Take the pledge: Not In Our Two Towns

South Orange, Maplewood community come together to say ‘enough is enough,’ combat racism

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — A passionate plea for unity from a group of recent Columbia High School graduates sparked an outpouring of discussion and action from the Maplewood and South Orange communities concerning race relations and law enforcement procedures with the #NotInOurTwoTowns event held July 12 in the South Orange Middle School Auditorium.

The event was organized by the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, the South Orange-Maplewood Interfaith Clergy Council, the two police departments and municipal leaders of both towns, as well as a group of young adults from the community. The five young adults who spurred the event are Cory Hardy, Felisha George, Emanuel Grant, Sydney Scruggs and Alfonso Spottswood. All are part of an organization called “Movement with Purpose.” None responded to requests for comment by press time this week.

Approximately 800 concerned residents poured into the unairconditioned space on a humid evening to support the event and gain some understanding about how recent national events could affect their community.

The evening opened with a dramatic presentation by the five teens, who reenacted the deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner, five black people killed as a result of excessive force or under suspicious circumstances by their local law enforcement. Following their performance, the five organizers stated that their goal for the evening was not only to mourn the lives that had been lost, but also to come together as a community and have an honest conversation about what has happened and strategize an action plan for Maplewood and South Orange.

Following this, audience members ages 25 and younger were asked to leave the auditorium and break out into groups based on gender to take part in discussions facilitated by members of Movement with Purpose. The remaining attendees were invited to participate in an open mic session facilitated by a panel that included Audrey Rowe of the Community Coalition on Race, Rev. Sandye Wilson of the St. Andrew and Holy Communion Episcopal Church of South Orange, NaDeen Richardson of the First Baptist Church of South Orange and Columbia High School teacher T.J. Whitaker.

Wilson implored the crowd to be supportive of the efforts of the young people and remain hopeful and optimistic for the future.

“Sometimes when you are tragedy fatigued, you don’t want to read the newspaper or turn on the TV because you are tired of all of the bad news,” she told the audience. “But don’t ever get compassion fatigued. Every person who has died was somebody’s everything. We may have all come in on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”

Numerous residents took to the microphone to express their concerns and to ask questions of the local law enforcement members present at the event.

One longtime South Orange resident recalled an incident in the 1960s when a black teenager was shot by a police officer, and reminisced about how the community was able to rally together and pull through it. Another speaker said that she recalled when the Rodney King case in the 1990s sparked national media attention; at that time, the community provided support to the students of Columbia High School and did not leave the school until every student’s concerns had been voiced.

At the July 12 event, several community members questioned what training new police officers receive when they are assigned to the South Orange or Maplewood police departments.

“How do you train your officers to look at us and see the complexities of our community?” one audience member asked.

Essex County Freeholder President Britnee Timberlake encouraged the audience to dispel the myth that black equals threatening.

“Everyone here can be an ambassador of love. Only bad people are threatening and only good people are not threatening, and there are no colors to either one,” she said.

Another audience member spoke about growing up in Brooklyn and noted how different things were once he moved into the SOMA area.

“What you are seeing here in this community is not common,” he said. “You have to take advantage of this diversity.

One visibly emotional resident pleaded with the community to have the difficult conversation about race and prejudice in order make any progress in the community.

“Get uncomfortable, people, because people are dying!” she told the crowd.

Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca affirmed his support for the #blacklivesmatter movement, and also committed to getting guns off of the streets of Maplewood and supporting the youth in their efforts to bring more unity and understanding to the community.

“Our generation has failed to solve this problem,” DeLuca said. “We have to create a space for new leaders and new ideas.”

South Orange Village President Sheena Collum thanked the two police departments for keeping the communities safe, but affirmed that she is committed to ensuring that more training takes place for law enforcement in the community.

The South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race has been working toward building better race relations between the two towns for the past 20 years, and the event on July 12 affirmed for the group that its work is now more critical than ever.

“We’re going to continue to push for more authentic interactions and dispelling myths,” CCR Program Director Audrey Rowe said in an interview with the News-Record. “If you don’t have real experiences, then you can’t grow. People are paying more attention to the issues now, and we are engaging not just teachers and police officers, but also business owners in the conversation.”

“We cannot be in denial and we can’t be woebegone. We need to face up and fix,” CCR Executive Director Nancy Gagnier said in a recent interview with the News-Record. “The people who most need to be exposed to these discussions are the ones who won’t come to things. Those who are committed need to be willing to go into that uncomfortable area with their peers.”

Photos by Shanee Frazier