by Frank Fleischman III, Lead Editor
On June 6th, something occurred in Belleville that it has had little experience with: a civil rights and anti-racism protest in front of Town Hall, organized by the local group Belleville Allies and in support of Black Lives Matter.
Obviously, one of the event’s primary motivations was as a response to the police-involved killing in May of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but that was far from the only reason. Speakers at the event described their lived experiences of racism and inequality, spoke against police brutality, and made it very clear to all listening that they stood to oppose it all. The speakers called out Mayor Michael Melham and First Ward Councilwoman Marie Strumolo Burke over tweets and alleged recordings they said were racist and insensitive.
Some — or maybe much — of what was said might have been hard to hear for some people, and certainly some would disagree with the statements or ideas expressed. But I wanted to know more, so I invited Belleville Allies to a virtual interview the Saturday after the protest. I spoke with group members Darianny Bautista, Louie Logronio, Eva Izquierdo, Kevin Alfaro and Christian Viteri (two other members, Victoria Bruno and Ashley Barbosa, could not attend the interview, but the others insisted they be mentioned, due to the amount of work and time they have put into Belleville Allies and the protest.)
The Belleville Allies members I interviewed do not at all fit the popular media portrayals of today’s activists and “social justice warriors:” that of being anti-white, approving of “cancel culture,” and hating police. What I took away from the interview was that these young people believe that to be “anti-racist” (different than being “non-racist,”) means that you are “pro-everyone,” that they want literature, television shows and movies of the past to be “put into context of their time and place” and that they are against police brutality, not against policing (the concept of “defund the police,” Viteri told me, means that there needs to be more investment in things like education and social work. Commendable ends perhaps, but maybe another phrase might better serve to communicate that message.)
One item that got a lot of attention at the protest was the several-years old recording of First Ward councilwoman Marie Strumolo-Burke allegedly using the “n-word.” (Burke later publicly apologized in a July 2014 Town Council meeting, though she claimed she didn’t remember using the word.) Several persons at the protest demanded her resignation, and that demand was expressed again in e-mailed comments read at the June 9th Town Council meeting.
I asked the Allies about this. Izquierdo said one of the protest’s objectives was to hold Belleville elected officials accountable with regard to matters of race and injustice, and that space was given to speakers who felt strongly about the Burke controversy, but that Belleville Allies has taken no official position on whether or not she should resign. Alfaro recognized that Burke apologized for the remark but said he felt she should resign because “there no place on the Council” for someone who would use that word, though he hastened to add that “she could contribute in another way, just not in a position of power like that and using such words.”
Bautista – a junior at Belleville High School and one of the protest organizers – said she began speaking out and helped to organize the protest after fellow classmates used alleged racist and anti-immigrant comments in person and on social media after riots and Black Lives Matter protests began happening all across the nation. Bautista and other students used social media to respond to the alleged racist comments.
Bautista claims that she and other students – the day after posting those social media responses — received calls from school officials telling them to remove the comments because, if they were not taken down, “the police will come to your house.” Bautista did take down her comments out of fear that her mother – an immigrant who has challenges understanding English – would not have understood what was happening if police became involved.
I spoke to Board of Education trustee Michael Sheldon about Bautista’s allegation. He said he’d heard the same expressed at the protest and told me that the incident would fall under the state’s Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB) statute, which mandates school districts to investigate any kind of bullying, abuse or harassment incident they are made aware of involving students in the district. Due to social media, the statute covers incidents on and off school property. The statute states that, depending on the incident, law enforcement may become involved. Mr. Sheldon told me he informed Superintendent of Schools Richard Tomko about the allegation right after hearing about it at the protest.
Bautista said after she began looking into organizing the protest, others in the interview reached out to Bautista and each other, and the protest was organized — and Belleville Allies created — in little more than three days. I asked them about some of the criticism leveled at the protest, such as the implication that it was anti-white and against police officers. All agreed that racism, discrimination and other forms of injustice occur everywhere, but they said they wanted to put people in Belleville who practice or believe in those things on notice that there are others (like themselves) who will oppose them and call them out on it.
Bautista stated that being “anti-racist” doesn’t mean being anti-white people, but being against racism. “Anybody can be racist,” she said. Logronio agreed, saying that anti-racism means being “pro-everyone.”
Taking it to a more national level, I asked them about the contoversy surrounding HBO/Cinemax initially seeking to remove the classic movie “Gone with the Wind” from its streaming service, but changing their decision to keep it by introduce it with commentary from a to-be-determined expert or scholar to place it in context. I told them that I own an unabridged copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the “n-word” features prominently. I asked them how they felt about such books and movies and their availability. “We cannot erase history – that’s how history repeats itself,” Bautista stressed. “We need to showcase these books and movies and talk about them – educate the young” about how this sort of thing was accepted and tolerated years ago.
Being anti-racist doesn’t mean being anti-white people. It means being against racism.”Darianny Bautista, Belleville Allies
Viteri spoke about how systemic racism – which he says “must be dismantled” — leads to unfair media or societal representations of people of color, and that these representations in media must be placed into context and discussed as a way of correcting misrepresentations.
One of the things that the Allies stressed was education. Bautista said at the protest and in the interview that being a student at Belleville High, she has few to none teachers of color, and she stressed it’s important to have teachers of various races and backgrounds. All of them emphasized that educating each other – about issues of race, gender and sexuality, putting things that have happened in the past into context so they can be learned from — is a way toward progress. “We don’t want to push people away, we want to educate people, because if we just shut out people, there’s no growth, no moving forward,” Viteri said, with Logronio agreeing.
I encouraged them to think about how gentrification — something the current administration apparently is seeking to bring to Belleville — often results in further inequality, especially for those who can’t afford higher rents, higher prices and higher property taxes.
Closing Thoughts on the Interview
As the interview ended, I offered some thoughts (I am a writer, but I am also an advocate for civic actvism.) First, I encouraged all of them to attend public meetings – Town Council, Board of Education and everything in between. I told them that participating in those meetings are an education in itself and will help ensure their voices reach those in power, and that it might take some patience and perseverance to effect change.
Secondly, I told them to keep faith in the idea that people can change, that nobody is born racist and that besides a few extreme exceptions, people can unlearn or transform their negative beliefs and ideas. Working to change people’s hearts and minds through argument, through persuasion, through non-violent action and loving (though maybe not liking) one’s enemy are the most effective and positive ways to promote social change.
Finally, I suggested that when they are thinking about the many ways that race, gender and inequality converge, not to forget how gentrification and over-development often leads to further inequality. When a city or a town changes its character to appeal to wealthy new residents and businesses, it is often poorer persons – often persons of color, but also poor whites – who are forced out due to rising rents and costs of living and increased property taxes. All the Allies seemed to agree and some expressed concern over how the school district can accommodate more students while trying to provide quality education.
One of the things I wish I’d mentioned to them in the interview was to be wary of persons attempting to use or co-opt the group’s energy, power and passion to serve their own narrow political ends. Not every person who claims to be a supporter has your best interests at heart, or is aligned with your goals. Some simply want to promote themselves or their own agenda.
What impressed me about these young people is that they seem willing – I would even say eager – to use their voices, their intelligence and all the civic methods they have to have their concerns heard and their issues addressed. Besides education, another word they used a lot in the interview was accountability – one of Belleville Watch’s keywords. They seek to hold elected leadership accountable in a variety of ways, and are willing to do so with their voices, with their social media and their personal presence.
The June 6th protest was loud, raucous and certainly inconvenient for persons who drive up and down Washington Avenue, but I think we must give the marchers, speakers and organizers much credit for working with Belleville police (who were exemplary in how they handled the event) to conduct a peaceful protest and march. When you look at the rioting and the killing in the streets occurring all over the nation, the June 6th Belleville Allies and Black Lives Matter protest was a great example of free expression in action. What the speakers and marchers said may have been uncomfortable (it was for me, admittedly — coming from a family with more than its share of police and firefighters and having great respect for cops and firefighters, but knowing more than a few who should never have been on the job) but free speech and the right to peaceably assemble is not often comfortable or without confrontation.
Free speech and a free press can be raucous, partisan and offensive, but in the end, it’s easy to understand why Thomas Jefferson said that he would prefer a nation with newspapers and no government than one with a government and no newspapers. Our nation’s founders — imperfect though they were — knew that a nation that would demand accountability from their government and fellow citizens would need to protect vigorous, confrontational and unpopular speech.
Disagree with the Belleville Allies and their beliefs and ideas if you wish, but I find admirable their efforts to peacefully protest against what they believe to be unjust and to educate and inform their fellow Belleville residents.