Mayor in New Jersey slammed for telling rally he is pro 'good black people'

Janelle Griffith

A New Jersey mayor who said at a rally Saturday that he was "pro-black for all the good black people" he knew on Wednesday sought to clarify his remarks following a backlash.

Hanif Denny, 27, who helped organize the anti-discrimination demonstration in Clark, about 13 miles south of Newark, said the event began with residents from neighboring towns — such as Rahway, where he lives — speaking about negative racial interactions they had experienced in Clark, including with police.

"Most of those who spoke shared their experiences and followed it with a plea for change," Denny said.

There was no plan for Mayor Sal Bonaccorso to speak during the demonstration outside of Clark's municipal building, Denny said.

"He was just supposed to be there to listen to the stories and then have open dialogue for future action in the town," Denny told NBC News on Wednesday.

Denny said 50 to 100 people attended the rally and that, while the crowd was diverse, the majority of participants were people of color.

Clark Township, N.J. Mayor Sal Bonaccorso. (Clark Township, N.J.)

He said it was not until a few of the participants realized that the mayor had been standing to the side, smoking a cigar and joking with a friend while people were "telling their emotionally devastating stories," that speakers addressed the mayor directly.

One woman at the demonstration told Bonaccorso: "It's not enough to say, 'I'm not racist.' You have to be anti-racist. OK? Pro-black," according to Denny and videos posted to social media.

She also asked the mayor: "Why is it so weird to be able to just say, 'I am pro-black'? I am pro-black doesn't mean that I'm not for all the people. That's the thing."

Bonaccorso then told the diverse crowd, "I am pro-black for all the good black people that I know in my life."

His remark drew audible displeasure from the crowd. Clark has a population of less than 16,000, according to the Census Bureau, which also reports 92.5 percent of the township's residents are white.

Bonaccorso, a Republican, went on to say: "Hey, folks, listen. I can't say I am for anybody if I don't know you. I'm for people. Good people. Law-abiding, hardworking, good family, good friends. People with good intentions. If you’re black, great. If you're white, great. If you're, Hispanic, great. It doesn't matter. I judge people on how you judge me.

"If you want to be my friend and stick your hand out, I'll shake your hand. I'll look you in the eye," he continued. "My family is Italian-American. When my grandfather came to this country, he was discriminated against."

Denny said the mayor's inability to even consider what the woman was saying in the moments leading up to his comment showed protesters "that he's just unwilling to budge in his beliefs and that those beliefs may be a true reflection of the town's beliefs since he has been the mayor there for the past 20 years."

In a statement posted to his Facebook page Wednesday afternoon, Bonaccorso said he has been mayor for a long time and is still learning.

"As a public official, I felt that it was my duty to speak to all of those present in hopes of fostering an atmosphere of goodwill and progress between the citizens of Rahway and Clark," he said. "I truly meant it when I told everyone in attendance, 'If I didn't care. I wouldn't be here.'"

He said his goal when he spoke was to reiterate and affirm that "we want Clark Township to be a place where everyone feels welcome."

"Looking back on what I said and seeing some of the public reaction to it, I see that I may have fallen short of that goal and I would like to clarify my answer to a questions that was posed," he said. "An attendee asked me, 'Are you pro black?' The answer is of course, and unequivocally, yes."

Bonaccorso said he also truly believes "that Black Lives Matter" and that the black people who live, work, visit or pass through Clark "are all an integral part" of what makes the township such a great place.

"I pride myself on the fact that I never judge someone based on their skin color; but, only on who they are as a person and how they treat others," he said. "I recognize that my remarks may not have accurately represented how I feel."