‘We will not allow hate to be louder than us’

West Milford. West Milford High School student organizes peaceful demonstration

11 Jun 2020 | 11:22

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.”

Closing thoughts

“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.”

Inside Views
Statements from Sarah Chandler’s parents and demonstration attendees
“Sarah organized this peaceful protest to show support for dismantling the hundreds of years of injustice to black Americans. I’m so proud of her for taking the initiative to create change.”
- David Chandler, Sarah’s father
“My daughter, Sarah organized the Black Lives Matter protest and march in town. I couldn’t be more proud. She met with our police department to discuss location, parking, safety, and the march route. She advertised the event and invited the guest speakers. She was treated with respect and support from our Chief of Police, Devore, who was present for the event. This was a peaceful protest to show support for our fellow black Americans. We heard from many of our residents who shared very personal feelings and stories. It was incredibly moving. Sarah, along with others spoke of the unfair and unjust treatment of black Americans, including death rates of double that of white. Sarah would like to be a Civil rights attorney. She is brilliant.... and kind...and a peacemaker of all people. . Sarah is an honors student. She received the Wellesley award on Scholar’s night because she cares about all human beings and will be the change this world needs. We have received positive feedback from all attendees. This certainly brought our community together.”
- Dawn Chandler, Sarah’s mother
“Attending this march was extremely eye opening for me as I did not expect so many people to come together about a civil rights cause. Seeing the people flood in with their creative and sentimental signs allowed me to see a side of West Milford that I had never known in my fifteen years of living here. Sarah was able to create a safe space for speakers to feel comfortable sharing their experiences and for protesters to be able to feel comfortable sharing their emotions as well. I think for everyone who attended this march it will be so pivotal in their image of West Milford as we were able to share emotions, personal experiences, and a vested interest in establishing justice. Sarah worked very hard to be able to organize this so flawlessly and peacefully that everyone was able to feel safe and protected while marching. I could not be more grateful that I was able to experience and participate in something so revolutionary for West Milford.”
Jordan Spencer, guest speaker, West Milford BLM Demonstration
“When Sarah texted me she was organizing a Black Lives Matter protest, I was both proud and scared. I was proud that she was going to put together something that is bigger than West Milford but scared because there are some people in West Milford that would try to ruin this. When I got there, the crowd was small but bigger than I could have imagined for our town. As it got closer to 3, more and more people started to show up. I was so proud and moved that our small town could band together like this. As we marched through the center of town, it felt like there were thousands of protesters. The whole town just paused for a moment to hear our message. Our protest shows that any form of activism is good activism. Whether you were present at the protest or not, don’t stop fighting. Keep signing petitions, donating and holding the people another accountable.”
-Megan McCormick, West Milford BLM Demonstration Attendee