NEWARK – More than 200 protesters marched through downtown Newark on Tuesday night after a Saint Louis County, Mo. grand jury declined yesterday to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in the Saint Louis suburb of Ferguson in August.
Demonstrators repeated the “Hands up, don’t shoot!” chant heard at protests around the nation in both the immediate aftermath of the shooting this summer, then again in the wake of the grand jury’s decision on Monday not to indict Wilson, who is white, in the fatal shooting of Brown, an African-American.
Standing at the foot of the statue of Abraham Lincoln positioned in front of the Essex County Courthouse in downtown Newark, Lawrence Hamm, the New Jersey state chairman and founder of the People’s Organization for Progress, a grassroots, community organization based in the city, underscored the outrage felt by many in New Jersey and around the nation.
“The struggle for justice for Michael Brown is not over. It’s not over by a long shot,” said Hamm. “We’re here today to demand that the U.S. Justice Department launch an investigation into civil rights violations, and indict Officer Wilson for violating Michael Brown’s civil rights. Michael Brown should not be dead. Michael Brown should be alive with his family, and Officer Wilson should be in jail.”
Hamm also called for the dismissal of the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, the passage of legislation that would require the placement of body cameras on police officers, more hiring of minorities in municipal police forces and police retraining.
“We support all of these reforms, but make no mistake, that’s not justice,” Hamm said. “Justice is putting the man in jail that killed Michael Brown.”
Several speakers noted the ongoing push for police reform in Newark as a way to hopefully avoid the serious strife seen in Ferguson, including the creation of a community advisory board to work with Newark police as well as a civilian complaint review board.
Following the announcement in July of the results of a three-year federal investigation that revealed significant civil rights violations by the Newark Police Department, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman announced that the force will be placed under federal oversight.
The joint investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division began in 2011, less than a year after a highly critical report from the ACLU questioned whether the Newark Police Department could effectively police itself.
The joint report revealed widespread violations of the Fourth Amendment, noting that up to 75 percent of stop-and-frisk pedestrian stops in Newark were unconstitutional. It also showed a pattern and practice of excessive use of force by police officers, and that African-American residents, who comprise 54 percent of Newark’s population, constitute nearly 80 percent of police stop-and frisks.
“What happened to Michael Brown has become much bigger than the events in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s become a symbol of a nation in crisis. It’s become a symbol for a policing crisis across the United States,” said Udi Ofer, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey. “Here in Newark, we are now at ground zero for the battle for justice in that we could create a model of a police review board that could be replicated across the country.”
Rashawn Davis, an organizer for the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU and a member of Newark Communities for Accountable Policing (N-CAP), a local community group that advocates the continued push for reform in the Newark Police Department, knew that the protest he was participating in against the latest development in the Ferguson story was being replicated across the country. But Davis wondered what would happen in the days to come.
“What are we going to do when all these cameras and all these reporters are gone?” said Davis, 22. “What are we going to do when it stops being relevant on Facebook and Twitter? Are we going to forget about this, and let Michael Brown and hundreds of others like him die in vain? Or are we going to stand up and bring justice to our cities across this country?”
Davis’ youth gave hope to one of Essex County’s old-school politicians, who joined the protesters as they marched down Market and Broad streets on the way to Newark’s federal building.
“The fight goes on, and the fight is not over yet. We still need a police review board, for which we’ve been fighting for years,” said former state Assemblyman William Payne (D-29), 82, of Newark. “It’s obvious to me that we need an independent body that reviews the actions of the police. It’s also clear that people must register and must vote. I think that a lot of people have bought into the idea that their vote doesn’t count. You can help create change if you go out to vote. Young people shouldn’t just come out to demonstrate. They have to participate. I’m hoping that this will wake people up.”