As New Jersey heads toward another weekend of scheduled justice actions, let us celebrate those torchbearers of generations of peaceful protesters in this state, who go back – in the case of Adrianne Davis of Newark – to marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. in 1963, or Joe Hayden, who also hails from Newark, driving to Selma, Alabama in 1965 to march with Dr. King.
Now, young peace warriors, this is your generation to lead.
A decayed order in both parties has hoarded resources, used politics to cocoon influence and privilege, and confine itself under the miserly yolk of self-enrichment off the public dime, while denying a shift of power in this country to a generation now lit up – not by the dull glow of meaningless violence – but in the fierce and powerful glare of history.
Millennials in this country, now it is your turn to go beyond the selfish, gated and destructive policies of what immediately precedes you, to harness again the best idealism of this country.
Your movement out there in the streets this weekend once more occurs in the worst of all possible worlds, in a way, because of the pandemic, and the potential to spike the virus, that other killer still kneeling on the neck of the world. But as you mask up and head out and maintain social distancing in the insistence of justice for George Floyd, please remember the lessons of your own era’s movement, which we are still piecing together and making sense of in real time, in some ways only a week and a half old within the enormous architecture of human history’s struggle for justice.
As those voices jeer from the sidelines about violence and disorder and chaos, and attempt in their ignorance and seclusion from the fulness of time to deride what you’re doing or characterize it as anarchy, remember the mission, and think too a little of those leaders among you to this point, both of your own age, and those elders who stand at the head of crowds credibly because of past and present causes shouldered. If there is a common theme to your work in concert with the words and deeds of one of our greatest Americans, Dr. King, it is the seeking of justice through nonviolent means.
Since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25th, we have seen dramatically different reactions nationwide to this grotesque, unspeakable act, from the burning to the ground of a police precinct in Minneapolis, to the lighting of police vehicles ablaze in Trenton, to the arrest of a reporter in Asbury Park, to the President of the United States gassing your own numbers.
In the grip of unemployment, beseiged by the ill effects of absurd and selfish sultans, and machines that have abandoned the root cause, think of those servant-leaders who have long borne this pain, going back to before the hour of this particular pandemic oppression; they who have suffered lifetime denial of basic services, of jobs and of healthcare; and in the fight for those basic needs, do not now thoughtlessly lay waste to those standing, or even only half-functioning structures around them.
Think of Larry Hamm, founder of the People’s Organization for Progress (POP) who as a child watched Newark in flames, received a scholarship to Princeton University, dedciated his life – sometimes an exceedingly lonely life as his peers either died or moved on to lives not still urgently shaped by the movement – now walking with you. Think of Ras Baraka, who for decades organized on the streets of his home city against police brutality and now as the mayor of Newark attempts to embody – in a vibrant and infectious way – not only the cultural, artistic and literary potency of his town, but the sacrifice of those before and now yearning to be free.
You are history.
To maintain that larger motion of gravitas, deeper than those little individual island domains beset by all the worst and most distracting cul de sacs of our most emotionally harrassed selves, don’t forget the enduring dream.
Marvel in that life-giving connectedness.
So too know in your midst those disconnected from your noblest intentions and most rooted and grounded politics.
Consider what happened in Newark last weekend, when Rahaman Muhammad, deputy mayor of Newark and a former veteran labor leader out of the South Ward, whose U.S. Army veteran wife has served multiple overseas tours of duty in the Middle East, walked among the crowd. In the vicinity of the 17th Precinct, Muhammad made contact with a group noticeably separate from the swarm of masked peaceful protesters.
Dressed in black, masked, with skateboards under their arms, gear to protect themselves against tear gas, and even a medic identifable by a Red Cross insignia, the group consisted of mostly white males. Their attire proceeded them. Baraka and company had done their homework, and were alert to similarly black-garbed and skateboard-toting youth creating havoc in other cities. This group – identified roughly by a pattern of behaviors at rallies everywhere – uses their boards to destroy property. In Los Angeles, just a such a group – again distinguishable from the peaceful protesters in their midst – lit an abandoned police car on fire.
Muhammad and Baraka and Hamm didn’t want those young potentially property destructive kids unleashed on the streets of Newark, forced into a collision with a police force remade by past fights; streets where their own blood and the blood of their kin ran, hallowed by the worst violence, in its own way not dissimlar from Gettysburg and Antietam, for such is the test finally out of their sacrifice for we, the living. It demands that we not forget Eddie Moss, shot in the back at the age of ten in Newark during the 1967 occupation; he is part of your history, no less than George Floyd, whose memory together now strengthens only those who will be hardened off these necessary, bitter walks to do the grimy daily work of government and politics for the sake of peace.
Live for those who have died, whose silence demands the path you walk is justice-alive; by surviving, you deny your enemies a chance to deprive you of this moment of teaching; who want you turned into what might have been a movement but through mangled expression merely becomes an election cycle endangered by martial law and finally a muddied epitaph.
Protest forcefully and massively but peacefully. You are the leader of the country, New Jersey, with Newark in your present and past. We have walked out of the fire before, and know, thanks to Hamm and Baraka and Muhammad, what those fires wrought. Go into the days and nights of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, young and leaderly, beautiful black and white and multiracial-wise New Jersey. Instead of hostility, live in the light, no, the righteous blaze, of your own living history.
Max Pizarro is the editor of InsiderNJ. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his colleagues.