Newark students to cops: Let's work together

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on January 20, 2015

 

The letter to a Newark police precinct was as honest and sincere as it gets.
Seniors at Central High School wanted to be friends.

They addressed it to Capt. Anthony Buono, telling him that police officers and young people need to build a relationship with one another.

“We are the community,” they wrote. “We are not the enemy. We are on the same page and want to be partners with you.”

This olive branch, extended in December, was their response to the nationwide outrage after grand juries declined to indict white police officers who killed unarmed black men in Staten Island, N.Y, and Ferguson, Mo.

It came about after students discussed the incidents in sociology class with their teacher, Milagos M. Harris, who suggested that they develop strategies on how to prevent violence between the community and the police.

“Most people were protesting, but nobody was really thinking about what are we supposed to do to create a solution,” says Elizabeth Malomo, an 18-year-old senior.

The students formed a community task force and launched their own Black Lives Matter Movement, a spinoff of the national campaign to draw attention to how society and law enforcement targets and profiles young black males.

A week before Christmas, they hand-delivered the letter to Buono after school.

About 200 of them, all seniors, walked peacefully in the street to the precinct, carrying a banner that said “Black Lives Matter” and other signs calling for justice.

Buono knew they were coming, because Principal Sharnee Brown reached out and told him what her students had in mind.

“When I saw the way they organized their protest, that meant a lot to me, ‘’ Buono said. “This showed a lot, because their concerns are our concerns.''

But instead of waiting for them, Buono walked with the students to the precinct. It's just up the street, maybe two blocks from the school, at the corner of 17th Avenue and Irvine Turner Boulevard. Mayor Ras Baraka and Police Director Eugene Venable were there to greet the students.

It was just them and the officials. No press.

Venable says he had never seen anything like it. The level of maturity the students displayed was impressive.

“It’s never been done before,” Venable said. “It showed that students are excited and they have a commitment to establish a relationship with the police department, and that’s what we want to do.”

After the meeting in front of the precinct, the students invited police officers to their school that week to talk about ways they can get along.

“We (weren’t) trying to bash them’ says Corneliah Bulle, 17. ”It was so we can get to know them and so they can get to know us.”

And these students had many questions for their new friends: What should they do if stopped by the cops? Do police officers have a right to stop them randomly? Can an officer search their belongings?

“It was questions so young adults will be aware of how to act in certain situations,” says Jabrelle Vines, 17.

The students’ effort to reach out to local police made Central the perfect choice for the city to announce this month that Newark would participate in “My Brothers Keeper,” an initiative President Obama launched last year to address social and economic disparities facing young men of color.

“We … let Central do it because they took the initiative,” Baraka says. “It was a different kind of way, in the way they dealt with this, as opposed to the way that everybody else was dealing with it.''

The announcement of Newark’s involvement in the president’s initiative became part of a larger discussion that day of how black and Latino youth can foster a better relationship with police. In the audience, male students sat with police officers. Eric Garner Jr., the son of a Staten Island man who died after police put him in a choke hold, was there, too, participating in a panel.

Students at Central now say they have a better understanding of the men and women in blue, and will not be hesitant to approach them.

“When you really get down to it, he (police officer) is just like me,” says senior Taj Atkinson, 18. “We all go through these same emotions that you experience.”

And that's why they are not done cultivating this friendship.

The kids want to shoot some hoops with the cops, then sit down like a family afterward and eat some pizza over conversation they hope will go a long way toward cementing trust in one another.

That was in the letter, too: “If we can play together, we can stay together.”

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