Palmyra High School senior Kaya Robinson created a mural during her sophomore year with a slogan familiar to millions of Americans who share the sentiment and the struggle: Black Lives Matter.
Two years later, and 13 days after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, she took the stage on a perfect afternoon in front of a sign that proclaimed the same message and spoke her mind.
“Since painting that mural, I’ve never stopped saying the words ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Robinson said from her perch on the stage. “I’ve dedicated myself to educating and promoting unity. But I still don’t feel that I was being heard. I would speak out about these issues in class, whenever I could, and often, I got one of the most painful reactions: silence.
“At the beginning of the year,” she added, “I started wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to school, until I was told that my shirt was a source of discomfort to other students, and could possibly instigate some issues. So many others have been begging for these words to be heard and understood for years.
“It hasn’t been until recent times that this movement has gained recognition.”
Robinson, along with fellow Palmyra HS juniors Chloe Edwards, Chloe King and sophomore Kacia King, saw their efforts to bring the community together come to fruition on June 7. The four, along with representatives of the Palmyra Police Department, borough council, the high school, local clergy and approximately 500 residents and citizens from beyond the region, stood shoulder to shoulder inside Flournoy Park for two hours during a peaceful gathering to call attention to the need for justice.
Council President Tim Howard, who also acts as the borough’s public safety director, spoke not in an official capacity but as a resident. He pleaded to law enforcement that they themselves are not the root of the problem that has inspired protests across the nation.
Citing the slayings of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery Howard stated: “These people were slain by somebody who felt they had the right to take someone’s life. That’s the problem.“
Palmyra High School Principal Lisa Sabo offered: “I strive to be anti-racist. As an educator, I choose to change the conversations I have with my students … As a parent, I cannot be afraid to have these conversations with my own children.”
Through a voice roughened by days of speaking at previous rallies, state Sen. Troy Singleton contributed the following:
“The young folks over here who are leading this endeavor … they’ve decided to be sick and tired of being sick and tired and decided to take that initiative and move things forward.
“Why are we all here?” he added. “And the question is different for each and every one of us. The question is different in each of our hearts. There’s an old organizer’s chant that embodies this movement. Though simple in words, its impact is heartfelt: A people united can never be defeated.”
Singleton also urged all in attendance at the gathering to take the energy shown during the rally, and apply it by voting on Nov. 3.
“I think yesterday showed how great the town of Palmyra is,” Police Chief Scott Pearlman said in a statement. “ It is understandable that the public we serve are deeply upset, in light of recent actions of the officers involved in the George Floyd arrest. As police officers in New Jersey, we all take an oath of office when we start our careers and retake the oath as we are promoted throughout our careers.
“In this oath, we swear to support the Constitution of the United States and New Jersey,” the chief added. “We also swear that we will faithfully, impartially and justly perform all the duties of the position.
“I think it is important that as police officers we remember this oath and perform our daily functions in line with this ideal.”
Early in the June 7 gathering, attendees were asked to stand in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds in honor of Floyd. Those who wanted to speak their peace about individual experiences growing up as persons of color took the stage, one by one, to a transfixed crowd. They called for education, remediation and reconciliation.
“I know that many of you are part of the crowd that has recognized that black lives do matter and have stood with us for years. Your support does not go unnoticed. Now that we do have national attention, what are we going to do with it?” Edwards asked the crowd. What changes are we going to make?
“People are finally listening and we will be saying Black Lives Matter until they not only hear us, but also understand,” the student added. “I’m not scared anymore. And although I may feel that my journey with this movement has been long, I know that has been nothing compared to the decades of injustice faced by the generations before me.
“Things are going to change. And this generation is going to be the reason for that change.”