By David Cruz
The day began with a bomb threat that emptied City Hall and delayed the start of today’s event. In tense times and with the theme today, it gave some pause as to whether there was cause and effect.
“Well, you know, for a second, and then I thought, ‘Wow we should have a big audience today,’” reasoned Janyce Jackson Jones, executive director of the Newark LGBTQ Community Center. “What a gift.”
“A Week of Respect” is part of the “Stop Bullying” education and awareness campaign in schools and town halls that was mandated by the state as part of landmark anti-bullying legislation in 2011. The goal is to get kids and those around them to stand up to bullies and to remind other kids that bullying is wrong. Leading the effort this week is Garden State Equality, where Andrea Bowen is the executive director.
“Research has shown repeatedly that LGBT students who face bullying face greater rates of depression, lower GPAs and other terrible health consequences, so we need to make safer environments for all our youth,” she said today.
Mayor Ras Baraka was delayed this morning. He had been moved to a secure area after the bomb scare, but his message to city residents was clear.
“It’s extremely important to have a culture in our schools that says you have no tolerance for bullying of any kind, of any sort, bothering people, no matter what it is, what someone looks like, what they wear, their sexual preference, anything,” said the mayor. “We have to protect our children against any and all threats that they have, out of school and in school.”
It was on the corner of Broad and Market in downtown Newark that 15-year-old Sakia Gunn was murdered in a bias incident that cause an uproar in the city 11 years ago. As the city begins to mark a “week of respect” we asked some of the participants in today’s event how far Newark has come since that time.
“We have come a long way, we actually have,” said Jackson Jones. “Sakia Gunn was murdered in 2003; last year the community center was opened in her honor because we’ve decided that we’ve talked too much. Ten years is too much to talk and that we could do something even in small steps. Even the community center, although it’s a small space, but it provides big services in terms of safe space and it is a catalyst for what can be done.”
On a week where residents are being encouraged to stand up to those who would marginalize their fellow Newarkers for simply being different, Sakia Gunn is a powerful symbol of how far hate will go, but this flag raising is also part of her legacy because it is easier to be out in this city today and finding support is not nearly as difficult as it used to be.