Organizers Michele Messer and Stephanie Andrewlevich led a few hundred demonstrators in a public gathering that was safe, brief, and supported by local police.
By Matt Skoufalos | June 1, 2020
Photos by Alex Cowperthwaite & Zen Pimintel
As National Guardsmen and police clashed with protesters just a few miles away in Philadelphia, a few hundred South Jersey residents gathered in Haddon Township to show support for their neighbors of color amid national tensions.
About an hour before sunset, the demonstrators strode half a mile from the corner of Haddon Avenue and Cuthbert Boulevard down to the Haddon Township Municipal Building.
They wore face coverings, carried homemade signs, and chanted slogans, from “Black Lives Matter!” to “George Floyd!” the man whose death in the custody of Minneapolis police touched off a series of protests across the country last week.
The marchers strode calmly down the middle of the roadway, past a smattering of onlookers, including several nervous-looking business owners and their crews, everyone filming everyone else with their phones.
At the end of the six-block walk, Haddon Township residents Stephanie Andrewlevich, principal of the S. Weir Mitchell Elementary School in Philadelphia, and Michele Messer, a Philadelphia school district psychologist, took turns addressing the crowd.
“My students will tell you today that they’re afraid to leave their homes,” Andrewlevich said. “Their parents are afraid to let them leave their homes,” in a city that has borne the brunt of intense rioting.
“If you haven’t had the opportunity to experience what being born into systematic poverty and systematic racism is, it’s okay if you don’t understand,” she said. “We are taking the time to try to understand.”
Andrewlevich said her students “don’t want to be pitied, and they don’t want to be saved.
“They just want to believe,” she said.
“And they told me that when white people stand for them, it makes them feel that we understand.
“And even though we’ll never really understand, it makes them feel valued,” Andrewlevich said.
Messer said she hoped the march could be “the start of a conversation in Haddon Township… to honor the lives that have been taken… and to commit ourselves to standing up for justice for communities of color.
“No more will we stand by while the pain, trauma, and grief of the black community is de-legitimized,” she said.
“Families of color deserve no less than anyone else,” Messer said. “And we know that here tonight. And together we’ll begin to fight for that.”
Messer then led the crowd in a silent kneeling in observance of Floyd’s and other lives lost to violence.
Haddon Township resident Lucy Jandoli read Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact,” a poem about the late Eric Garner, who was killed while in police custody in New York City. Following that, Regina Schmidt and Marge Gunning of Collingswood performed “Let There be Peace on Earth,” after which the crowd calmly and quietly dispersed.
The rally lasted all of half an hour from start to finish.
Afterwards, Andrewlevich and Messer spoke about the need to have one-on-one conversations among neighbors in small communities like Haddon Township “where quite often you can find that divide” on issues like racial justice.
But small communities “can be known for celebrating diversity,” too, Andrewlevich said.
“We know there’s a variety of viewpoints here,” Messer said.
“People need to start engaging in self-reflection.
“People think they don’t have implicit biases,” she said. “Everyone’s got a little something in them that they need to work on.”
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