Lawrence Township residents came together at a candlelight vigil Oct. 23 to show solidarity against racisim in response to a bias incident that happened in town the previous weekend.
Some 70 people gathered in front of town hall to participate in an event that was organized by township manager Kevin Nerwinski, who said he was acting as a township resident and not in his official capacity.
The purpose of the vigil was to show that Lawrence Township is not a racist community, as was depicted by some news outlets and on social media following a bias incident at the Lawrence High School football game against Steinert on Friday, Oct. 18. The incident wound up making national headlines.
“I know that when you heard about the incident that occurred on Friday evening at the high school, it stopped most of you in tracks,” Nerwinski said at the vigil. “It jarred your sense community, your sense of peace, it caused you to feel a range of emotions that included anger, outrage, sadness, frustration and hopelessness. It is what I felt. It was at that moment I just wanted to do something.”
According to police, two 17-year-old Lawrence Township males, who are students at Lawrence High School, bullied a group of Lawrence middle school girls in the stands. Police said that the girls are black and the suspects are of Indian descent.
The teens allegedly called the girls the n-word and one of the boys urinated on them. The 17-year-olds were arrested the following day by township police following an investigation of the incident. The two were charged with several counts of harassment and bias intimidation. The male who allegedly urinated on the girls was also charged with lewdness.
In a press conference on Oct. 21, Lawrence Police said the investigation was still ongoing and more charges could be filed. No further action had been taken before The Gazette went to press on Oct. 29.
“As I have said publicly before, hate has no home in Lawrence Township,” said Mayor Christopher Bobbitt in a statement the day after the incident occured. Bobbitt is black.
“As someone that has felt its sting, I know that bigotry exists and sadly will continue to exist but that doesn’t mean that I give up,” he said. “Instead I look to find allies that will help me fight the cancer of bigotry.”
During the press conference, Bobbitt said, “Lawrence is a community that has valued diversity for a long time.” He urged people to go to the food court in Quakerbridge Mall, which is located in Lawrence, and look at the diversity of people there.
“Look at them as actual people,” he said. “Look at their faces and understand that they are all part of this community. And for the most part, they all share the very same values that you do.”
Also during the press conference, superintendent Ross Kasun said that in students in the district are disappointed in how they were being portrayed by the media. “It looks like we have a student body that is not tolerant of each other,” he said. “They want everyone to know this is not a picture of who we are as a district.”
Nerwinski organized the Oct. 23 vigil to show that the township and its residents do not condone racism.
He urged people to come to the vigil and “bring positivity, candles to share with others, chalk to write some inspirational thoughts on the service road in front of the building and spread the word. This is meant to be a community hug.”
In addition to the residents, also attending the event were members of the clergy from different religious beliefs including Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Baha’i, Baptist and Muslim.
“I have heard these last couple of days from many people that what happened on Friday night is not our community. It’s not who we are,” said Nerwinski.
“What we can do is for each of us take some personal responsibility to make change,” he said. “To act out of love for all, out of respect for all. To call out racism and bigotry when you see it. Teach your children to reject it completely and publicly. Feel empathy and compassion for those that must live it every day in big ways and small ways.”
Also attending the vigil was state Senator Shirley Turner, a Lawrence resident.
“This is a wake-up call,” she said. “There are still battles to fight. We are better than this. The rest of the world will look to Lawrence. We are a shining example”