Battle in Bridgeton?!
By Bro. Zayid
“…Our people in this particular society live in a police state…”
Do our people live in a virtual police state everywhere in this country, echoing Malcolm X over 50 years ago? Even in communities where we are in city hall and are a majority? Bridgeton NJ, a small black and brown town in southern New Jersey of about 25,000, may be a harbinger of bad news.
In recent weeks, it has been in the news as a consequence of the December 30th police killing of Jerame Reid, a troubling incident captured on the officers’ webcam in their car.
Reid, a young African American male from the area, is seen in the disturbing footage getting out of the vehicle from its passenger’s side with his hands up after an officer extracts what he says was a gun that was said to have been in Reid’s possession. Reid is then shot in the chest at point blank range.
The shooting has prompted a number of protests in the area. The most recent protest took place on Tuesday, February 3rd, where participants marched to Bridgeton City Hall with intent on being heard at the City Council meeting. It was the second time that protesters marched to Bridgeton City Hall to the City Council meeting and possibly the fourth march since the late December shooting. All of the marches have been strong, peaceful and disciplined.
At this march, some strange reason, things changed.
First, there were real concerns by onlookers and marchers alike about the unusually large police presence at this march, which included paddy wagons and swat teams. The large police presence reminded many of the police response to the initial protests in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown. Unlike Ferguson, however, Bridgeton has an elected black and brown leadership, including its first African-American mayor Albert Kelly. So if the demonstrations have been peaceful, and the concerns all legitimate, the obvious question to be asked is why was the ‘hostile show of force presence’ by the police necessary at this march? Officials have yet to answer this.
As the march ended at City Hall, things got dicey. Lawrence Hamm, a New Jersey civil rights legend with a distinguished history of protest and service of more than 40 years, sees law enforcement officials point to him and shout “that’s him.” He is then grabbed by both arms by several officers and brought into a room alone and threatened with arrest. Stunned, but not shaken, Hamm, 61, raised his voice as loud as he could demanding a lawyer, refusing to answer any questions.
Hamm, founding chair of the People’s Organization for Progress, is supporting the local efforts of Walter Hudson and the National Awareness Alliance, and is co-sponsoring what portends to be a very large march and rally on February 28th. He is also spearheading a national march against police brutality on July 25th in Newark.
In the end, he and three others were given summonses to appear in court for not following a police directive to walk on the sidewalk when the protesters were marching.
Police chief Michael Gaimari said that he advised Hudson before the march that being in the street violates the law and that those who were issued summonses were those identified as not following a police directive to stay on the sidewalk. He said further that they could have issued more, but he used his discretion in not doing so.
“We respect anyone’s right to protest and march, but we are obligated to enforce the laws to protect them and those that are operating motor vehicles on the city’s roadways,” he said.
Protesters say that they have always marched in the street with no previous problems. Why the issue now, they asked. More pointedly why did it have to get physical after the march was over and no one was in any danger?
Was this show of force an effort to intimidate people from participating in the larger gathering in a few weeks?
If so, it is likely to have backfired. If the social media response to the incident is any indication, the march will now likely bring out more supporters upset with happened here to Hamm and others in addition to the concern over the manner of Reid’s killing.
Hamm, himself has said, in his well-known grace and determination “I will carry that summons like a badge of honor in the name of Rosa Parks,” whose birth anniversary was on February 4th, the day after the march.
Just as interesting and disturbing, in the aftermath of the incident, articles in the media in the area are now beginning to paint pictures of the protesters as criminals, especially targeting Walter Hudson, one of the principal local leaders organizing the protests. Hudson, nearly 30 years Hamm’s junior, launched protests in nearby Salem, NJ over the brutal police killing of Moshawn Leach, several years ago. He has since emerged as a challenging force on the education front, criticizing racial imbalances in the administering of that community’s schools. When facing a similar confrontation at a board meeting, Hudson, who sits on the Board of Education, found himself being charged with assaulting a police officer, a very serious charge he is still contesting. Area articles are now pointing to this to portray Hudson as being anything but disciplined, even though all of the protests have in fact been very disciplined, and the charges he is facing appear to be a legal reprisal for challenging the local status quo.
Those summoned were each given a court date of February 17th, one that does not require court appearance assuming they pay the $54 fines they are each facing. Given Hamm’s history and the elevated determination of the protesters, February 17th could turn out to be a rally in its own right…
‘Bro. Zayid’…Poet, Actor, Writer, Freedom fighter, Bro. Zayid Muhammad is the recently retired national minister of culture for the New Black Panther Party. He is currently the media advocate for the Newark AntiViolence Coalition and the press officer for the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee…Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 973 202 0745…