Over 70 Princeton community members marched through town on Sunday, Jan. 29, as part of a nationwide wave of protests following the death of Tyre Nichols and the release of body cam footage of the killing earlier this month by the Memphis Police.
The march harkened back to town events responding to the murder of George Floyd. Although significantly smaller than the protests in 2020, speakers and organizers drew attention to the continuous and, what they feel, often exhausting nature of prolonged racial justice activism as well as the necessity for organizing events in small towns like Princeton.
“I think on the surface, it looks like Princeton is like a very liberal town,” said organizer Fatima Mughal in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. “Yes, maybe we have [fewer] incidences of interactions with police here in town than maybe in a place like Trenton,” but there are “a lot of ways that the town is very harmful.”
Nichols was pulled over at a traffic stop and beaten by the police on Jan. 7. He died in the hospital on Jan. 10, and the body cam footage of the encounter was released on Jan. 27. Five Black police officers were fired on Jan. 20 and indicted on a number of charges, including second-degree murder, in relation to Nichols’ death.
The demonstration was organized by Princeton Mutual Aid (PMA), which was founded in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and distributes food, collects donations, and provides other community services to Princeton residents. Information about the event was distributed among other community organizations, according to Mughal, and on social media the day before.
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ PMA volunteer Valerie Henry attributed the relatively speedy repercussions of the killing to “small gatherings like this all over the place.”
Attendees, including University students and other non-affiliated Princeton residents, gathered in Palmer Square in the early afternoon, with speeches beginning shortly after noon. The speeches were followed by a march through Princeton.
“It was great to see people come out,” Emery Jones-Flores ’26 said to the ‘Prince.’ “Since Princeton is a very privileged community, seeing people from all different walks of life was especially important.”
Mughal, who has been a member of PMA since its founding, spoke first, stating that the goal of the rally was “to create a space for the community to come together to grieve, honor the life of Tyre Nichols, and be a space for solidarity.”
Valerie Henry spoke about Nichols’ life and the circumstances surrounding his death, concluding: “Tyre was beaten by the police for 3 minutes straight. Let’s take 3 minutes of silence to honor Tyre and the life that was taken from him.”
Following the period of silence, Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, pastor of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church who also serves as a faith-based policy advisor for Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), spoke, clarifying that he was “not speaking on behalf” of the church.
Recalling a 2020 protest at Fitzrandolph Gate on Nassau Street after the killing of George Floyd — an event which was attended by over 1,000 people — Mjumbe said, “we’ve done this over and over and over again, and I’m tired. I’m weary. We have to do something different.”
He later asked, “how different are you today than you were in 2020 when you marched out here? How have your commitments to justice changed three years later?” Pointing to members of the crowd, he asked, “what sacrifices have you made in the last three years that are different? What sacrifices will you make in the next three years that’ll be different?”
“I’m tired. I’m not marching today. I’m not taking any more moments of silence. I'm not taking a knee,” he said. “Most importantly, I’m recommitting to change myself.” Paraphrasing a Rumi quote that he referenced throughout the speech, he concluded, “Let’s change the world by changing ourselves.”
Echoing points made by Mjumbe, Mughal said, “Let’s be clear, it does not matter that the officers that murdered Tyre are Black. The only thing that changed is that they were immediately fired to save face. The institution of policing itself is and has always been racist.” She added, “the only answer to police terror and brutality is defunding the police and working towards abolition.” She mentioned that police killings had even risen in 2022 to record levels — indeed, they were higher last year than any other since the statistic began to be tracked nationally in 2013.
Mughal also encouraged protesters to speak up at town council meetings, noting that the local organization Mercer for Abolition examined town budgets countywide and found that every town in Mercer County “spends the most money on their police.”
“That’s showing us what their priority is,” Mughal said, “but it’s our job to demand that they prioritize what we think is most important: healthcare, housing, education, mental health. You decide, and you demand. It’s our tax dollars and our community that is at risk.”
Following the speeches, protesters marched through town on the sidewalks chanting common slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement such as “No Justice, No Peace” and “Say His Name / Tyre Nichols.” The group headed down Nassau Street to enter campus and walk past Firestone Library before marching west down Nassau and ending back at Palmer Square. The group passed multiple police officers on the route, though no direct interactions with the police occurred.
The event ended with calls for protesters to get involved in local organizing.
Celine Pham ’24, who is involved with PMA, said in an interview with the ‘Prince’ that she would “encourage [students] to get involved and get to know the community because there’s a lot to be done.”
Anastasia Mann, a lecturer in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) who was also in attendance, noted that PMA has been “the most gratifying cross-class, multiracial community and political engagement of [her] life.”
“Now that the acute crisis of COVID is over, we’re still living, as we see today, with dramatic structural problems,” Mann said. “The only thing that fixes those or begins to move the needle on those is when people come together around those convictions.”
News contributor Abby Leibowitz contributed reporting.
Annie Rupertus is an Associate News Editor for the ‘Prince.’
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