Turning Demonstrations into Concrete Change in Chatham

I wrote this letter to the editor of my local newspaper on June 16.

To the Editor:

For the past week, African-American Chatham resident Ev Francis stood on Main Street

sharing a message of love and support for Black lives. He had never done anything like it in his life, he told me, but after George Floyd’s murder by police, he felt he needed to do something to make the world better for his 7-year-old son. Hundreds of fellow Chatham residents stood with him. Thousands of passers-by honked, waved, shouted, and gave thumbs-up to express their support of Mr. Francis’s message.

I know many of Mr. Francis’s supporters would like to take their feelings of support and solidarity and make concrete, lasting change. But it can be hard to know what to do. Here is my plan, and I hope you will come with me on this journey.

1. Learn something new. I realized this week that I do not really understand how policing works. I need to learn, so that I can support Chief Brian Gibbons in maintaining anti-racist policing practices in Chatham Borough, and listen knowledgeably to his presentation to the community later this month. You may decide to read about how to be an anti-racist, or learn more about African-American history in New Jersey. We can learn together at the Chatham for Black Lives teach-in on July 11 at 4 p.m. in the train station parking lot.

2. Ask new questions about our community. Why does Chatham have so few Black residents? What is the history of segregation in New Jersey, both state-sponsored and de facto, and how did Chatham come to be the way it is? What is Chatham’s reputation, and why? If I believe in a free market, can I justify using governmental power to make zoning rules that keep all but the most affluent out of Chatham? These may not be comfortable questions to ask, but it is time to start the conversation.

3. Come up with one concrete change I can make. I am a historian, so I am starting to think about ways that Chatham schools may be able to do an even better job teaching African-American history and the history of race relations in New Jersey. Each of us has our own talent and expertise to bring to bear, and something valuable to contribute to the effort.

4. Be politically active. Leadership at every level of government matters. I will be working on local and federal campaigns, making calls, sending texts, writing letters, and if the coronavirus permits, knocking on doors. Every volunteer hour and donation dollar makes a difference, and many hands make light work. If you’ve never done it before, now is the time to give it a try.

If we work together and stay committed, we can make Chatham a more welcoming, inclusive, and just place.


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