Montgomery-Area Folks Respond to National Civil Rights Protests
Photos and story by Barbara A. Preston
Some might argue Montgomery Township is far removed from the tragedy that unfolded on the streets of Minneapolis, where police officers arrested and killed George Floyd — a 46-year-old black man who allegedly used a fake $20 bill to purchase a pack of cigarettes — on May 25.
As protesters march through cities — including nearby Trenton, Philadelphia, and New York City — chanting “Justice for George,” Montgomery residents should be asking themselves:
What is the status of our own Montgomery Township police force? Do they have dash or body cams? Have they been trained in de-escalation procedures? Have they undergone any bias training? What can we do as citizens to protect other citizens from potentially being the subject of police brutality? What is the Montgomery community doing to prevent a tragedy from happening here? What responsibilities do Montgomery people have to ensure this racism stops?
"All across the country we are seeing protests against the tragic murder of George Floyd ... as well as against the violence and systemic racism experienced by other innocent black Americans," Montgomery Mayor Sadaf Jaffer says. "It is important for us all to confront racism and its tragic consequences."
“Through working with the Montgomery Township Police Department and its command staff, I know the police department’s priority is serving our diverse community so that all members are treated equitably and respectfully,” the mayor said. “To this end, our force has been trained in de-escalation and anti-bias."
"Diversifying the police force itself is a key goal as well, and within the last two years we have sworn-in minority and women officers," Mayor Jaffer says. "Yet, these efforts are all a work in progress. We must continue to reassess and take stock of our institutions and make plans for how to be more than passively ‘not racist,’ but actively anti-racist.”
“I know from what I’ve heard from the Black community that there is more work to be done,” she added.
The Montgomery police force does not have a single black officer, sources confirmed. Captain James Gill did not respond to a request for a statement or interview for this article.
Somerset County Freeholder Director Shanel Y. Robinson answered questions posed by The Montgomery News on Sunday.
Could what happened in Minneapolis happen in Somerset County?
“Anything is possible, however we are not a Minneapolis or a Ferguson,” Robinson said. “Regardless, it’s still important. The words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr ring true today: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
What do you plan to do about this latest instance of police violence against black people, if anything?
“I will continue to stay focused, stay engaged, and be a leader and advocate," says Freeholder Robinson. "Marches, rallies, and protests need to be coupled with voting and holding leaders and elected officials accountable and real change.”
Do Somerset County police departments in general have adequate representation of black people on local police forces and in the county sheriff's office?
“No they do not have adequate representation,” Robinson said. “It’s important not just in the police departments but on so many levels because the narrative that has been on replay/repeat of black people is incorrect!!! We not only need equality we need equity!”
Montgomery Township Committeewoman Catherine Gural says Montgomery actively recruits for its police department and has been increasing its attempts year after year to recruit and hire diverse candidates from all backgrounds.
“I have been personally researching as part of my graduate studies in public administration (at Rutgers), the issues and problems with minority recruitment and representation in municipal police departments,” Gural says, noting she shared her graduate course research with Township Administrator Donato Nieman and Montgomery Police Captain Jim Gill.
“The field of law enforcement has always been known to be dominated by males, to be more specific white males,” according to Gural. “The lack of females and minorities has become an evolving topic. Police agencies are facing many challenges in attracting and recruiting female and minority officers. Several sources have revealed that police agencies are having difficulties finding qualified applicants in general.”
According to Gural's research: “Female officers comprise approximately 12 percent of sworn officers and minority officers comprise 27 percent of total officers nationwide compared to 15 percent in 1987."
"I don't believe this would happen in Montgomery," Gural says. "I have the full faith in the leadership of the MTPD and its officers and feel extremely comfortable that they work in the best interest of everyone in the community. I have seen first hand the manner in which they conduct themselves and have been nothing but proud of them."
"With respect to this particular incident in Minneapolis," she adds, "we can all show our support for the African American community, be active allies, and empathize and mourn along with those around the country as the escalation of tensions unfold by the hour. What we can do in Montgomery is continue to hold our officers to a standard of excellence and continue to cultivate a culture of tolerance."
One Montgomery resident who stepped forward to confront racism is Christopher "Topher" Maslanka. He is a 27-year-old videographer who attended a protest on Union Square, Manhattan, on Saturday that turned violent. Also, The Montgomery News covered a peaceful protest in Trenton on Sunday. Hours after the Trenton protest ended, agitators set a Trenton police vehicle ablaze and bullets littered the streets by the State House.
Maslanka traveled to Union Square, in part for work, and in part to protest, he said. In addition to taping horrific scenes, he and his friend Riley Morgan built a robot that "is a fax machine on wheels that goes 25 mph and distributes anti-racism posters at a rate of about 100 per second." They originally built the robot to distribute COVID-19 pamphlets.
"So I guess you could say I was protesting too," Maslanka says.
“I think there's been tension boiling over that reached a flashpoint," Maslanka says, in an attempt to explain why peaceful protests are turning violent.
"Also, it was the ability for people who wanted to riot to be able to hide in the mass crowd of about 20,000 to 30,000 people that allowed it to go berserk."
The Montgomery News could not confirm the number of protesters in New York City. "Every block of the city was absolutely filled as far as my eyes could see," Maslanka said. "But there isn't any way to confirm an exact number. A sea of people might be a better way to say it."
In New York City, people resorted to burning rubber from two police vans – which ended up exploding – south of Union Square. At one point, there was so much smoke, the view of the Empire State Building was obstructed. A small number of vandals cheered as sparks flew and others took a sledge hammer to the windows of the Santander Bank at the corner of the 13th Street and Broadway.
"It was like being in a war zone," Maslanka says. "It was sad to watch a peaceful protest quickly turn into one of the most chaotic scenes I have ever witnessed. I went outside and put myself at risk so you don't have to. New York City has been stretched to its very limits, and spent the night burning."
In all these protests, the majority are creative, smart, peaceful people who want change. And, they seem to want to work with the police to fix a bad situation.
Police officers in Camden helped carry a banner reading “Standing in Solidarity,” and joined in with the crowd chanting “no justice, no peace.” In Trenton, police officers dropped to one knee in a show of support to the peaceful protesters, while the crowd chanted to stop police brutality and racism.
Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota tweeted on Sunday: "We have reason to believe that bad actors continue to infiltrate the rightful protests of George Floyd’s murder, after previously suggesting that white supremacists or people from outside the state fomented the unrest.
It is difficult to know what is really going on with the violence. In New York City, a senior police official told The New York Times that "anarchists had planned to start mayhem in the city even before the protests started and, during the demonstrations, maintained supply routes to distribute gasoline, rocks and bottles, and also dispatched scouts to find areas devoid of police officers."
Montgomery Deputy Mayor Marvin L. Schuldiner told The Montgomery News: "Our country is long overdue for an honest and open discussion about race relations, and bringing about true equal opportunity and treatment to Black Americans and all Americans regardless of their race, skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin. We need to be listening to those who feel mistreated, especially those who are African American. We also need to find compassion for others, both in racial relations and in COVID-19."
"Policing should be about public service and community," he said. "We are fortunate to have a very professional police force in Montgomery. While any interaction between the police and a member of the public has the potential to be problematic, I am confident our police approach their job with the right intention of serving and protecting the public. The department's record demonstrates that."
"We try to hire only officers who believe in that approach," he said. "I stand firmly with the family of Mr. Floyd and with all African Americans who feel mistreated. Let's open dialog and listening started immediately."
In closing, Mayor Jaffer had said she plans to work with Montgomery Township committee members and mayors of neighboring towns to proactively address this crisis “In planning how best to move forward in the local context, I am following the lead of Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins who encourages us to address racism as a public health crisis,” Jaffer said.
If you have a news tip or want to join the dialog, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meanwhile, have high expectations of this country. Vote. And call out racism when you see it, even if you risk losing a friend or two. And look for it in yourself. We all have a lot to learn.