South Jersey’s young activists lead the call for racial justice | #students | #parents

Heaven-Lee Hudson attended protests organized by her father as a toddler, so her desire to spark change and fight against racial injustice runs deep.

Now, 14, Hudson was a co-organizer, along with her best friend Tatyiana Taylor, of a Black Lives Matter youth march and protest in their hometown of Penns Grove in June. 

Young people like Hudson and Taylor, graduating eighth-graders, are leading the way at Black Lives Matter protests around the state and country.

Global protests were spurred by the recent death of George Floyd, who died when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The incident was captured on video and is one of dozens of instances in which unarmed Black people have been killed by law enforcement officials.

“My friend called me and she was sending me videos and stuff and she said, ‘Let’s do a protest!’ and I agreed with her, and I added my dad to the call and he was just helping us,” said Hudson.

 “I was on Instagram and I just kept seeing all the videos,” Taylor said. “Penns Grove is a small town and I just figured nobody was going to do it, so I figured we could do it.”

The Penns Grove protest was just one of  dozens of other peaceful protests all around South Jersey.

These young activists are in it to stay. They say they aren’t going anywhere and they will continue to protest until they see changes in law enforcement and the justice system.

Sena Amuzu, 17, of Collingswood said the activists must keep the momentum going, continue to get the information out there and stay unified.

Social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook often often are used to get messages out quickly, she said.

“Instagram stories are flooded with information and it’s like a whisper-down-the-lane kind of aspect,” said Amuzu, who helped organized a protest in her town. “If one city has this going on, it’s kind of like a ricochet, so now that we have that connection, that’s really valuable, it’s no longer fizzing out. Now we have that information in our own hands and we can keep it thriving if we all just unify.”

Jalethia Matthews, 24, a Woodlynne resident and a 2014 Collingswood High School graduate, always has been passionate about civil rights and social justice, she said, and that sparked her to organize a protest in June in Woodlynne/Collingswood.

“This is something that’s always been in me, but I feel like it’s a lot stronger now because this is the last straw,” Matthews said.

“I feel like a lot of things that happen with police brutality, what a lot of people do, is they sweep it under the rug and they keep going about their lives. But I feel like this particular incident (George Floyd) was the last straw. It’s like, it can’t keep happening.”

‘Displaying their racism’

Daryan Fennal, 21, didn’t expect the June 8 Black Lives Matter protest she organized in Franklinville to prompt an incident that went viral and sparked outrage nationally.

As dozens of peaceful protesters passed a property on Delsea Drive, a counter protester dropped to the ground and another knelt on his neck as someone yelled, “If you don’t comply, this is what happens!”

More: ‘Removal charges’ for corrections officer alleged to have mocked George Floyd’s death

One of the counter protesters, a New Jersey Corrections officer, allegedly filmed the incident, which mocked the killing of Floyd. He was suspended and is on course to be dismissed from his job.

A Federal Express employee involved in the counter protest incident was immediately fired.

“It was kind of crazy,” said Fennal, a Delsea High grad. “No one anticipated something like that to come out of it. Those men were publicly and blatantly displaying their racism, so that went viral.”

But another protest took place soon after and many showed up to support it. Fennal didn’t organize that one, but thought the show of support spoke volumes.

The college junior has attended Wilmington University in Delaware and is transferring to Stockton. She wants a bright future for her child.

 “My main driving force behind this is that I have a 1-year-old son, he’s Black and I want a better future for him as well as his peer group and future generations to come,” said Fennal, who is biracial.

“I know that I don’t want my son or people coming after him to grow up in this sort of climate that we have here now in America,” she said. “I feel because I am a mother now, I might be young but I need to do my part to do something to propel change for the future.”

Joining forces for justice

Amuzu, a 2020 Collingswood High School graduate, helped organize a protest in the borough in early June.

The crowd walked about a mile before ending up in front of Collingswood High, where they held a rally.

Amuzu said her friend Amanda Yeager reached out to her about doing a protest in their town, and she was immediately on board since social justice is her passion. Knowing the pandemic was still ongoing, Amuzu suggested staying six feet apart and things kept building from there. Another Collingswood friend and classmate, Ayanna Jones, also helped out.

“After that, other adults in the community reached out to us and we kind of joined forces,” Amuzu said. “That was the catalyst, but I’ve always done stuff like this. I’ve been involved in social justice organizations in school. I really feel like it’s necessary especially at times like this and at all times to have social justice.”

Amuzu’s mom and dad immigrated to the United States more than two decades ago from Ghana and Jamaica, respectively, and are U.S. citizens. Amuzu grew up in Mullica Hill and moved to Collingswood about seven years ago.

More: George Floyd killing heavy on the minds of local coaches, athletes

“I think that kind of gives me a kind of two-way street in the sense that I grew up in an area where I wasn’t around a lot of people who looked like me,” said Amuzu, who will attend Smith College in Massachusetts this fall. “While moving over here with more diversity, I benefited from that and I can see both sides of the spectrum.”

Amuzu said turnout for the Collingswood protest, which drew about 2,500, was amazing and better than she expected.

“I’m really thankful for how it happened,” she said. “There was a march in Pennsauken and a march in Woodlynne that I attended, too.” She also joined forces with other South Jersey students for a protest last month in Haddonfield.  

‘How would you feel?’

At the protest she organized, Matthews asked the attendees, mostly white, to look at their children and put the shoe on the other foot.

“There were people from Camden who came, there were people from Haddonfield who came,” she said. “One of the things I said when I was speaking was ‘look at your kids’ because there were primarily a lot of white people out there … ‘What would you do, how would you feel?’ I feel like those are some of the questions you have to ask people because you guys don’t know how it feels because you live in privilege a lot of other people don’t.

“You don’t have a problem with your kid walking to the store and someone following him and he’s not here anymore. Or an officer has his foot in someone’s neck,” Matthews continued. 

“The thing that got me is when he (Floyd) cried out for his mom. I said to a lot of the females out there, ‘You guys are mothers. If your son cries out for you or your daughter cries out for you, you want to come running. You guys would be furious, you guys would be outraged.’ ” 

Matthews grew up in Camden and graduated from Camden County College, then Rutgers University-Camden with a political science degree.

Her protest drew more than 200 people. She said people really need to be thinking, collectively, about how these issues can be fixed.

“As people who live around the corner from each other, how can we fix this issue?” she said. “How can we come together as one to address this problem? This is a global problem. This is not even in our own home anymore. You have people protesting all across the world. How can you guys use your privilege to fix this issue?”

‘Action over hashtags’

Meanwhile, the Penns Grove protest organized by a 14-year-old organized drew about 400 people. The teens were ready.

“When I spoke I was nervous but after I was into it, it was easy from there,” Hudson said. “I expected it to be small but it was bigger than expected.”

A graduating student at Creativity CoLaboratory Charter School who will attend Salem High in the fall, Hudson invited one of her teachers, Pam Matusz, to the protest because she said positive action was encouraged in her class. Matusz also spoke.

“The theme of ‘action over hashtags’ was prevalent in our classroom this year,” Matusz said in an email. “During our weekly current-events Socratic seminars, students would discuss a wide array of topics that they chose to bring to class. Therefore, I had known that Heaven-Lee had followed many protests and that her father was an organizer.”

“… Heaven-Lee felt the call to organize a youth march because she was ‘seeing videos of police brutality and wanted to do something about it.’ It’s the call to action part, the actual organization that impressed me so much. At just 14 years old, Heaven-Lee wanted to do more than post on social media, she wanted to lead.”

Heaven-Lee’s father, Walter Hudson, said he organized and led a protest in Penns Grove 10 years ago after a young Black man he was related to by marriage died after a run-in with police at a borough apartment complex.

Police responded to a call of a disorderly man at about 10:20 p.m. March 21, 2010. Police tried to take MoShowon Leach, 31, into custody and he became unresponsive during a struggle. A coroner’s report determined he died from blunt neck trauma and the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

A Salem County grand jury decided not to indict the two officers involved.

“Heaven-Lee was 4-years-old and in a stroller as I was leading that march that had 200 people,” her father said. “Five years later, I organized a march and protest in Bridgeton when the video went viral of two Bridgeton police officers shooting Jerame Reid. Heaven-Lee was a part of that march.

“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. That’s not Heaven-Lee’s first time being part of a protest or a march. It’s her first time organizing it.”

His daughter FaceTimed him a few days after the uprising in Minneapolis due to Floyd’s death.

“She said, ‘Dad I want to do something, me and Taty want to do something, we’ve got to respond to this’,” he said. “I Q &A’d her. I told her I don’t want you doing this as if it’s some type of fad. If you’re going to be part of this, you’ve got to be serious, you’ve got to be fearless.

“They did all the organizing. I just did the administrative part. Meeting with the mayor, the police chief, just to make sure everything was going to be smooth sailing for the young people to be able to express themselves. Words can’t describe, but I’m extremely proud.”

Celeste E. Whittaker is a reporter in features for the Courier Post. The South Jersey native has worked at the Courier Post since 1998 and has covered the Philadelphia 76ers, college sports and girls high school sports. If you have a tip, call her at 856.486.2437 or email at  cwhittaker@gannettnj.com. Follow her on Twitter at @cp_CWhittaker.

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