June 10, 2020

Black Mothers Rising Group Holds Dialogue with Police

AIRING THEIR FEARS: Racial injustice was the focus of a gathering last Sunday of concerned mothers and the Princeton Police Department outside Witherspoon Hall. More than 100 attended.

By Anne Levin

Even before the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Nakeisha Holmes-Ammons was living in a constant state of anxiety. With two teenaged children, including a 17-year-old son, the Montgomery resident, who is black, worries about racial profiling — even in Princeton, where she has a close relationship with the Princeton Police Department from her work as a crossing guard.

Ammons’ fear led her to form a group called Black Mothers Rising, which held a prayer and meditation session and a dialogue with the police department’s Safe Neighborhoods Unit last Sunday morning. Approximately 100 people, including members of Princeton Council, attended the event on the plaza at 400 Witherspoon Street.

Wearing masks and observing social distancing, the crowd heard initial remarks by Officer Jennifer Gering and other officers about the department’s efforts to engage with the community and be sensitive to issues of equality and transparency. While respectful and appreciative, members of the crowd asked some pointed questions about why there is a greater police presence in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood than in other parts of town. Another person asked why there were officers in riot gear at the protest that was held June 2 in Princeton.

“When you talk about community policing, what community are you policing?” asked one Witherspoon-Jackson resident. Officers responded that their presence is driven by call volume, but the resident suggested the calls were coming from outside the neighborhood.

“We need to take on the elephant in the room,” said Ammons. “You still said there are reasons you target the community. What are the reasons other than we’re black?”

At the Princeton Council meeting the next evening, Princeton Police Chief Nicholas Sutter responded to the questions aired at the vigil. Much of the police presence in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood is a result of complaints related to traffic, he said. Explaining why there were some officers in riot gear at the June 2 protest, he said they were on hand due to highly credible threats made before the event. They appeared in the crowd only because of a medical emergency during which first aid workers needed an escort, and the officers in riot gear were the ones available. Sutter apologized for frightening anyone at the event, and said he understands their frustration. But the department must be prepared, he said, should any threats materialize.

Reflecting on the vigil the day after the event, Ammons said she was pleased with the way it played out. “I think it was amazing. There was dialogue. There was talk, not yelling,” she said. “We got to hear people’s views. There’s never a platform for that. If we don’t have dialogue, we’re not going to get any change. It opens people’s eyes, makes them aware, and shows there is validity.”

Ammons lived in Princeton for 11 years before moving with her family to Montgomery. “The Wawa is two stoplights away from us. When my son wants to go there, I am literally in a panic,” she said. “I worry about him being pulled over for the color of his skin. I have so much anxiety. I’ve had to teach him, ‘if you ever get stopped, don’t mouth. Just let them know your name and that you’re underage.’ These are things you have to do to try to safeguard your children. I wanted to stand up by forming Black Mothers Rising, because you don’t see the mothers before their children are deceased.”

As a crossing guard, Ammons works at the corner of Harrison Street and Franklin Avenue, and previously was on duty at Jefferson Road and Franklin Avenue. “I love the kids and I know their parents,” she said. “And I work for [Sergeant] Thomas Murray, who is just the best.”

Black Mothers Rising is planning future gatherings. “I’m getting ready to plan another one, maybe in Montgomery,” Ammons said. “I want to get all the counties in New Jersey to open up a dialogue. Everyone needs to be aware of how we really feel as mothers of color. The disparities were going on even before the murder of George Floyd. We just don’t want to live in a constant state of fear.”