(For an “official” media account of the event, click here- https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/local/somerset-county/2020/06/07/george-floyd-somerville-nj-protest-draws-hundreds-second-day/3170002001/)
There are so many platitudes and cliches out there these days, it’s hard to remember that at one point, the words behind them actually had meaning. Since the protests/riots/looting broke out, many on social media- particularly journalists- have been fond of telling us that we need to listen to what’s being said on the streets. (Sometimes, they try to soften the sanctimony in their tones by including themselves- as in, “we need to listen”- but we know who they are referring to.) My initial reaction was to just roll my eyes at the suggestion, but truth be told, it’s not a bad one. I have spent my entire adult life criticizing the media’s disingenuous coverage of events. For once, I was being given an opportunity to see what was going on for myself, as these Black Lives Matters protests are everywhere- and I do mean everywhere!
So this past Sunday, I headed over to downtown Somerville, where the event was being held. I was relieved to see the crowd was relatively small- it was only 11 AM on a Sunday, so presumably, most people were still heading over. The media has bent over backwards to refer to these as “peaceful protests”- regardless of the reality- and fortunately, this one actually was. That’s not to say it made the experience a positive one overall, though.
Most of the crowd had signs, be it homemade or provided by the organizers. Even though there was plenty of room to practice “social distancing”, nearly everyone in the crowd had masks on, as instructed by the event poster. When one of the organizers politely asked if I needed a mask, I responded that I didn’t. Rightly or wrongly, I interpreted his question as a loaded one- it wasn’t like I was standing that close to anybody else, let alone breathing on them- so I took a few steps back, to ensure I wasn’t offending anyone with my uncovered face.
The speaker was very energetic and impassioned. She had excellent public speaking skills, and often commanded the crowd in chants and fist pumps, as if leading a pep rally, or a rock concert. The suburban appearance of the crowd- diverse in age and ethnicity, filled with families and groups of young friends- starkly contrasted with the messages on the sign. One young boy, probably no older than ten and definitely no older than twelve, held up a sign that said, “No justice, no peace!” A middle-aged woman had a sign that said, “Silence is compliance!” (With that kind of attitude, one can only imagine what the sign would think of someone who isn’t silent, but has a difference of opinion.)
Back to the speaker– she told the crowd that she was tired of “her people” being killed on the streets, presumably by police officers. (A cursory background check strongly indicates a suburban background. By her own account, she is half-Italian, half-Jamaican.) She then rattled off the same names we have been hearing in the news for several years- most notably, she included Michael Brown’s name in the group. Now, as a suburbanite myself who has lived a somewhat sheltered life in many respects, I fully acknowledge that I do not know how big of a problem police brutality actually is. However, for those trying to convince the rest of us that it is a huge problem, Brown is a terrible example of doing so. Continuously invoking the name of a criminal, who assaulted a clerk that Brown had just robbed, and whose death was cleared of wrongdoing by the Obama Justice Department, seems like a bad-faith effort in trying to get those ill-informed to join their side. (An effective tactic, but a disingenuous one nevertheless.)
The speaker than went on to say what needed to happen- namely, police needed to be held accountable for their wrongdoings (perfectly reasonable), and given additional education, potentially including…*record skip*…a bachelor’s degree. At a time when society is (correctly) questioning the usefulness of college on the whole, adding this incredible criteria- complete with all the debt it would incur- seems ill-advised, to say the least.
As the crowd got larger and the events of the day were just getting started, mine was about to end. The speaker admonished that while the protest would remain peaceful (drink!), the movement as a whole, in time, would resort to other methods, “if necessary”. Did she say what those methods were? I doubt it, but I can’t verify for sure. I was done listening.
As I’m typing this, another Black Lives Matter is scheduled to begin a few hours from now. With New Jersey still officially on lockdown (no, really!), I suppose this is the best entertainment that Somerville has to currently offer. The problems out there range far and wide, and whatever is happening out there will likely be a major turning point in our society that many of us suspected- incorrectly, as it turned out- would occur after 9/11. What kind of solutions are being offered out there? Hopefully, better ones than than what was being suggested at this particular rally.