Footage of George Floyd’s death at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has sparked weeks of outrage and protests around the country.
That outrage reached Washington Township June 6 after a former Glassboro student alleged the existence of racism in the municipality.
Organizer Laila Muhammad, who is black, walked three miles with other protesters starting at Washington Township High School and ending at Washington Lake Park’s James A. Yates amphitheater. Protesters numbering about 500 and escorted by police chanted now-familiar phrases that included “Black lives matter” and “Say their names” as they marched along Hurffville-Cross Keys and Greentree roads and residents cheered them on.
“Growing up in Glassboro, white people and black people befriended each other, but you never know … the next town over,” said Muhammad, a Gloucester County Institute of Technology graduate.
“They have a whole bunch of racism here and I figured this is a town that needs it (protest) the most and the town that a lot of people in South Jersey know about, so it’s the perfect place to do it.”
Police Chief Patrick Gurcsik, who denounced police behavior in Floyd’s death, admitted he was amazed at the protest. Gurcsik has hired minorities in the police department from the lowest to highest levels in an attempt to change the department’s culture and make it more diverse.
When asked what he thought of race relations in the township, Gurcsik, who is white, said he believes they are good, but did not expand further, instead suggesting it was important for protestors to share their opinion on the matter.
Two Timber Creek graduates who left then returned to the township and are white, claimed race relations in the township could be better, alluding to the now-archived Facebook group Washington Twp. Talk. Sisters Haley and Carina Tripoli noted group members had quarreled with Floyd supporters.
“People were trying to get a list of black businesses to support and there are people trolling them saying, ‘What about white businesses’ and ‘All lives matter,’” Haley read from the page. “People aren’t seeming to get it. When he (the chief) says that race relations are fine in Washington Township, I don’t believe that’s the case. It’s a little insidious maybe and it’s just not as overt as people would think it would be.”
Meanwhile, a Change.org petition started on June 5 has gained 1,799 signatures as of deadline, demanding the school district implement policies and disciplinary actions for students. The petition was started after several Washington Township High School students were found to have used the N-word and other inflammatory language on social media.
Principal Jonathan Strout issued a statement on June 5 calling the students’ language “deplorable, shameful and absolutely intolerable,” but said privacy laws prohibit him from saying anything else about the matter. His full statement can be viewed by visiting the high school’s Facebook page.
During the township protest, an unnamed man showed up with an American flag and a poster reading “Blue Lives Matter” and “David Dorn.” Protesters were urged to respect the man’s freedom of speech.
“He wasn’t trying to go against us during the protest,” Muhammad’s father, Ibrahim, shared. “What he was talking about was a retired African American police officer who stumbled upon some looters breaking in somewhere, and they shot him.”
Police officers asked the man not to interfere with the protest and walked with protesters along the route. Laila addressed opinions online in support of police.
“You’re not born a cop. I’m born black,” she proclaimed. “I can’t take this off; you can take your badge off and not be a cop anymore. I’m born with this and there’s no way around it.”
She said the protest included people of all races who were “fed up” with the racism and police brutality in the country. Tiffany Grandison, of the Monroe Township Board of Education, moved the protesters to tears at the amphitheater when she talked about fears of raising a black child in the country.
Protesters also kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time Chauvin’s knee was pressed against Floyd’s neck as he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” Protesters went silent as they kneeled, and only the sniffling of noses could be heard.
The elder Muhammad took note of the “activist kids” in the march whose parents and grandparents taught them about the social movements of the late 20th century.
Members of generations from Baby Boomers to millennials were represented at the protest.
“I think we hear them loud and clear,” Gurcsik said following the event. “People want, and we need, some change.”
Laila Muhammad hopes for that change.
“We need more minorities in our boards, we need minorities in any type of board — the Washington Township (board of education), township committee, anything!” she insisted.
“We need that representation in there, otherwise our people will be left behind.”