Bridgeton, NJ: The “New South” (The “Bridgeton 4”)

In 1976, activists organized the “Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice,” a 9-month march with 20 routes going through 34 states, calling for a halt to nuclear weapons and demanding budget increases for social services.  Nowhere was Social Justice needed more than in the Southern leg of the march, which consisted mostly of poor blacks and only three whites. Beginning in New Orleans in April, the group marched in the street all the way to Washington, D.C. by October.  This contingent was harassed more than any other group by police in the “New South.”  Police were heard complaining that the walkers were “stirring up our niggers.”  On six different occasions, every single walker was arrested at the same time.  All six arrests resulted from local police preventing the walkers from marching in the street, but, refusing to pay bail after each arrest, the demonstrators were eventually released from jail and “insisted on our constitutional right to walk” in the street.  In each case, the police went out of their way to prevent permits from being issued to the walkers, or at least went out of their way to harass the walkers, instead of just allowing them to pass through.

For example, in North Carolina over 20 walkers were refused a permit they applied for, and were arrested after attempting to march in the street.  Police, however, couldn’t fit all of them into the paddy wagon, prompting them to order the demonstrators to march themselves to the jail.  The abnormal request of “self-incarceration” was even more baffling because the route to the jail was the exact route the walkers originally intended to walk, except one block shorter.  It behooved the walkers that they had to march through town to imprison themselves for the crime of marching in the street.

Certain police officers in Bridgeton, NJ, have successfully imitated the style of the officers from the “New South.”  On February 3, 2015, nearly 50 demonstrators marched in support of civilian review boards and an independent investigation of the police shooting of Jerame Reid (36, black) on December 30.  Four of us, known as the “Bridgeton 4,” received citations for allegedly marching in the street against police orders.  Walter Hudson, organizer of the protest, correctly described the citations as being a form of police “scare tactics.”  The police exacerbated the problem by harassing the demonstrators throughout the one mile march.  According to Hudson, demonstrators had marched the same route twice before without being molested, but the difference this time was that demonstrators continued to march toward the City Municipal Building, instead of stopping at the Courthouse.

The march launched from the spot where Reid was shot and killed by police on Henry Street.  Prior to marching, however, two police vehicles pulled over a car driven by one of the demonstrators.  Clearly the police were out to give us a hard time.  Everyone marched in the street without any problems for at least five minutes until we reached South Avenue.  Then, without even speaking with any of the walkers or even bothering to get out of their vehicles, the police began ordering the walkers over the microphone to get onto the sidewalk.  It was dehumanizing to be treated like cattle, expected to obey the master without any explanation.

According to Philly.com: “Police said the march briefly blocked traffic on South Avenue.”  This is a lie, a lie that has been repeatedly used by police in the history of protest movements, particularly by southern police officials during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. In the south, civil rights workers were ticketed for driving one mile per hour over the speed limit, jaywalking, and other minor violations that allowed police to implement scare tactics.  In this instance, demonstrators in no way blocked traffic, but the police claimed otherwise to justify their ruthless attack.  In fact, every vehicle that drove by honked in support of the demonstrators.

The demonstrators marched on South Avenue for no more than five minutes.  The rest of the march occurred on empty streets where no cars were present, even though police continued to harass people along these roads as well. On South Avenue the “criminals” had the audacity to march on the side of the street, literally right up against the curb, with many demonstrators landing one foot down on the curb and the other on the street.  At no point did anyone cross the solid white line that separated them from traffic, and if they had, then licensed motorists should apply their driving knowledge to avoid hitting pedestrians.  Moreover, the demonstrators didn’t even march in the street for the entire five minutes, but moved back onto the sidewalk midway down the street, when the side of the road was no longer safe for walking.

It was actually the police who held up traffic and disregarded the safety of the public.  The police were well aware that the entire march was only expected to last 20 minutes, the majority of which took place along backstreets.  Despite this knowledge, the police spent all their efforts harassing the walkers.  The police also flaunted their lack of respect for the walkers as well as community members by making no attempt to engage the demonstrators in a serious conversation.  For several minutes police vehicles drove 5 miles per hour in the street (this would be the only reason why traffic was temporarily blocked), while simply stating that walkers should exit the street.  If police truly believed the demonstrators were blocking traffic or endangering the lives of others, then why did they allow the walkers to continue marching all the way to the final destination?  Why not arrest them if they were a threat?  Why not engage them in conversation and ask them to walk on the sidewalk?  Why not direct traffic around the demonstrators?  The answer, in short, was because police sought to punish the dissenters by collecting evidence of minor misdemeanors so as to justify their scare tactics.

For example, demonstrators marching along South Avenue were videotaped by officers in their vehicles, who made no attempt to engage protesters in a conversation.  In fact, the only thing the cops did was provide a villainous smile as they tapped their finger on the camera, indicating they had something planned for us later on.  Meanwhile, the one officer giving orders through the microphone served as a protective measure for officers, who could claim they did “everything in their power,” except, of course, provide demonstrators with their basic civil liberties.

Another aspect largely ignored by the police was that the protesters did in fact adhere to the demands by the police.  Beginning mid-way on South Avenue, the protesters walked the remaining distance on the sidewalk.  From there they turned onto an empty street and marched the remaining 10 minutes on the sidewalk, passing no cars along the way, but were nevertheless followed and videotaped by police.  Only once or twice did an individual actually touch the abandoned street with their feet, at which point the police vehicle following them blasted the loud speakers to warn the town about these unlawful criminals.  It was only after demonstrators entered the Municipal building that the police felt obligated to take action – seriously throwing into questioning the statement made by Bridgeton Police Captain, Michael Gaimari, who felt “obligated to enforce the laws to protect them [protesters] and those that are operating motor vehicles on the city’s roadways.” (philly.com, Feb. 4, 2015)  Again, how did police protect drivers by waiting until we were inside a building to issue us tickets?  This made as much sense as Southern police placing the 1976 Continental Walkers under arrest for attempting to march through town, but then ordering the walkers to march the exact same route to the jail.

The first action taken by police, however, was to harass every single walker.  They did this by forcing all 50 persons to go through the metal detector before entering the City Council meeting, another action taken by police that wasn’t implemented at the previous two protests.  After the first ten people went through this relatively long process, police began selecting people either intentionally or randomly, although I believe it was the former, to issue tickets to.  At this point I watched a police officer walk through the crowded area with great effort, maneuvering around over 30 other walkers, until finally he pointed at me and told me to follow him.  I immediately asked why, terrified already from the tense atmosphere created by the police.  He only replied by saying something along the lines of, “just come with me.”  I asked again, but he responded in the same way with an angry expression, as he began guiding me toward the door in the back.  I was really scared because there was no reason the cops should take me and not anyone else.  I truly thought I was going to die because the police had already proven they had little consideration for our lives.  I can’t think of one solid reason why I was chosen to be issued a ticket but nearly no one else was.  My guess is that I was an easy target because I was quietly standing alone (I knew nobody there) and because I’m white (out of the 50 demonstrators, only about 10 were white).  Now the police can claim the citations had nothing to do with race.

After walking me back through the large crowd of demonstrators, he took me into a small room where I saw two other demonstrators – Melissa Byrne (36, white) and Lawrence Hamm (61, black).  I sat down and was ordered by the officer to hand over my license.  I immediately began going through my pockets, but only two seconds later I was yelled at for taking too long and wasting time.  I was astonished, but looking back I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Meanwhile, the rest of the demonstrators in the hall began demanding to know why the three of us were being held.  When police informed them, Walter Hudson, the protest organizer, led the chant in demanding everyone be arrested for marching in the street, since everyone there did so at some point.  Later on Hudson was issued a citation, bringing the total to 4 persons.  Trial is set for February 17.  After about ten minutes, the 3 of us in the backroom were released.  On the way out, Lawrence Hamm asked the dozen officers (all white) if they had seen the movie “Selma,” which they all replied: “no.”  Then one officer asked: “What is it about?”

Once released, I was interviewed along with the other two persons.  By the time I finished my interview everyone had already gone through the metal detector and entered the council meeting.  When I entered the room, the council members stood up and began exiting the room.  Apparently the City Council had ended the meeting prior to everyone entering the room (originally several demonstrators were in the room while the meeting took place, but exited once they realized everyone else remained outside in the hallway due to the tickets).  This caused all the demonstrators to shout in rage over the fact that our message to the council was never put under consideration.  City Council President reluctantly agreed to sponsor another meeting over the issue of the shooting of Jerame Reid, but then quickly left the room to avoid further questioning.  That meeting has still yet to be set.

Thus we had marched in freezing weather, were harassed by police who treated us as sub-human, and received $54 tickets just to be ignored by elected officials.  Although, to be fair, Mayor Albert Kelly did respond to our protest by saying he fully supported the actions taken by the police against us, which is perplexing because he had no time to review the evidence in order to make a rational decision.  Instead, like always, elected officials took the side of those who protect their power, and went against those who questioned their power.  So it goes.

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