Camden, Trenton, Newark, Jersey City, Montclair, Lawrence, and Princeton are just some of the New Jersey locations where people have taken to the streets protesting police injustice and repeating the phrase “I can’t breathe.” Saturday in East Orange students marched loudly and peacefully down Martin Luther King Blvd. Next door in Orange is where Robert Peace was born in 1981. He lived a short, tragic life – a bright African-American who attended St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark and went to Yale but could not escape problems confronted by so many of his brethren.
Outrage over the decision not to criminally charge the police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island is a recurrent theme in our history. In Newark in 1967 a black cab driver was pulled over by police and badly beaten within sight of residents. Thus began the Newark insurrection.
The current protests go well beyond discontent with police problems. Following the election of President Barack Obama there was talk about a new post-racial society. It continues a work-in-progress. The ongoing racial tension is displayed by Robert Peace who learned to live and even thrive at Yale and yet under the surface resented the inequality he saw around him. He was an A+ student leader but bore the weight of a father in prison, a mother who works two shifts a day, and a childhood living in a low-income, dangerous neighborhood.
While it’s hard to find justice in the Ferguson and Staten Island incidents, there remains the hope that the coalition of protesters – people of all colors and ages – will yet manage to bring about new procedures, attitudes and broader change. Perhaps one small step forward was in July when after a three-year study the U. S. Department of Justice announced it would install a monitor over the Newark police that it found had repeatedly violated the rights of its citizens, especially blacks. Many more steps are needed.
Anand Giridharadas concludes in a N Y Times book review of Peace’s biography, “Robert Peace, who called his mother “my heart,” was her only and beloved son. But he was our son, too. We are the wondrous country that made him a Yale man. We are the wanting country where even that wasn’t enough to spare him.”