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Fires of Change

By Chris Wescott

Newark, N.J. On a July evening in the city's central ward, a Black cab driver by the name of John Smith signaled to police cars on the road in order to pass them.

Instead, he was stopped. He was arrested. And beaten.

Word of the latest case of police brutality in the city of Newark, and rumors of Smith's death in police custody - later proved inaccurate - dumped gasoline on the fire of a city smoldering through social injustice, economic hardship, and the chokehold of institutionalized racism.

And as with any case of injustice gone unchecked and allowed to spread for too long, the fire eventually connected with the wick of a simmering powder keg - and exploded.

What followed were five days of riots. The National Guard was deployed, millions of dollars in property damage were caused, 1,000 were arrested, and hundreds of people were injured.

26 died.

It was the type of tremor in the rotation of this planet that leaves its imprint on a city and a nation.

Three months prior to these devastating riots, Martin Luther King Jr. uttered a phrase during a speech delivered at Stanford University that has since made its return to relevance today.

"A riot is the language of the unheard."

These riots happened in July of 1967. And many are left to wonder how we, as a society of intelligent and compassionate individuals, could ever allow injustice to go this unchecked. How could we allow a large segment of the population to go unheard for so long that the wick has once again been lit.

July of 1967 was not a solo event, but rather a single thread in the tapestry woven through centuries of deep-seated racism in the United States of America. This statement causes unease among many, but it is the hard, uncomfortable truth.

On May 25, 2020, an angry and hurt nation witnessed a Minneapolis police officer hold his knee on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for nearly nine minutes as he pleaded to the four officers on scene for help.

"I can't breathe," he cried.

As later confirmed through an official post-mortem examination, George Floyd was murdered by an act of police brutality and excessive use of force. The nation watched as the life left his body and a man left behind a six-year-old daughter.

The Floyd family are the latest persons of color to suffer such an injustice in today's society.

Adding to the frustrations of Floyd's death are the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, to name just two.

In February, Arbery, 25, was chased down by armed white men while jogging in a neighborhood two miles from his home. He was shot three times and the killing was captured on video.

The men claim they believed Arbery to match the description of a burglary suspect in the area. They knowingly grabbed harmful weapons, followed, and murdered the young man.

Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician was killed in her home. She was shot at least eight times in a police drug raid. Taylor's boyfriend, a licensed gun owner, had fired at the police after they had not identified themselves at the door. The police found no drugs and it was later discovered that Taylor was not being investigated, and their main suspect and his accomplice were already in custody at the time of the raid.

The tension surrounding these recent events, and many others, has caused a fracture in the status quo of this nation and the world at large.

Thousands of citizens in America, and around the world, have spent the last week taking to the streets, screaming for justice, accountability, and their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Property damage, injury, death, and more fury have followed.

This vicious wheel of history repeating itself is tied directly to society's refusal to enact real and long-lasting change. To wholly accept racism exists, and to talk about it and do something about it.

Many Americans have had enough and continue to seek justice, even as Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison upgraded charges against officer Derek Chauvin and charged the three others at the scene with aiding and abetting murder.

Silence or denial in the face of racism is, in itself, a form of racism, and the silence is now being broken everywhere. A protest has happened in all 50 states since Floyd's death.

This past weekend, the city of Newark was once again roaring with anger, pain, frustration, and sadness. But unlike the deadly riots of 1967, the citizens of New Jersey's largest city united in a beautiful and powerful display of peaceful protest.

The echoes of the past still reverberated in the streets of Newark as 12,000 marched, calling for justice for George Floyd and broader change. There were no protest-related arrests, no storefronts smashed or set ablaze, and vandalism was kept to a minimum, but voices were heard.

"A lot of tension, a lot of anxiety, but the community held the line," Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said, per the New York Times. Mayor Baraka took part in the protest himself and citizens of Newark brimmed with pride at the scenes.

At 25 Lafayette Street, sits Prudential Center - home of the National Hockey League's New Jersey Devils. And while the Devils were not members of the Newark community until October 2007, they are now part of the city's history and future.

As Newark takes the stage as a shining example of strong, vocal, impactful and peaceful protest, the Devils organization has taken to social media in a variety of ways to take a stand against social injustice and call for dialogue, education, and change.

Devils defenseman, and member of the Black community, P.K. Subban joined the conversation by calling for justice in a video posted to his social media accounts.

"What does 'Change the Game' mean?" he asked, while wearing a hat with the phrase embroidered on it.

"'Change the Game' means change the narrative. The narrative has been the same: no justice. Justice has to happen, change needs to come. But we need everyone and all people to look at our lives and see how we can help that change and do our part. I'm committed to that, I'm committed to that through and through."

Subban has since donated $50,000 to the GoFundMe page of George Floyd's daughter Gianna and the NHL has matched. In addition to Subban, a handful of other Devils players have spoken up amidst an emotional time in the nation's history.

Devils defenseman Connor Carrick challenged society at large to "see, acknowledge, and listen to the struggles of minorities" and hear the "generational hurt and sit down with what we morally look like in the mirror when we examine more closely."

He continued saying, "may we all examine where we have failed each other, create knowing of how we went wrong, and practice improving our communities human being by human being."

Forward John Hayden also took to social media to provide his thoughts saying, "I stand with the Black community and every human who condemns and is protesting racism and injustice. I will never understand the pain felt in the Black community, but I will always support the fight for equality for all."

As of Wednesday evening, all but one team in the NHL and a large number of the league's players have released statements condemning racism.

The Devils released a statement on Tuesday, saying "the racism, prejudice and injustice faced by the Black community and people of color is unacceptable and has no place in our society. We must take it upon ourselves to support one another and strive towards greater accountability.

"The only way we will be able to address these important issues is to work together as a unified community and commit to the change that must happen. We understand that the New Jersey Devils and Prudential Center are important communal assets and we are committed to using that stature to promote meaningful changes in our communities and in our country."

Since then, the franchise has joined internal town halls hosted by Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment executives to discuss the racial tension and societal injustices plaguing the nation.

Their Diversity and Inclusion Committee has been consulted heavily, and the club has also spoken with league community officials on the path forward to meaningful dialogue and change. The club's planning of action within New Jersey communities is ongoing and the action itself on its way. The franchise doubled down on their original statement with a video published to social media on Wednesday.

"To remain silent is to support the status quo," the video said. "And we sure as hell will not."

The club also said they are "committed to developing programs that educate and impact our employees, our sport, and our community."

The video contained powerful images of this past weekend's protest in Newark, shot by photographer Alfred Sarpeh.

The images depicted protestors of many races and backgrounds carrying signs emboldened with the phrases like "Black Lives Matter," "I can't breathe," "I'll use my privilege to protect you," and "white silence is violence."

Sarpeh is an immigrant from Ghana and had never experienced "separation" in society until he moved to the United States as a teen.

Sarpeh, who specializes in telling "love stories" through his photography, often capturing weddings and beautiful portraits, assesses he's been pulled over by the police a puzzling number of times.

"I get stopped and so many times I'm late for work just because I was stopped by an officer and this just doesn't make sense to me that I'm getting stopped so many times."

And thus comes the gravity of Sarpeh's situation. As he watched the death of Floyd play out on video the all to familiar realization of, "that could have been me," washed over him.

Despite this heavy burden of emotion, Sarpeh sets out to capture "the beauty" of his city of Newark.

"I want people to stop seeing Newark in a negative light," he said. "Every time people talk about Newark, they're saying negative things, and it's not so much in a positive light."

And that's exactly what Sarpeh did at the Newark protests.

Upon arriving at the protests and as he was locking up his bike, the photographer lamented the fact that he was not ready to capture a pure moment unfolding in front of him: people of different races giving each other a hug in front of City Hall.

Even though he's not able to share the image, it's one etched into his memory from the day.

"I didn't know what to expect to go on at the protest, but when I got there you can feel the energy of positivity, and unity," he said.

"I appreciate it so much that that the crowd was so diverse, you know, and it wasn't diverse in only one way, in terms of just race. But it was diverse in so many ways in terms of age. I saw old people in wheelchairs, I saw kids who were seven-years old or the five-years-old age group. It was touching to me. I was actually, like, in tears. I've lived in Newark for so long and this is the first time I've seen everyone come together. White, Black, Spanish, everybody was there and all for a common cause."

As he was photographing the event, Sarpeh says he didn't feel the ghosts of the city's past around him, but rather he got lost in that very moment in time. It was a much different present./p>

"I'm watching different protests on TV and you can see that it was the people versus the police," he said. "But in the Newark protest, the mayor was on the front line. And you see police officers riding their bikes, leading the protest and stopping traffic. So I felt that the police were part of us. So it wasn't like, 'we are coming for you guys' or 'it's us against you.' It was us against what's happening in the world and what's happening to black people. So I felt the community and that meant a lot to me as a resident. I fell in love with Newark a long time ago and this time around, I fell in love with Newark all over again."/p>

These protests that have happened in Newark and around New Jersey have been an encouraging sight to many. But the peace and progress of that day does not erase the long road ahead for this country./p>

As Sarpeh told his story, there was one answer that stuck out above all the rest in a sea of eloquent answers./p>

"I want society to stop seeing Black people as a threat," he said. "Because we are not a threat. We are not intimidating. We want you to see us as a man, not less worthy because of our skin color."/p>

It's as simple as that.

Kevin Hart

June 30, 2024

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