BRIDGEWATER – The township hosted a roundtable conversation Thursday night with political leaders, community members and police, on officers’ handling of a fight at Bridgewater Commons last month that's been questioned as racially motivated.
"How we respond, react and interact with our community makes all the difference in the world," said Somerset County Commissioner Director Shanel Robinson, one of the event's panelists.
Bridgewater found itself in the eye of a media storm after a 15-second video went viral of a fight between two teens at Bridgewater Commons last month that was broken up by two township police officers. A white police officer wrestled a Black teen to the floor while the other teen, a Hispanic, was seated on a couch by another white officer.
In addition to Robinson. panelists in the conversation included Bridgewater Mayor Matthew Moench, Bridgewater Police Chief Paul Payne, former Bridgewater police Sgt. Art Atkins and Dameon Stackhouse, Bridgewater's Community Police Alliance Program coordinator.
The roundtable came a day after noted civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who has been retained by the family of 14-year-old Z'Kye Husain, the Black teen forcefully detained by police, said at a press conference here Wednesday that he's considering filing a lawsuit in federal court claiming the arrest and use of force violated the teen's constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
"This is not going to go away anytime soon because this is not about just the Bridgewater incident," Robinson said. "This is about our community stepping up, speaking and doing the right thing."
"Not here in Bridgewater, not here in Somerset County," Robinson said. "We're going to stop it here."
Husain, a Black eighth-grade student from Somerville, is shown in a now-viral video being forcefully detained by Bridgewater police following a fight with another teen at the mall.
The video shows Husain and Umar Joseph Franco, a sophomore at Bridgewater-Raritan High School, arguing and pointing fingers at each other. That leads to pushing and shoving, and the Black teen, Husain, is thrown to the floor and handcuffed while Franco is placed on a nearby couch.
Wednesday morning, just hours before Crump's press conference, an anti-Black Lives Matter banner was seen hanging on a pedestrian bridge over the ramp from Route 22 to Route 202-206, near Bridgewater Commons.
The banner was removed and its origin is being investigated, according to township officials who had no other comment.
Some Black members of Thursday's panel detailed their experiences with racism.
"I grew up in Bridgewater," Stackhouse said. "My first experience with racism was in eighth grade when I was called the N-word."
"I was called a sellout. I was called Uncle Tom," Atkins said as he described his experience in his 25-year career as a Black police officer.
Other Black community members echoed those sentiments.
"I pride myself in being able to go anywhere. I was never afraid to come back to my hometown, and now I have to be afraid," said Somerville resident Lorena Allen.
"My little 8-year-old is now afraid of police officers," she added.
Bridgewater resident Trudy Adams said that she has been followed by police while she was jogging in her neighborhood.
"You're following me, a woman with a baseball cap walking in my neighborhood," Adams said. "I was furious, but more sad. What if it had been either of my two teenage sons? What would have happened to them? Would they have gotten a knee on their back?"
Others said they were emotional and distressed over what they saw in the video.
"When I saw the video, I was completely outraged at what happened," said Donna Henderson, who has lived in Bridgewater for 24 years. "This is how law enforcement officers in Bridgewater are treating our children."
Community policing, anti-racism education in school, an external police review board and police malpractice insurance were among the topics discussed.
"If we're going to have some peace, we need justice," said Piscataway resident Bill Davis, a member of the local NAACP and the People's Organization for Progress.
Alexander Lewis is an award-winning reporter and photojournalist whose work spans many topics. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Bridgewater mall arrest roundtable inspires leaders, residents talk