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Black Lives Matter movement sparked activism among young people in NJ

Santiago Salinas, a 19-year-old from West Orange, was tired of seeing a lack of advocacy for the Black Lives Matter movement. He decided to take matters into his own hands by attending protests throughout northern New Jersey.

Maria Papera, a 17-year-old high school junior from Montville, felt for the first time in her life she had the agency to take a stand against police brutality. She was one of hundreds who attended a protest in Parsippany in June.

And Cohere Elliston, a 20-year-old from Teaneck, believes that the nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism were inevitable: that the recent killings of Black Americans like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery was the tipping point.

“The events of the past few years have been festering to this boiling point,” Elliston said. “And not even these past few years, but these past few decades.”

Teens and young adults of Montville Township gathered together to march for police reform. (Photo: Camille Furst)

Teenagers and young adults throughout the nation have been galvanized into action, protesting against police brutality and systemic racism – and New Jersey is no exception. At many protests, high school students and young adults are the driving force. 

Why is this moment different?

While protests against police brutality have occurred before, these times are truly unprecedented, said Christopher Fisher, a historian and professor of African American history at The College of New Jersey. The protests that used to be concentrated in certain cities have now reached a nationwide, and even global scale — and the youth are at the forefront of change.

Salinas attended a protest in his hometown of West Orange, which advocated for a change in the town itself. Activists demanded a reevaluation of policies that “seem to downplay the marginalization of the African American community, specifically in the schools,” Salinas said. Another protest he attended called for educators in Maplewood and South Orange to reform curriculum and prioritize Black history in the United States.

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Raaed Syed, 19, noticed local protests around his hometown of Montville, and decided it was time for his community to take a step toward action as well.

He began coordinating a march in Montville and, with the help of others his age, advertised the march on various social media platforms. Held on June 18, the march drew about 100 participants, mostly young adults. Syed was inspired by seeing people who hadn’t previously been active in the Black Lives Matter movement take action.

“It gained a lot of traction,” he said of the march. 

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Many have observed that the main difference between the most recent surge of activism and previous surges throughout American history – and the difference between younger and older generations as well – to be the use of social media.

“They’re growing up in a world where they’re connected to everyone,” Fisher said. “So it’s not unusual for them to see people who live in pueblos in one part of the world, or one part of America, or who wear hijabs, or people who don’t wear clothes at all. They see it all, and they just realize, that’s just the way humanity is.”

Social media also makes the problem inescapable. Salinas recalled a quote from actor Will Smith: Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.

“We now have access to technology that can expose these racist acts that are getting committed by police and by people,” Salinas said. “There’s a huge outrage of it on social media, and it’s calling people to come forward and speak out against these actions that are happening.”

Despite the differences from previous eras, Fisher also recognizes some similarities. He referred to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s – a group of young adults who felt that changing individuals wouldn’t be enough, that institutions must change.

“Notice the way we talk about racism today: that it’s a systemic problem, it’s an institutional problem,” Fisher said. “It’s because of those kids.”

He said he hopes this generation remains keenly aware of the world beyond their doorsteps.

“I think the youth, I hope they never change. I hope they never lose that,” he said. “Because that expansive view of what is normal, I think that’s the essence of what the founding generation desired for the United States: that under this tent, there’s room for everybody.”

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