The second week of June seemed to start a sort of reckoning in Hamilton.
Protesters gathered at Sayen Gardens on June 10 to speak out against the loss of Black lives to police brutality. The protest came on the heels of national and local demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin after he knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest in May.
That same day as the march, racist Facebook posts made by Stone Terrace executive chef Joe Russo started to circulate on social media, ending in Russo’s firing and the temporary removal of the restaurant’s social media pages. Multiple protests grew organically through Facebook, starting with calls to boycott the eatery—hundreds of people met at the restaurant with signs and marched down Kuser Road June 11. A second protest was held the following week.
Then, just a few days later, more racist posts cropped up—this time by Michael Sciabbarrisi, whose family owns Vincent’s Pizza on Nottingham Way. An impromptu protest grew as residents gathered outside the pizzeria that night. It was a week of Hamilton residents making their voices heard.
The first rally—organized by Tiyon, Peira, Thelma and Kristina (the women chose not to give their last names, citing concerns for their safety)—began at the park gazebo and featured several speakers, including the four women. Also speaking were Rev. Francisco Pozo of Christ Episcopal Church-Cristo Rey in Trenton, poet Leah James and Reggie Walker, director of Rider University’s Educational Opportunity Program.
The speeches both before and after the march were key to the protest, the organizers said.
“Our goals consisted of building a space for Black voices in Hamilton that would be heard during the speaker portion, as well to locals in their homes,” they said. “In addition, stressing the support of allyship, since Hamilton is only 14% Black, and re-focusing the movement on Black women and LGBTQ+ community as well since they are often moved to the side or forgotten, especially Black trans people.”
Residents stood on their porches—some watching, some recording the march with their cellphones—as protesters walked from Sayen Gardens, down Mercer Street towards Route 33, turning at Wawa and heading back to the park’s gazebo. The march route was blocked off from car traffic with the cooperation of the township. The march passed homes and businesses and filled the hot Wednesday evening air with calls of justice for Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky in March. Taylor, an emergency medical technician, was shot eight times after officers used a no-knock search warrant at the wrong house.
The march was a display of solidarity in a part of Hamilton that has been traditionally whiter and wealthier than the town on average—chosen partially for that reason, the organizers said. The women decided to organize the protest on June 4 and spent the week coordinating routes with the Hamilton Township Police Department, working with Nottingham Fire Company to organize parking and determining which routes would not disturb traffic to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital.
The march was planned to be about 20 minutes longer, but they made the decision to shorten it the day of due to heat. The organizers also obtained voter registration forms from the Mercer County Clerk’s office to hand out at the event, and they received donations of face masks, hand sanitizer, water and snacks.
The organizers weren’t sure how many people would show up. And though attendance was low relative to Hamilton’s total population, Sayen Gardens was packed, and the event’s organizers were happy to see it.
“We were pleased with how many allies did show up,” they said.
The June 10 protest—and the other rallies that happened the week—stressed the importance of listening to and supporting people of color, especially outside of metropolitan areas. Protests in major cities have gotten a lot of coverage both in the news and on social media, but people elsewhere are organizing, too.
“It is important for residents of smaller of towns to speak out because in those small towns, many acts and words of racism happen on a daily basis,” the organizers said. “Now is the time to call it out, and protesting is the way to do that.”
Calling that behavior out—racism of any degree, police brutality, intimidation—locally is vital, the organizers said, because no town is immune to it. And the sooner that is acknowledged, the sooner change can happen.
“Acts of racial injustice happen everywhere in Hamilton—cops pulling people over, students saying racial slurs in school and especially on Facebook groups,” they said.