Bridgewater will turn viral shopping mall video into racial justice lesson

BRIDGEWATER, NJ — A viral video of a black teenager in handcuffs at the mall put Bridgewater on the map for all the wrong reasons. Now, Somerset Township and County officials are on a mission to use this as a platform to make positive change and serve as an example to other communities in dealing with social justice.

“Bridgewater, you are international. But you can take this opportunity to be international for a totally different reason. You can take this leap forward and show every police department that you can bounce back from this,” said community activist Tormel Pittman.

Bridgewater held a community conversation Thursday night for residents to speak with Mayor Matthew Moench, Somerset County Commissioner Director Shanel Robinson, Police Chief Paul Payne, Pastor David Hobbs of the Macedonian Baptist Church, New Brunswick NAACP President Bruce Morgan, Community Policing Liaison Dameon Stackhouse, former Bridgewater Police Sgt. Art Atkins and Pittman.

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The meeting was to give residents a chance to discuss a viral video showing how Bridgewater police handled a teenage fight in a shopping mall that raised questions about racial disparity.

the viral video shows a fight between two teenagers at the Bridgewater Commons shopping center with township police officers kneeling and handcuffing the black teenager while the light-skinned teenager sits on a couch.

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“When I saw the video I was, and still am, completely outraged. First of all, these are children. I repeat, these are children! Is this how law enforcement officers in BW are treating our children? And the treatment disparagement of the two teenagers is outrageous.”

“If this had taken place in a cafeteria, a teacher would have walked into the room and said ‘Cut him off and no boarding would have been necessary, no handcuffing would have been necessary,” said Bridgewater resident Carrie Brookner. “I disagree as a parent of young adults. These young adults and teens know about systemic racism, they’ve grown up with it, and they didn’t take several weeks like Mayor Moench to contemplate if something was wrong with the video. They knew immediately after seeing that video, this was terrible.”

“There is nothing respectful about how the fight was handled … it was a complete embarrassment to the community,” said Bridgewater resident Mark. “This is your chance and we’re counting on you to do what’s right for our community.”

“My grandson, the youngest, is afraid of white police officers. Why? I hope we look at ourselves,” said Lorraine Allen of Somerville.

“Coming off the back of George Floyd… And coming here and seeing another knee and then seeing another knee on a young man,” said Cuqui Rivera of New Brunswick, who is with the Latino Action Network. “This is not OK”.

Many shared their personal experiences noting that racism is a long-standing problem not only in the township but in the nation that must be addressed now, especially with children.

Stackhouse said that in eighth grade at Bridgewater-Raritan schools they called him the “N word.”

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“That was my first experience with racism,” Stackhouse said.

Pittman added that growing up he would never get in a car with four other people because it is considered a gang and they never wore hats in the car to avoid being pulled over by police.

“If they stop us, we don’t know if we’re going to survive,” Pittman said.

Some asked the community for patience before passing judgment on the officers in the video.

“These officers deserve a fair trial, we are not the judge or jury on that video,” said one woman, who did not give her name.

“Please don’t paint the entire police department with a broad brush. We have good officers working in this industry. We have officers who care. We owe it to those who have had a lot of experiences,” Atkins said.

In general, the meeting ended with applause and the common goal of working together to eliminate racism.

“We have to do better,” Robinson said.

Steve Young of the South Jersey chapter of the National Action Network offered his help in working with the township to heal relationships.

“This could be a model for the rest of the country to follow,” Young said.

Robinson and Moench noted that they are working on an actual plan to make changes rather than just talking about it.

“I want to know who’s with us for the solution. Long-term? We’ve been dealing with these issues for too long. Let’s do it and stop paying lip service,” Robinson said.

Moench noted that regardless of the outcome of the investigation by the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, the municipality is committed to hiring an outside consultant to investigate the police.

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“They’re accredited, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do better,” Moench said.

“Growth is impossible in a vacuum, and meetings like this are needed to move forward together as a community,” Moench said in a statement. “We can only overcome our differences if we acknowledge them first.”

Payne also welcomed the community to speak with him at any time.

“It was a lot for me to take in and it shows. I’m speaking from the heart here … if you want to talk to me, give me a call,” Payne said. “I play a different drum as a boss. I answer you. I am here for you. I inform you.”

Stackhouse said that after viewing the video and discussing it with Payne, that is why he continues to work with police.

“I just watched it with no sound and it took me 10 minutes before I said a word to the boss. What I said was: ‘Eliminate the race. If your son is the one in handcuffs, how do you feel right now?’ That excitement is why we’re working as hard as we are,” Stackhouse said.

Stackhouse said he’s in it for the long haul and when he’s done with Bridgewater he’ll move on to the next community.

“Everyone will come here and say, ‘Hey, how did you do it?'” Stackhouse said. “Bridgewater is going to be the best. We are BR… We are BR through thick and thin.”

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