HOWELL – She had never organized a rally before but with the support of several friends, township resident Juliet Emma Klesitz knew it was time that her community’s voice be heard on the subject of Black Lives Matter.
“I couldn’t sit by and do nothing,” she said. She was inspired to see change within her own community because of the image and name of the Howell High School’s mascot Rebel which has been the subject of discussion and change within the Freehold Regional High School District that oversees Howell High School.
She was upset about a modified image that appeared on a social media site where a Howell High School T-shirt had a confederate flag photoshopped on it. The person responsible added the words “rebel pride.”
“This really disgusted me on a level which is really hard to explain because growing up here my whole life I guess I was just ignorant to the racism that was ingrained in the history of the town but now it is has become so much more blatant,” she said.
“People are just not as scared to be so hateful and I don’t like that so in rebuttal I want to show that I am not scared to show that I love people. I want people to know that I care about my town and the people in it,” Klesitz said.
She added, “this is the first time I’ve ever used my voice in any public way so I was really nervous but I knew I couldn’t go on without taking a stand. I don’t want people to think we are a racist town when that clearly is not the case,” Klesitz said.
Mark Bonjavanni was not present in his role as Howell Board of Education president but as a citizen of the township. “Today is not the day to be silent. I grew up in north Jersey with the riots of the 1960s where they were happening. You’d hope that we would be past the need for that now but things just need to change and you can’t sit in the house right now and say ‘I hope things change.’ You need to speak up and you need to be active and that is why I’m here today.”
“I think it is important as an African American to be here and be involved because so many times we keep letting it go. We need to hold people accountable and bring things to the surface. I believe in giving people a chance and a warning that this is not the way you do it and if they don’t you have to go to the higher authority,” said Diane Dixon who works and lives in Howell.
“Anger and violence aren’t going to help. It is retraining and holding people accountable,” Dixon added.
Victoria Kimberlin-Orsini grew up living in Howell and helped Klesitz organize the protest. She was also the event’s second speaker.
“Being someone who typically is not very political, I’ve always kept my nose out of everything my whole life until now. I am sick of it. I am absolutely sick of it. I no longer live here but my family lives here. I went into college for criminal justice but I changed my mind. I wanted to be a cop because I wanted justice for people like me,” she added saying that she felt discontent for the justice system.
She noticed that once she began talking about Black Lives Matter to some of the people around her, “they weren’t there, where did they go? What happened to the people that said they support equality? What happened to the people who said they loved everyone as yourself? Now it seemed like my voice was being silenced everywhere I go. The people I want to hear this message right now aren’t here. They are blocking me and unfollowing me on Facebook they are not listening,” Orsini said in frustration.
Resident Jennifer Coward also spoke during the afternoon. She moved to Howell 20 years ago and teaches 5th grade in Lakewood. She said that she has found the township to be a good place to live and socialize but also found “Howell has a dark side to it in the midst of all the positive friendships we have made and that is a side of racism.”
Coward spoke about her daughter, a senior in high school who was inconsolable “coming home to tell me that someone called her the “N” word this past November.” She said the same situation happened to her son this year in middle school.
“This is what happened to my children. This is what happens to my black friends’ children and it hurts. I was married into the Coward name but nothing about me is a coward,” she added relaying an incident involving an officer asking her about her presence in her neighborhood. “The police chose not to show up today but that says a lot about Howelbama and I didn’t make that word up. My white friends told me it was called Howelbama when I moved here. Please speak up,” Coward said.
“You have to reach out not in anger but with reach out with knowledge to educate them,” resident and speaker Janis Iwanyk of the League of Women Voters of Western Monmouth County said.
Iwanyk also read a statement on behalf of her organization which said, “we must advocate for anti-racist polices at every level of government.”
Jeff Firsichbaum has lived in Howell for nearly 30 years. When he learned of the rally, he knew he had to come out and attend. “I think it is important to be here. I have friends that say ‘all lives matter’ which is true but this is about a population that has been systematically put down and restricted for years and years.”
He added, “even though it is about Black Lives Matter, it is about everybody. I am sick about what I see in the newspapers and on the news. I’m pro police – it isn’t that I want to bash them. The majority of every group, except for the Klan, is good so it is not about that. It is about in essence black lives do matter and they have been treated as if they don’t.”
“Can I say or do anything to change it? I don’t know I’m just an old man but I figure one more voice and one more face can’t hurt,” Firsichbaum added.
The protest included a moment of silence on bended knee and concluded with a march down the street and back by many who assembled for the event.
Voting registration was also encouraged throughout the afternoon and the theme that advocacy and seeking leadership roles was required for change to occur.