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Black in Bayonne speaks out

One demonstrator calls for more representation in the Bayonne Police Department at the 'Power in the Park' rally in 2020. Photo by Daniel Israel.
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One demonstrator calls for more representation in the Bayonne Police Department at the 'Power in the Park' rally in 2020. Photo by Daniel Israel.

In April, a grand jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on all charges for the murder of George Floyd. The killing of Floyd in May of 2020 sparked a wave of protests across the country.

One of those peaceful protests took place in Bayonne in June, known as Power in the Park. Following the success of the demonstration, the organizers formed an activist group known as Black in Bayonne. Since then, its four cofounders have been at the forefront of Black activism in the city.

Cofounder Clarice High shared her reaction to the guilty verdict, and the changes that Bayonne needs to make.

“My first reaction was obviously thankful that he was convicted,” High told the Bayonne Community News. “After that, we sort of calmed down and realized that’s one conviction out of hundreds, maybe thousands, of police officers who are inflicting pain on the Black community. We’re seeing increased, militarized policing. Derek Chauvin is one of thousands who believe that police officers have unlimited authority over the people that they police, specifically Black and Brown people. But we are thankful that George Floyd’s family received some sort of accountability.”

Black in Bayonne is still on the case.

“We are still holding space for individuals who haven’t gotten that justice, including Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor, and there’s so many other people that I can’t even think of their names,” High said. “There are people who were shot this week. We’re talking about Ma’Khia Bryant. There are so many victims of police violence, so its tough to be celebratory because your mind goes back to the other people who are still seeking, not just justice, but accountability for a system that wasn’t designed to protect them. We’re still perpetuating a lot of stereotypes and actions that aren’t right.”

“There are a lot of Black and Brown people that just don’t feel safe in their own communities. They feel like the police are looking to actively harm them. We stand with George Floyd’s family as they receive some accountability. We want that for every victim, and we also want change in policy and procedure. We want police officers to understand that they’re here to protect and serve, not kill and steal.”

Momentum for the movement?

About a week after the Chauvin verdict, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that an investigation is being launched into the Louisville Police Department over the killing of Breonna Taylor in March of 2020. High said that these events might provide momentum for real change.

“What would be real change is policy change,” she said. “We can’t just be a matter of ‘Okay, we convicted one police officer and that’s it.’ That comes from, not just investigations, but tearing down the ‘blue wall of silence.’ It comes from one police officer seeing another do something wrong and saying that’s not right. It comes from police officers thinking with their morals and understanding that because you have a warrant, because you have a weapon, doesn’t give you the right to act without knowing the rules or act without accountability. Maybe this might be a stepping stone.”

However, High isn’t holding her breath.

“As a Black woman in America, we’ve seen a bunch of different instances where we think there’s some sort of change, and then there isn’t,” High said. “Trayvon Martin’s killer is still walking around. Breonna Taylor’s murderer was trying to write a book. So while you see that things might be changed, there are these people still walking around, and its almost as if they don’t have any morals and don’t feel like they did anything wrong. Those people have supporters.”

“So we hope that change will come, maybe not with a mind shift in regular people, but from policy. That’s how Black people can feel like they are getting some sort of accountability and feeling that there’s some sort of break in this systemic racism that we’ve been facing for 400 years.”

First steps in Bayonne 

In terms of policy at the local level, High described a few changes she thought could benefit the city.

“I definitely think a Civilian Complaint Review Board is something that we can look into,” High said. “There are people in this city who feel that there is a heavy police presence. We do feel like there are police that overstep their boundaries.” 

Black in Bayonne has been working with officials to address it.

“Black in Bayonne has been in touch with Sergeant Steven Rhodes, the community liaison,” High said. “He is very active in letting us know what’s going on in the community. If there are racial incidents or incidents in general that need to be looked over, there is this sort of communication with us.”

But High said only the community can bring about change.

“Whatever real policies that we’re looking to change will be done by people going to board meetings, city council meetings,” High said. “It starts with people being more aware of what’s going on with the police, having that relationship built, and community policing. That involves more police officers moving back or living in the city, knowing who’s here. You wouldn’t chastise certain individuals that you see and don’t recognize if you lived here.”

“Just because Bayonne is small, just because Bayonne is what it is, doesn’t mean that we don’t need community policing or those sort of programs seen in other cities. We’re hoping to be a part of those changes. This involves changes in terms of mindset and how everybody sees policing, being in a community, and being in a community adjacent to Black and Brown people.”

A changing city

And Bayonne is home to growing communities of color.

“We see more Black and Brown people walking around the city,” High said. “We engage with them, and they say they’re already following Black in Bayonne. But it’s not just about social media engagement, it’s about Black people understanding that there are people in this city that are looking to not only be a voice for you, but help you find your own voice and let you know that you have to advocate for yourself.” 

Black in Bayonne is being heard, but there is “absolutely” more to hear, High said. 

“We just want to make sure that the people that have been here forever feel seen, and that the people that are coming into Bayonne now feel seen,” High said.

According to High, a shift in mindset will also have to occur alongside any changes in policy.

There are “a lot of people that perpetuate hate in this city,” High said. So while it may be diverse, while your kids go to school with other people of different colors and backgrounds, they experience hate. How can we turn things around?”

What the future may hold

High said that Black in Bayonne will soon celebrate its one year anniversary in June. Details are still being worked out, but a celebration is being planned.

“We are currently on the path to doing something amazing,” High said. “We’ve already done some amazing things, but the work doesn’t stop. Fred Hampton says, ‘There’s power wherever the people are,’ and that’s what we feel like is happening here.” 

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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