Bloomfield protest draws many despite downpour

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BLOOMFIELD, NJ — A downpour didn’t stop Black Lives Matter protesters from gathering in front of Bloomfield High School and marching down Broad Street to Town Hall and the Bloomfield Police Department’s headquarters on June 5, advocating locally as protests swept the nation demanding justice for George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. The Bloomfield protest was organized by residents and Bloomfield High School graduates Matt Arnold and Nate Louis, with help from Austin Tirador.

When the protesters reached police headquarters, where officers and Public Safety Director Sam DeMaio were waiting, Arnold, who coordinated with DeMaio and the BPD, led the crowd in eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence, which was how long the Minneapolis officer’s knee was on Floyd’s neck.

“It’s going to feel long,” Arnold said. “I want you to think about what George Floyd was saying. He couldn’t breathe. He was asking for his mother, who isn’t alive. Think about how long that felt to him.”

Arnold also talked about laws that Gov. Phil Murphy has signed making teaching African American history a required part of curriculum in public schools for every grade.

“We can make legislation change,” he said. “We can make the law change. It sucks that we have to do this. My dad is 69 years old. He isn’t out here with us. He marched with Dr. King. He doesn’t need to be doing this. We do.”

DeMaio spoke after Arnold at the protest and thanked him for calling the BPD and involving them in the event.

“What Matthew did tonight was bring together the community and the police department,” he said. “What happened to George Floyd was a disgrace not only to that department but to law enforcement as a whole. What we tell officers is, ‘Treat everyone as you would want your mother dealt with, or your sister.’ If one of my officers ever did anything like what happened in Minneapolis, the discipline would be swift and harsh.”

According to DeMaio, the BPD tracks racial data about every interaction the officers in the department have. It allows them to analyze the interactions and identify problematic officers earlier rather than later.

“Thank you for coming out and supporting this worthy cause,” DeMaio said. “It’s as worthy to us as it is to you.”

Though the BPD has made changes over the last few years, DeMaio said there is still work to do. That was made evident by the several people who spoke at the protest to describe their negative interactions with the police in town, whether it was being pulled over or being arrested.

Mayor Michael Venezia encouraged the protesters who are old enough to vote to do so. Voter registration forms were being passed out at the event.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over because of the color of my skin, but it makes me angry,” Venezia said. “Tonight is about protest, and we’re going to continue. After this, the most important thing is to organize and vote. We can continue down the road we’re headed, or we can make change with a new president.”

When Louis spoke at the protest, he said a new policing system must be created.

“The system we have is not sustainable,” he said. “We have to make a new system that works for everyone, especially black people. For this to work, it means we have to live together in unity. A common response is, ‘It’s gotten better.’ We cannot normalize this. The onus is not on the oppressed people. The onus is on the oppressors.”

In his speech, Louis addressed DeMaio and present police officers.

“I know your job is hard,” he said. “I know you must protect each other. But if you see something wrong and you don’t say something, you aren’t protecting them. You’re hurting them. We must have these conversations. There are bad people out there, and it is what it is. But there are a lot more good people and misunderstood people. We can’t control everything, but we have to guide in the right direction.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic