WEST ORANGE, NJ — A group of young people who live in or are from West Orange formed the West Orange Youth Caucus to amplify youth voices in town and advocate for social change. Five days later, they gathered thousands of people together on the front steps and lawn of Town Hall for a Black Lives Matter protest. A petition asking for police reform was circulating at the protest; an online version had 6,079 signatures as of June 9.
“The West Orange Youth Caucus is an organization founded less than a week ago to hold this event,” Jordan Scott-Young, one of the caucus’s founders and a protest organizer, said at the event. “We organize to advocate. As young people, our opinions are not heard. We’re dismissed as immature and unrealistic. But young people see and condemn injustice every day. We are the future, and if our elders won’t take action, we will.”
The petition asks the West Orange Township Council and Police Department for seven things: that a local ordinance be passed banning the use of knee and choke holds by police; that a local ordinance be passed banning the use of tear gas on crowds; that an ordinance be passed banning the use of rubber bullets on crowds; that all active duty police officers in West Orange be compelled to wear body cameras; that the municipal code concerning loitering be revised to avoid racial profiling; that an independent civilian review board be established to make recommendations and suggestions about police protocol; and that the mayor, council and police chief “sign a commitment to actively combat racial injustice while carrying out their duties of office.”
A link to the petition can be found at www.facebook.com/woyouthcaucus.
WOPD Chief James Abbott and Mayor Robert Parisi both signed the petition at the protest. Abbott also spoke to the people gathered at Town Hall and announced the reactivation of the West Orange Citizens Police Academy. He also said the department would be forming a new community outreach program to establish citizen input into the WOPD’s existing policies. Abbott said the program and the people who participate would have input on legal aspects of use of force, de-escalation training, cultural awareness and diversity training, implicit-bias training, handling persons in crisis, defensive tactics, and ethics training.
“As police leaders it may be difficult to find the right words to say at a time like this; however, saying nothing is inexcusable, and silence is a tacit endorsement of the status quo. The silence is deafening and the silence is violence,” Abbott said. “I join the countless other professional law enforcement executives who are hurting with real pain and outrage as we witness yet another senseless killing at the hands of those most entrusted to preserve the sanctity of life. Our nation and community have witnessed an appalling contradiction to the values we, the police, are entrusted to uphold. Police leadership has a moral and ethical obligation to speak out and let it be known that police departments will not be used as the enforcement arm of an unfair and unjust society.”
In between members of the youth caucus speaking, Parisi also talked to the protesters.
“In all my years of government, I have never, ever seen a crowd of this size at Town Hall,” he said. “You should all be very proud.”
Many of the people who spoke at the protest said that even though West Orange is a diverse town, there is still work to do in the way of racial justice. Parisi was no exception.
“West Orange has grown a lot in the last 35 years,” he said. “People from all over the world live here. I like to think that West Orange is a model town, but a model town doesn’t mean perfect. As long as there are people who continue to face challenges because of their race, then we have a lot more work to do. If those people still feel that they are not being heard, then that is my failing. Laws alone are not enough. We’re going to make sure that every resident has faith in the people who serve them. Black Lives Matter. They matter to West Orange and they matter to me.”
Many members of the youth caucus spoke, including Abraham Dada, a 2017 West Orange High School graduate who is now a student at Harvard University; Kaia Baker, who just finished her term as president of the WOHS Student Council; and Marley Dias, another WOHS student who founded the #1000BlackGirlBooks movement, a project that collects and donates children’s books that feature black girls as the lead character.
“I am West Orange just as much as you are,” Dias said at the protest, remembering the many times she has been to Town Hall for vigils and other protests. “I do not remember a time when we rallied to celebrate black people. Outsiders can help our community grow.”
Anya Dillard, who is taking over Baker’s role as WOHS Student Council president next year, spoke at the protest as well.
“‘It is certain that ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy that freedom can have, that justice can have,’” she said, quoting writer James Baldwin. “Those words were spoken over 50 years ago. The problem is these words could have been spoken just yesterday. Not much has changed. It is 2020, and my generation alone has witnessed the countless murders of people who look just like our fathers, our brothers, our sisters, our best friends, all at the hands of police officers and white supremacists in this country.”
Dillard said she has never had an interaction with a police officer, but knows that it could happen to her.
“I am fighting this war so that it will not remain the norm of our future,” she said. “I’m fighting for my little brother. I’m fighting for my father, for my uncles, for my cousins, for my best friends, many of which are young black men. We cannot let this movement fade. This will become a distant memory for some, but cannot become a distant memory for us.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic