Black Lives Matter vigil: Making an example of Morristown

Black Lives Matter candlelight vigil in Morristown. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Black Lives Matter candlelight vigil in Morristown. Photo by Pamela Babcock
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Video: Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown

By Kevin Coughlin

Demonstrators on Thursday called out Morristown police for something they didn’t do.

On Labor Day, two officers encountered a young black man with a loaded weapon…and apprehended him without firing a shot.

“I think we should acknowledge Morristown police for doing their job,” said T’Anna Kimbrough, organizer of the Black Lives Matter Morristown candelight vigil, which mourned black men killed elsewhere in confrontations with police.

Black Lives Matter candlelight vigil in Morristown. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Black Lives Matter candlelight vigil in Morristown. Photo by Pamela Babcock

“We call upon our neighboring communities to follow the Morristown police department’s lead, and to avoid unprovoked … use of deadly force,” said Clarence Curry Jr., an adviser to Black Lives Matter Morristown and an elder in the local Presbyterian Church.

The gathering, attended by a few dozen blacks and whites at a Cauldwell Playground basketball court, occurred just hours after Oklahoma authorities charged Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby, who is white, with manslaughter for fatally shooting Terence Crutcher, an unarmed African American, after his SUV stopped on a roadway last week.

In Charlotte, N.C., meanwhile, the National Guard was attempting to restore order after violent protests of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.  Police say the 43-year-old African American was armed; his family disputes that.

As their candles flickered on a comfortably warm first evening of autumn, Thursday’s vigil participants bowed their heads in silence, then recited the names of Crutcher, Scott and other black men killed by police in recent months.

“Black lives matter,” they chanted. And: “No peace, no justice,” “hands up, don’t shoot,” and “we must love and protect each other.”

Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin

Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
T'Anna Kimbrough, right, leads Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Sept. 22, 2016
Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Mayor Tim Dougherty, right, at Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Councilwoman Michelle Dupree Harris at Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Sept. 22, 2016
Former Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman at Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Sept. 22, 2016
Police Chief Pete Demnitz with residents at Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, sept 22, 2016
Alton Robinson of CARES and Michael Van Allen of the NAACP at Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Sept. 22, 2016
Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Drew U. seminarian Natalie Marionneaux at Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Sept. 22, 2016
Mayor Tim Dougherty at Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Sept. 22, 2016
Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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The chanters included Mayor Tim Dougherty; his announced challenger next year, Councilwoman Michelle Dupree Harris; and former Councilwoman Rebecca FeldmanVanessa Brown, president of the Morris County NAACP, urged everyone to vote in the presidential election.

Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Bethel AME Church delivered an invocation. Drew University seminarian Natalie Marionneaux choked up while leading a prayer.

She is from Baton Rouge and was there in July when Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was shot dead as two white officers pinned him to the ground while attempting to arrest him. Police said Sterling was armed. Days later, a black man killed three Baton Rouge officers and wounded several more.

‘WE MAKE OUR LUCK’

Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz has spoken at churches and met with civic leaders and clergy over the summer. He escorted a Black Lives Matter march in July and observed Thursday’s vigil.

“There have been a lot of conversations. You meet new people, and hopefully make things better,” said Demnitz. “You can always learn more about other people. I certainly learned a little more about how people feel when they see police.”

T'Anna Kimbrough and Clarence Curry Jr. address Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Brian LaMuraglia
T’Anna Kimbrough and Clarence Curry Jr. address Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Brian LaMuraglia

Asked if luck spared 20-year-old Khyir Johnson on Labor Day, when police encountered him with a gun that he allegedly found on the ground (and fired accidentally, according to his grandmother), the police chief said, “I would like to think we make our luck. You create the best circumstances for luck through training, and relationships.”

“It’s all about keeping trust between police and the citizenry,” Mayor Dougherty said.

Kimbrough, the event organizer, said that whenever she pulls over with car trouble, as a person of color, “I’m scared to act, I’m scared to call 911.”

While Black Lives Matter is a powerful movement, she added, the fact that it’s necessary in 2016 is troubling. “I feel like we are going backwards now.”

Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Brian LaMuraglia
Black Lives Matter vigil in Morristown. Photo by Brian LaMuraglia

Fourteen-year-old Raekwon Dixon lives in Morristown and attends St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark. He has few complaints about local police, despite what he described as occasional random stops.

It’s different in Newark. “I have to be on my best behavior out there, and keep a narrow path,” he said. His school has coached black students on how to interact safely with police.

“We shouldn’t have to go through the things we go through just because of the way we look,” Dixon said.

Yet he isn’t cynical. Not yet. “I feel like it can change. But the only way is if we collaborate, and make the change.”

Brian LaMuraglia contributed to this report.

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