders and 45 percent of assaults within the largest 75 counties in the United States. Those are large numbers considering that black people consisted of 15 percent of the population in those counties.
And while the Washington Post database reports that unarmed blacks are approximately five times more likely to be shot and killed than unarmed whites, author Heather MacDonald pointed out in a Marshall Project report that “unarmed” statistics often include people who physically attacked an officer or tried to grab an officer’s gun.
Police are always at risk for being harmed, as the recent murders of three Baton Rouge officers demonstrated. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, an average of 144 officers died each year over the past decade — which amounts to one fatality every 61 hours. This year alone, 31 police officers have been killed, the fund reported; this number is 58 percent higher than the 18 officers killed by this time last year. Of that number, 14 were targeted for being officers.
The way to end the conflict between police and civilians has been debated for years, but Boyle said no real resolution will be reached without prayer. The pastor said faith should be included as part of any dialog in which the two sides engage moving forward. He said his church invites everyone to pray about the issue at its services.
The WOPD has its own ways of working to prevent the types of racial tensions seen in other parts of the country from reaching West Orange. Last year, it launched the Police and Clergy Alliance in an effort to strengthen its relationship with the community. To the same end, it also holds occasional “Coffee with a Cop” gatherings so that residents can freely discuss any concerns they may have with an officer.
Additionally, the WOPD has a Community Services Unit that holds programming to engage the public. Some of these initiatives include holding the “Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs” children’s program, offering crime prevention seminars and hosting an after school program for Washington Elementary School students. The CSU also operates a bicycle unit, allowing officers to patrol the downtown area and interact with residents and business owners.
West Orange Police Chief James Abbott was unavailable to be interviewed before press time July 19.
The HRC also wants to continue holding events like the peace march that encourage a dialog between the police and the community, according to Commissioner Stephanie Brown. Such a dialog is important, Brown told the Chronicle, in order to clear the air between the two sides and make it unlikely for conflict to spring up. And after this event, it is her hope that the township has gotten one step closer to achieving that goal.
“I hope that they feel they have a safe space in West Orange to express their frustration and their sense of community,” Brown said. “I hope they have a solidarity and stance against racism, battling it wherever they see it.”
Photos by Sean Quinn