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Protesters descend on Trenton to rally support for progressive bills

By Dana Difilippo and Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Originally published to New Jersey Monitor on December 3, 2021

More than 100 activists converged on the Statehouse in Trenton Thursday to rally for causes that were decades, and even centuries, in the making.

Reparations for slavery. Protections to preserve abortion rights. Reforms to hold police accountable for brutality. School curriculum that reflects communities’ diversity.

They’ve rallied before, countless times, in a crusade for change some agreed sometimes feels Sisyphean. Thursday, with the entire New Jersey Legislature meeting for the first time since they broke for the summer, they rallied again to demand that lawmakers pass several stalled bills — bills that will die if lawmakers don’t vote on them before a new legislative session begins in early January.

Protecting abortion rights

One day after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could reverse the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade case enshrining abortion rights nationwide, activists demanded lawmakers here act on a bill that would expand and preserve abortion rights in New Jersey.

The Reproductive Freedom Act was introduced last year but remains stalled in committee.

Several of the bill’s sponsors — including Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), Assemblywomen Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic) and Mila Jasey (D-Essex), and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) — took the microphone to urge protesters to contact their lawmakers to ask them to pass the bill.

“Roe v. Wade could actually be overturned. That’s like a real thing in 2021, which is disheartening,” Mukherji said. “Pericles counseled us, just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you. There has never been a more profound time in our democracy here in New Jersey for women than when these rights are threatened nationally.”

Staff from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which organized the rally, led chants of “when our rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back!”

“The die has been cast. Three generations of American women have never known a world without reproductive freedom,” Jasey said. “Back-alley abortions and potentially disastrous home remedies to end an unwanted, unplanned pregnancy were no longer the norm. But now women face a new and dangerous world, a world where we no longer have the right to make decisions about our bodies and our futures.”

Pushing for police reform

A number of police reform bills are languishing in the Legislature, but activists at a rally organized by Newark Communities for Accountable Policing focused on one that would give subpoena power to civilian review boards.

Community oversight and civilian-led boards that review police misconduct are key to ensuring law enforcement officers are held accountable for brutality and civil rights violations — but they’re toothless without the power to subpoena, protesters said.

“The police can’t police themselves. They show us time and time again,” said Danielle Carpita of the advocacy group Showing Up for Racial Justice New Jersey. “We need real community safety and that’s going to come from the community itself.”

Such bills have failed in previous legislative sessions dating back decades, largely due to lobbying by police unions. Activists vowed to fight for the bill until it passes.

“The police in this state since the 1960s have opposed any efforts to create police review boards with subpoena power,” said Lawrence Hamm of the People’s Organization for Progress. “They can’t keep the lid on any longer. We’re blowing the lid off this.”

Rallying for reparations

Some of the most impassioned speakers demanded the passage of a bill that would create a reparations task force in New Jersey. The bill hasn’t received a vote since it was introduced in January 2020.

Hamm drew cheers when he spoke about how the United States has paid reparations to some indigenous tribes, Holocaust survivors and their heirs, and Asian Americans sent to internment camps during World War II.

“We’re here today to demand reparations,” Hamm said. “Our people were forced to labor. We didn’t come here on the Mayflower. We didn’t come here on the Carnival Cruise line. We came here in the bellies of slave ships. We were brought here to work, and we received nothing in return. I’m here to demand reparations for the 250 years of stolen labor from Black people.”

New Jersey, more so than other states, especially should support reparations because of its role in perpetuating slavery and its resistance to ending it, Hamm said. Perth Amboy and Camden both had active slave ports, while New Jersey was the last Northern state to ban slavery, not formally ending it until 1866, three years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

“This was a slave state, a state full of slave masters and enslaved people,” Hamm said. “And they want us to forget about it. But I’m here to rip the covers off the day and say: ‘No! You are not going to forget about your role in the enslavement of our people in this country!”

The reparations rally was organized by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the Universalist-Unitarian FaithAction’s statewide task force.

Our people were forced to labor. We didn’t come here on the Mayflower. We didn’t come here on the Carnival Cruise line. We came here in the bellies of slave ships. We were brought here to work, and we received nothing in return. I’m here to demand reparations for the 250 years of stolen labor from Black people. – Lawrence Hamm of People's Organization for Progress

Advocating for Asian American curriculum

Jessica Kim’s three children didn’t go to school Thursday, she said, because they were going to learn more in the Statehouse about Asian contributions to America than they ever had in public schools.

“In school, they will not learn about the important contributions of Asian American laborers, soldiers, elected officials, activists, scientists, artists,” said Kim, a social worker from Cherry Hill. “This invisibility and this erasure of our faces and stories robs our children of their right of understanding that they are a part of this country, that it’s our home.”

She was one of nearly a dozen activists urging legislators to pass a bill that would require schools teach Asian American and Pacific Islander history.

With more than 37 sponsors in the state Senate, the measure passed overwhelmingly Thursday, with a vote of 38-2.

Still, supporters were disappointed the bill hasn’t been put for a vote in the Assembly Education Committee. They said it’s important to move the legislation forward, especially in light of the uptick in attacks on Asians during the pandemic.

Ahead of the vote, a group of Asian American and Pacific Islander residents gathered in a committee room at the Statehouse to share their stories of facing racism growing up, and what it meant to see themselves reflected in history books.

Gabby Sung said the only times Asians were brought up in her public education schooling were during history class lessons on World War II and Pearl Harbor.

While taking an Asian-American literature class at The College of New Jersey, she said, it was eye-opening to learn about contributions she had never been taught before.

“I learned about Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, and many other activists who had helped, for example, lead the civil rights movement, which I had learned about in school but never knew that someone like me could go speak and do these things,” she said.

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