Peaceful Protest in Rutherford
Updated: Jun 9, 2020
By Jennifer Ersalesi
On Sunday, June 7th, there was a peaceful Black Lives Matter march that began at noon at Union School in Rutherford. The protesters traveled up Union Ave and then down Park Avenue to Lincoln Park. The march was organized by a Rutherford High school graduate, Jasmyne Mena. This is Rutherford spoke with Jasmyne about this march.
TIR: Why did you choose to organize the Black Lives Matter march in Rutherford?
Jasmyne Mena: I grew up in Rutherford, it's my hometown. I live fulltime in Philadelphia now but my family and so many of my friends are still living in Rutherford. The whole country is protesting and Rutherford should be no exception. I wanted to create an outlet for the black community within Rutherford to be heard and open the eyes of those who might be sheltered or have chosen to ignore the true severity they are facing. The fact that it is such a close-knit community made it that much more important for me to plan the march because it made it really personal.
TIR: How did you work with the Rutherford Police Department to ensure this would be a peaceful protest?
JM: The morning after I decided to plan the march and started spreading the word, I emailed the Mayor, Police Chief, and city council. Within an hour the mayor called me to express his support and he passed along the police chief's number. When I called Chief Russo, he immediately asked what I needed to pull this off and keep everyone safe. He backed me 100% and I think it gave the more concerned residents some peace of mind to know that and helped sway some who were on the fence about attending.
During his speech at Lincoln Park, Chief Russo explained that not only did he thank everyone who marched in peaceful solidarity on behalf of the Rutherford Police Department, but also on behalf of the Bergen County Chiefs Association (Russo is currently the President of the Association). He spoke about how the RPD stands alongside all those marching for equality. “We stand at the very front of the line denouncing police brutality...The Borough of Rutherford, our Mayor Frank Nunziato, our Council, and my staff will continue our efforts to make this Borough a place where racism and inequality have no shelter. Our lives matter, your lives matter, and most certainly black lives matter,” Chief Russo explained.
TIR: Why did you feel that it was important for those who live in Rutherford to participate in this march?
JM: Rutherford is a great town but racism has existed and still exists there. My family and I have experienced it as people of color and I know many others who have experienced it head-on and in the form of continuous microaggressions as well. The black community in Rutherford has been in pain for a long time and they needed to experience and feel the outward support of their neighbors marching alongside them. It's not enough to just be passively anti-racist anymore, you have to do the real work.
TIR: How did you decide which speakers to include?
JM: It was extremely important for me to use this opportunity to further amplify black voices. To ask a black person to speak at an event like this is a huge ask, but I felt it was important for residents to hear from speakers they might know because I think that resonates the most. Isaiah Stratton is a friend of mine and many others in town, I've known him since I was about nine years old. He is the most charismatic and outgoing guy and people just gravitate towards his warmth. He had recently written on social media a very personal perspective about black lives matter and being a young black man in America that really resonated with me so deeply, I knew I needed him to speak. David Frazier is the Athletic Director of Rutherford High School, my old high school. He was the first person that came to mind when I thought about who I wanted to speak. He is extremely well-spoken and respected by everyone but I knew he would keep it real and raw for this moment which was exactly the goal and he nailed it. Lastly, I asked Maria Begg-Roberson, the only black person on the Rutherford Council. It is important to hear the perspective of a black woman living through these times as well and we voted her into office, so who better than her? We also had three impromptu speakers who asked to share a few words the day of - Zuri Gill, George Buahin, and his friend Kelsey. I'm so happy they felt comfortable enough to share without prior preparation and it made it feel like the floor was finally beginning to open so we can continue to have these tough conversations.
During his speech, Isaiah Stratton spoke about the discrimination he felt and saw as a young child in Rutherford. He explained, “Racism must be stopped. It must be stopped in the home first...Don’t make the steps we’ve taken today the last steps we take for justice.”
David Frazier, Director of Athletics at Rutherford High School, son of Reverend Ray Frazier (retired from Mt. Ararat Baptist Church in Rutherford) grew up in Rutherford with his siblings and his parents. Frazier spoke of his appreciation for the Rutherford Police Department who made them feel safe in their hometown. “Why are we here today? Because this is a place that can make a change for the rest of the world...We need to stand for oppression,” Frazier told those gathered in the park. As a child, he remembered being told how to behave so that he and his black siblings were not singled out and would remain safe. He told the audience that he must now teach his daughters that same lesson. Frazier said, “Time is up. We need to fight for justice. As a country, we rally for the people who need it...We must keep our foot on the gas pedal and not get distracted. We have to listen to the people who are most affected and empathize with them. Listen and learn. We have to learn to communicate. We have to love one another. Love is the only thing that can conquer hate and racism.”
Zuri Gill, who grew up in Rutherford explained, “There is still racism in Rutherford, but people don’t see it. You have to take the time to learn about it in your hometown so you can make changes.” She spoke about how overwhelmed she was by the response at the march, everyone’s thoughts, posters, and support. “Question your friends. Ask them why they can support all lives and blue lives matter, but not black lives matter?” Gill told the audience. “We are more alike than we are different and our differences are beautiful.”
Councilwoman Maria Begg-Roberson who was born in Nigeria and has lived all over the world, including England, France, Trinidad, and the United States, shared examples of the ways black Americans are discriminated against in America. She thanked Chief John Russo, the Rutherford Police Department, and her fellow council members for their support of the protest and the protection of black lives. “Please understand that you have the power to make this better. This is the beginning of a new civil rights movement,” said Councilwoman Begg-Roberson.
TIR: There were approximately 1,500 march participants. How do you feel about that turnout?
JM: When I planned the march I truly thought maybe 15-20 people would come. The majority of them being my own friends and family. I'm truly blown away and so proud. I'm relieved Rutherford proved me wrong and showed up big.
Jasmyne gave the opening and closing remarks as people gathered at Lincoln Park at the conclusion of the march. In her closing speech, Jasmyne said, “The purpose of this march was to show solidarity…I hope that we can all sit with this moment, wrap ourselves in the sorrow and distress of it so we can start the real work...this is an important first step.”