Millions watched—and participated—as protesters took to the streets last month in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, speaking out against systemic racial injustice and police brutality against Black men and women. Major cities across the globe were filled with citizens demanding change. And the streets of Princeton were packed, too.

The Coalition for Peace Action’s Kneeling for Justice protest, in honor of the life of George Floyd, featured prominent speakers and drew a crowd of people from across the region to gather on Nassau Street in Princeton June 2, 2020. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Rallies were held in town throughout the month of June. One of the first was the Coalition for Peace Action’s Kneeling for Justice event on June 2. The event was held in honor of George Floyd and in solidarity with Black lives. Floyd died May 25 after Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on the neck of a subdued and handcuffed Floyd for nearly nine minutes.

Participants gathered along Witherspoon and Nassau streets, where they knelt, marched and listened to speakers. The organization also provided chalk for sidewalk artwork and messages.

“It was exciting and deeply gratifying (and, from the perspective of our health, scary and concerning),” said Princeton councilwoman Eve Niedergang. “It’s hard that the two crisis of the pandemic and police brutality have come to a head at the same time because they require directly opposite responses. Still, it was wonderful to see a movement led by Princeton’s young activists and to see such a great community gathering, with people from all different demographics, on the streets in support of Black Lives Matter.”

A sign challenges Princeton—the town and the institution—to work for racial justice during the Coalition for Peace Action’s Kneeling for Justice protest on Nassau Street in Princeton June 2, 2020. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

And the movement continued into the Municipality of Princeton’s government. Council unanimously approved a resolution declaring racism as a public health crisis last month. Princeton worked together with Montgomery Township to craft the resolution. The two municipalities have often worked together—most recently on their responses to COVID-19—and this was a natural next step, said councilman Dwaine Williamson.

Princeton and Montgomery shared resources and language—Montgomery Mayor Sadaf Jaffer, who had recently passed a similar resolution, was instrumental in getting Princeton started with its own. And, led by council liaison Leticia Fraga, the Princeton Civil Rights Commission met with Montgomery officials to talk about the commission, how it works and how to form one.

“The times demand it; the impact of COVID-19 is just one example of the disparate impacts of negative environmental and health developments on Black and other minority communities,” Niedergang said. “It’s past time for us as a community to examine all our policies and actions through a racial equity lens.”

People from across the region gather on Nassau Street in Princeton June 2, 2020 for the Coalition for Peace Action’s Kneeling for Justice protest, in honor of the life of George Floyd. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

The resolution starts with the declaration that “race is a social construct with no biological basis, but a social reality that shapes our lives.” As Niedergang said, it discusses the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black residents of New Jersey—the APM Research Lab reports that nationwide, one in 1,500 Black coronavirus patients have died of the disease. That’s a death rate of 65.8 out of 100,000, more than double that of white Americans. Though Black citizens make up 12.4% of the American population, they account for 23.8 percent of coronavirus deaths, said APM.

But the health crises facing Black Americans don’t start or end with COVID-19. Women of color account for nearly 60 percent of pregnancy-related maternal deaths in New Jersey, the resolution reads, and Black women are four times more likely than white women to lose their lives during childbirth. People of color are also more likely to face the consequences of perceived racial or ethnic biases, which can impact the way they are treated or diagnosed in a medical setting.

“Communities of color, those of low social economic status and those that suffer from disabilities are more likely to experience poor health outcomes as a consequence of the social determinants of health—health inequities stemming from economic stability, education, physical environment, food and access to healthcare systems,” the resolution reads. “Structural racism influences many areas of life, including housing, education, employment, healthcare and criminal justice, and an emerging body of research demonstrates that racism itself is a social determinant of mental and physical health.”

A crowd of people listens to a speech during the Coalition for Peace Action’s rally June 2, 2020 in Princeton.

As part of the resolution, Princeton will assess internal policies and procedures to “ensure racial equity is a core element of all municipal departments.” This includes bias training and hiring practices. The municipality will also advocate for legislation at all levels that aims to dismantle systemic racism, as well as reviewing existing and future ordinances through a racial equity lens.

The racial and ethnic composition of the municipality’s volunteer boards and workforce, including the police department, will be assessed annually. Princeton will also establish clear benchmarks and objectives to help advance racial equity.

And those actions are long overdue, Niedergang said.

“It’s time to walk the walk as well as talk the talk; it’s necessary to be sure that we look at all government actions from a variety of perspectives, including the impact policies will have on various racial/ethnic groups,” Niedergang said. “I’m old enough to remember the protests for racial justice in the 1960’s and it is deeply disappointing to me that my generation has failed to deliver on the promise of that struggle. Still, it’s not too late for us to try, and I think Princeton can set an example in this area.”