Protests continued over the weekend, as Newarkers joined the growing movement nationwide to call for an end to racism and police brutality.
Counting the ones this weekend, there have been at least four marches in Newark in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last month. Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck while arresting him.
On Saturday, a few hundred people gathered at Lumbrook Park for a rally including speeches and a performance by saxophonist Khari Hayden, who is known for performing on Main Street. The protesters then marched down Main Street, Academy Street and Delaware Avenue before ending up back in the park for more speeches.
“We are one voice, one village, one people on one mission, and that is to end racism and police brutality,” said Monique Fegans, one of the march leaders.
Logan Jenkins, an educator at William Penn High School and a retired U.S. Marine, told the crowd that the hardest thing he’s ever had to do was explain to his 9-year-old goddaughter why there was rioting and looting in Wilmington last month.
“When I had to explain to her that, well, here’s why, there was utter confusion on her face because she does not get why someone would not like a person just because they look different,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said that as a black man, he has always felt like he has to “carry the weight of my community on my shoulders.”
“To walk out your door and not be allowed to be you, to walk out your door and not be allowed the opportunity to learn through mistakes….I can’t speak as a white male; I’ve never been a white male. I can’t speak as a white female; I’ve never been a white female,” he said. “It’s not my intent to cause a difference or to provoke a divide between people. What I’m saying is, if you could, just for a moment, put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
Jenkins also urged those gathered not to judge all police officers based on the actions of a few, just like they wouldn’t want to be judged by the actions of others.
“I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with a couple of the police officers over there and through the masks, I looked them dead in their eyes and I spoke to their soul,” he said. “They’re not bad people. They’re not. I’m not saying all cops are good people. What I am saying is, let’s hold them accountable. Let’s definitely hold them accountable. Hold bad cops accountable.”
Mayor Jerry Clifton and Councilwoman Sharon Hughes also addressed the crowd at Lumbrook Park.
“Hate will never have a home in Newark as long as I’m here,” Clifton said. “If you can’t get along with somebody of the opposite race, then get out of Newark. If you can’t get along with somebody of the opposite sex or sexual orientation, get out of Newark. If you can’t get along with somebody from another country that is different than you, then you need to get out of Newark because that’s not going to be tolerated.”
On Sunday, a smaller group also marched down Main Street.
The growing national conversation around racism and police brutality has sparked similar discussion in the city of Newark.
“It is important to note that unfortunately in this country, we have been dealing with institutional racism,” Councilwoman Jen Wallace said. “It’s built into our institutions. It’s not about laying blame at anyone’s feet. It’s about making proactive changes to make our institutional systems more just and more fair for all of us.”
City council spent part of its meeting last week talking about ways to increase the diversity of Newark’s government.
In its entire history, Newark has had only one black council member – the local civil rights leader George Wilson, who was elected in the 1950s.
“I, along with others in our community don’t believe the appointed and elected officials in Newark adequately reflect the diverse communities we are charged to represent,” Councilman Jason Lawhorn said. “With appointments that I have coming forward, I will make a serious effort to encourage and engage with a more diverse group of potential candidates to ensure all voices in our community feel they are heard and represented.”
He encouraged Mayor Jerry Clifton to use a forthcoming appointment to the planning commission to add some diversity to the commission.
“While I have proposed a candidate to the mayor and I believe he had some other options he was considering, frankly, all of those up for consideration were retired white men,” Lawhorn said. “I would propose that council support the mayor in identifying a minority, specifically a black man or woman, to be the at-large appointment for the planning commission. As we look to update our comprehensive development plan, I think this is an important and meaningful step forward in making policy changes that more adequately reflect the diverse community we are charged with representing.”
Clifton responded that he agreed with the sentiment but had already selected a nominee, who was later announced as former councilman Mark Morehead. However, there is now a second vacancy on the planning commission.
City Secretary Renee Bensley said she is working on a formal recommendation for how the city can diversify its boards and commissions, which are all appointed by council. The process will involve doing a demographics survey, reaching out to community leaders, talking about barriers to participation and setting up a formal application process.
“There’s not necessarily a system to connect folks to potential opportunities, and that leaves council members a lot of times looking through their networks and maybe missing folks who would do a good job on these committees,” Bensley said. “So by implementing a broader public application process, we can hopefully get some folks to the forefront that may not have known how to get involved in the first place.”
Councilman Stu Markham added that he would like to see more diversity among city employees and the Newark Police Department.
“We are not very diverse in the senior management, so I’d like to see more effort in that area,” Markham said. “Plus, hiring more minorities into the police force I think would be a worthy goal.”
Clifton said he’s in talks with a local artist who has expressed interest in painting a mural that highlights the diversity of Newark. The mural would be painted on the abutments of the CSX train tracks over Capitol Trail, near McDonald’s. The existing murals there are faded and worn.
“I think it’s a great idea, and its time is past due,” Clifton said.
Meanwhile, officials are looking at proposed police reforms and comparing the proposals to existing policies within the Newark Police Department. Specifically, the city is looking at the 8 Can’t Wait campaign, which proposes eight polices to reduce use-of-force by police officers.
“Newark does have a relatively progressive police force, and they are already doing most of the items on the list,” City Manager Tom Coleman said.
Later, Newark Police released a document answering frequently asked questions about its policies.
“The tragedy in Minneapolis has impacted our community, our state and the entire country. The images on the video are deeply disturbing and difficult to watch. We know that the actions, and inaction, by the officers involved have cast a shadow of distrust over all officers nationwide,” the statement read. “We, the Newark Police Department, stand behind our mission: we exist to preserve life and property, to enforce the law, to solve community problems, and to protect the right of all citizens to live in a safe, peaceful environment. We are committed, as we always have been, to training our officers to strive to meet our mission and to fulfill that mission to the best of our ability.”
NPD recently began equipping officers with body cameras, and while the rollout was delayed by the pandemic, every officer will have one by early July, officials said.
The department already bans officers from using chokeholds in most situations.
“The use of a chokehold, whether applied by the hands, other body part or with a weapon, is prohibited by longstanding Newark Police Department policy unless deadly force is warranted, since death can occur from this procedure. These are not methods officers are trained on or authorized to perform,” the document states.
Officials added that officers are taught de-escalation tactics and are required to report each use of force likely to cause pain or injury and each time they draw and point a weapon at a citizen.
“Newark Police Department policy provides that any officer who observes another officer using force that is clearly beyond that which is objectively reasonable under the circumstances shall intercede, when feasible, to prevent the use of such excessive force, so long as doing so does not pose a safety risk,” the document states. “Officers shall immediately report these observations to a supervisor and document the observations prior to the end of shift. A violation of policy, including failure to intervene, will be investigated and an officer will be disciplined if it is found that policy is violated.”
When Rick Sylves arrived at Downes Elementary School to vote in the Christina School District referendum last week, the line to vote extended out the door, through the parking lot and down the street to the intersection of Casho Mill Road and Pheasant Run. After waiting two hours, he finally got to cast his ballot around 9:30 p.m. – 90 minutes after polls were supposed to close.
The whole situation was “a debacle,” he said.
“It was such a disaster, and it was that way the entire day,” said Sylves, who added that his wife had to wait in the hot sun for 90 minutes earlier in the day.
Sylves was far from the only one who left the polls angry. Long lines were reported at many of the polling places, and Christina spokeswoman Alva Mobley said she believes there were hundreds of people who left without voting because of the lines.
Election officials have since acknowledged that they dramatically underestimated what the election turnout would be and understand why voters are upset.
“I empathize with that because if the shoe was on the other foot, I probably would feel the same way,” said Tracey Dixon, director of the New Castle County election office. “However, for those folks, we are certainly not discouraging them from voting. We want everyone to vote.”
Dixon noted that the referendum drew nearly 15,000 voters, with approximately 3,600 of those voting via absentee ballots.
That’s the highest turnout ever for a Christina referendum, according to Dixon. The failed referendum in 2019 drew about 8,000 people, and the successful referendum in 2016 drew just under 14,000.
Dixon said her department took “an educated guess” and predicted turnout would be only half of what it ended up being.
“Christina School District really did a huge campaign. Their campaigning was tremendous, which I commend them for. It got them what they wanted, which was fantastic. I’m very happy for them,” Dixon said. “But it also impacted other things, especially with the turnout, which in the long run is good.”
Compounding the problem was a decrease in the number of polling places. As part of his pandemic-related state of emergency orders, Gov. John Carney directed the election department to reduce the number of polling places for elections being held this summer.
For the referendum, there were only 11 polling places instead of the usual 28.
Both Christina and the election department encouraged voters to vote absentee, and the department had additional staff working to process the increased number of mail-in ballots, which went smoothly, Dixon said.
“That one, we were able to handle. Unfortunately, we didn’t anticipate another 11,000 people going out and voting in person,” she said.
The department bought new polling machines last year, and for many poll workers and voters, it was their first time using them, leading to a “learning curve,” Dixon said. A few of the machines had brief technical difficulties, as well.
“It was a lot of factors coming together at one time to kind of give us a perfect storm,” Dixon said.
The long lines were a rarity for Delaware, which has historically been able to avoid the wait times and other problems some other states experience on election day.
“This was the first time ever we’ve had this issue,” Dixon said. “We’ve never had a waiting problem, maybe 10 minutes at a presidential election, but nothing of the magnitude that we experienced this past Tuesday.”
The next test for the election department will come July 7, when Delawareans cast their ballots in the presidential primary – an election for which there will also be far fewer polling places than usual.
Pursuant to the governor’s orders, the department reduced the number of polling places from 175 in New Castle County to only 46. Unlike most years, voters can vote at any polling place.
Dixon said the department increased the number of polling places originally planned after seeing what happened during the referendum.
“We said, let’s just be a little more prepared,” she said.
Each polling place will have more voting machines than usual, and the department proactively sent absentee ballot applications to all registered Democrats and Republicans. She encouraged voters to submit their ballots as soon as possible, and at least five to seven days prior to the election.
Meanwhile, Sylves, who is a member of the city of Newark’s election board, said during a recent election board meeting that he fears a repeat of the referendum problems during Newark’s July 28 city council election.
“It was a truly bad day. I’m terrified that we don’t want to repeat this here,” he said.
However, City Secretary Renee Bensley said she is confident the election will go smoothly. The city will have its usual number of polling places – one for each of the two districts that have a contested race.
The city also proactively sent out absentee ballot applications and has already received 850 ballot requests, Bensley said. In a typical year, two council races see a combined 1,200 to 1,300 votes.
“My goal is to have as many people vote as have voted in past elections or more, with as few of them coming through a polling place as possible,” Bensley said.