By: Gabrielle Mills, Follow South Jersey Contributing Writer
PATERSON, N.J. – “‘Forrest Gump.’ I could watch that movie every month,” says 38 year old activist Zellie Thomas.
Thomas has lived in Paterson his whole life. The under-served city is constantly grappling with challenges left over from de-industrialization and other economic factors, but much like the titular character in his favorite movie, Thomas doesn’t give up easily.
He is the main organizer for Paterson’s chapter of Black Lives Matter, a now decade-old organization whose mission is to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and by vigilantes.”
What does that look like on the ground level? In a city like Paterson, where 26% of the city’s mostly Black and Brown population live below the poverty line, it looks like after school programs, substance abuse harm reduction, feeding the community, and when necessary protesting police violence.
The after school programs operate out of a youth center. Among these programs are a coding club where children learn how to code computer programs from industry professionals. Recently, Briana Sullivan, former google employee and current CTO of Honey B Games, stopped by to give insight on the tech industry. Additionally, Black Lives Matter Paterson also hosts free recording sessions for youth on Saturdays.
“A lot of people associate us with fighting, just fighting police violence, but we also fight for the living, the people that are still here,” says Thomas.
Results like these are built. Thomas began his work in activism 10 years ago after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man responsible for the death of then 17 year old Trayvon Martin.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Thomas says. “I threw together a flier and hoped people would show up. Hundreds of people showed up. It felt great to do something like that.”
At the time Thomas was a twenty-something college graduate who wanted a cease to racialized police violence. Black Lives Matter Paterson remains a youth focused organization.
“I knew that in order for the movement to continue on I would have to teach others to do the same thing,” says Thomas.
From there Thomas’ work only expanded. While the initial COVID quarantine meant the world stopped for millions, the work of nonprofits, Black Lives Matter among them, increased exponentially. Since the start of the pandemic, the organization has been delivering meals and necessities, for free, to elders in Paterson.
“We started a mutual aid program…we quickly were able to realize staying indoors was a privilege; it was a privilege that people of color and poor people did not necessarily have, especially our elderly,” says Thomas.
More recently, Black Lives Matter Paterson has opened a harm reduction center, from which care kits containing medical supplies, Narcan, and safe sex materials are distributed to the communities most vulnerable. This includes those experiencing homelessness, addiction, and sex workers.
The most polarizing facet of the Black Lives Matter movement has been the idea and slogan, “Defund the Police.” To many New Jerseyans and Amerians across the country the phrase feels like an attack. Thomas explains the ideology further, hoping to funnel less money into police precincts and more into programs like the aforementioned after school and community programming.
“Public safety should not be synonymous with police officers,” states Thomas. “Public safety should be synonymous with access to resources that keep people safe and healthy that iIncludes safe and affordable housing and access to mental health resources.”
Paterson’s current police budget sits at $47 million dollars with continual raises planned.
“The safest communities don’t have the most police, they’re the communities with the most resources” he continues. “When we talk about the idea of defunding the police, it’s not like everything is going to be a free-for-all. It’s about how can we take some of that money from an ineffective organization and start putting it into organizations that are evidenced based to have results.”
When asked if he feels there’s been any meaningful change in laws against police brutality Thomas states, “I don’t think there’s been any meaningful legislation at all against police brutality. You would think after the death of George Floyd there would be a moment, nationally, to implement something, but there’s been pushback, even in New Jersey, on banning chokeholds.”
The relentless optimism of his favorite film, “Forrest Gump,” mirrors Thomas’ commitment to racial justice for the future. Raised in the “Black Radical Tradition” Thomas’ parents participated in sit-ins. He knows the United States has a long way to go before achieving racial equality.
Black Lives Matter and Zellie Thomas isn’t giving up.
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