Seventeen year old West Milford High School junior Sarah Chandler had a dream, a dream that most Americans share. A dream for the world to be a place of peace and equality for all human beings.
Then a 46-year-old man named George Floyd died during his arrest in Minneapolis, Minn. on May 25. Video footage of the arresting police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd repeatedly stated “I can’t breathe” went viral over news media and social media outlets. “Systemic racism” was soon blamed and debated as the underlying cause of Floyd’s death.
Protests in response to Floyd’s death and to police violence against other African American people in recent years, quickly spread across the United States.
And it affected Sarah Chandler deeply as she watched it all unfold in front of her eyes on the news. So she decided to take action.
She began to plan a peaceful demonstration in her hometown in support of a cause she is passionate about: “Black Lives Matter.”
Plans put into motion
Some may wonder why a young white woman from a township with a predominantly white population would organize such a demonstration.
“If no one else was going to do it,” Chandler said, “why not me?
“I wanted to show that even in a historically conservative town such as West Milford, no one is alone,” she added. “African Americans will always have someone to stand up for them. West Milford is full of allies who will do anything they can to help. We refuse to be silent and let our classmates continue to suffer. We are always here for our brothers and sisters of color and we will not allow hate to be louder than us.”
Chandler posted a picture of a flier she made on Instagram to spread the word to try to gather people together for a peaceful demonstration. She said she expected “twenty or so friends to show up so we could stand on sidewalks and hold up signs to traffic.”
She also called the police to them them a heads up.
Larger response than anticipated
Once Chandler realized that there would be much more than 20 people, a friend put her in touch with Kristin Reeves, who organized the “March For Our Lives” protest in town two years ago. Reeves was able to give Chandler advice and help her communicate with the police.
“We set up a meeting with the (WM Police) Chief and worked out our route,” Chandler said, “and he assured us that the police would be there to help keep us safe, and help us cross the street when we had to.”
Day of the demonstration
More than 300 people were gathered at the designated starting area for the demonstration by 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 4.
“The march exceeded my hopes,” Chandler said. “I did not expect so many people to attend.”
Speeches were first given there in the meeting area near Pinecliff Lake.
“This isn’t about me,” Chandler said. “I used my ‘privilege’ to give people of color a safe space to use their voice.”
Guest speakers included Jordan Spencer, Christian Ashby, Riyanna Singleton, Reyna Singleton and Reem Youssef. Nicco Starr sang. “They deserve the credit,” said Chandler.
Attendees listened to the speakers with shouts of support and thunderous applause. They then held up their signs and shouted chants as they began to march peacefully up the road, across Union Valley Road and past the front of Town Hall. The march continued down Union Valley Road through the center of West Milford Township to just past the Wells Fargo Bank, and then back around through the town center to the meeting area again.
And as promised, the crowd was assisted and kept safe from harm by officers of the West Milford Township Police and Passaic County Sheriff’s Departments.
The demonstration remained peaceful, and ended at approximately 4:30 p.m.
“Again, West Milford is a very conservative town - so I didn’t think I knew 300 people who supported the Black Lives Matter movement,” Chandler said. “But I’m very glad that I was proven wrong. I’m glad that our African American community was able to see that they are loved and we will always support them. We were able to create a safe space where my friends were given an opportunity to speak about their oppression and how they felt during this time.
“We were able to peacefully get our point across and support the people of color in our community,” she added, “so I see that as a huge success.”
“I would like the public to know that just because the march is over, our advocacy and activism doesn’t stop. We must continue to fight injustice when we see it. Continue to sign petitions or donate if you can. Write a letter to our Congressman. Vote.”