Peace by Peace: Still a Young Leader, Lewis Starts his Latest, Most Challenging Project
Scottie Lewis started "PeaceByU" as a community organizing effort with a broad goal of promoting "peace, love and positivity" and on Friday in Asbury Park, he set out to take that message to a group of more than 1,000 demonstrators in a current climate that has a hard time sustaining any of those three tenants for very long.
The former Ranney School star basketball player and his PeaceByU team completed the peaceful two-hour march from Liberty Square Park to the Police Station for a series of speeches and back again without incident and with full cooperation and support from the Asbury Park Police Department.
As Monday's protest against police brutality and racial injustice in Asbury Park ended with tension in the form of police arresting lingering protesters after curfew - including an Asbury Park Press reporter - and three officers reportedly injured, a tense moment closed Friday's as well.
A representative from the Asbury Park Police Department took the makeshift podium to declare that his department is "with you (the protesters)."
A young woman in the crowd interjected with a follow-up question: "How are you with us? Can you give some examples?"
The officer, seemingly surprised by the question, said, "We don't agree with what happened in Minneapolis and a lot of other places in the world. So we are with you."
Before it could turn into a makeshift press conference, Lewis took back the floor, thanked everyone for their support and closed out the organized portion of the evening as most of the crowd dispersed. Still, a number of people in the group wanted to continue their demonstration and marched toward the boardwalk.
Lewis gave the thumbs up for approval and the the rising sophomore at the University of Florida explained the challenges of hammering away at his message of peace at a time when so many people are so angry for so many reasons - racial injustice, abuse of police and state power, unemployment, economic hardship, health concerns and in some cases, reckoning with one's own racism or family racism.
Whether you agree with all, most, some or none of the messages from the impressive young speakers at Friday's rally, Lewis is adamant the central portion of his message should be universal.
"Words are a lot more powerful than people think," Lewis said. "Having a conversation with somebody is more powerful than threatening them, but it's important to always have love and respect for the other person. We have to show love and respect and compassion to everybody and understand everyone is different and everyone has different experiences. It doesn't always mean it's going to be easy or comfortable, but those conversations have to take place and they are always better than violence and hate."
While many police officers across New Jersey and the rest of the United States have voiced their disapproval - and in some cases even outrage - at the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, taking the next steps toward fixing the structural problems that contributed to those two people at the hands of police and preventing more from suffering the same fate carry a lot less consensus.
Now age 20, Lewis - like other young men and women in his unique position of building himself such a significant platform so quickly - is still discovering his voice and learning that while the arc of the moral universe may, as Martin Luther King stated, bend toward justice, the bend is not as sharp as most of us would like for it to be in this universe.
Still, his success in staging a rally like the one that he helped lead on Friday once again underscores Lewis's magnetic personality and overall comfort in a leadership role. He spoke his mind and led his share of chants, but also gave up the megaphone for others to share their experiences and insight.
Speeches by Brookdale Community College and Monmouth Regional graduate Tyler Hawkins, Princeton University rising senior, Mater Dei Prep graduate and Freehold native Elijah Barnes and Lewis's uncle, actor and activist Dayo Olatokun dug further into the weeds of an American cultural, social and legal ecosystem that has nurtured the systemic racism that African-born slaves and their ancestors have experienced directly and residually for 400 years - and Native Americans before them.
Hawkins was an all-division guard at Monmouth Regional and after graduating from Brookdale, is narrowing down his choice of four-year schools where he will play basketball. Hawkins gave an impassioned speech, forgoing a lot of the planned words he typed into his phone and instead speaking from a heart that has been broken by racism before.
According to Hawkins, he and several classmates were posing for pre-prom photos back in 2017 at Trump National Golf Club in Colts Neck and as Hawkins was finishing up a trip to the restroom with a few mirror selfies, a security guard, believing Hawkins didn't belong there, told him to leave and not to come back. Hawkins obeyed and said he did not tell anyone at the time because he did not want to ruin the experience for everyone else. The club has not yet returned a request for comment.
"You see things like that on Twitter and the news and you know it's real but you just never think about it happening to you, especially on a day that's supposed to be one of the best night's of high school," Hawkins said. "To have that happen to me was just mind-blowing and a shock. I didn't know who to go to or to talk to and that's why I think it's so important to create something like PeaceByU that people can come to with a problem."
Three years later, he channeled that hurt Friday into a megaphone, just as black Americans, young and old, have been speaking into a figurative megaphone for the last week after feeling like they have been screaming into the wind for so long.
"I'm angry, I'm sad, but most of all, I'm tired," Hawkins said. "I'm tired of being judged by my tattoos. I'm tired of being judged as just an athlete. I'm tired of burying my brothers and sisters to the murderers who hide behind the shield. I'm tired of being judged not by my mind, but by the color of my skin."
Barnes followed with 14 minutes that condemned the police violence that took the lives of Floyd and Taylor, but also the lesser-but-equally-observable violence police throughout the country have used on peaceful protesters, medics and journalists.
"Tear gas is a war crime," Barnes said, referencing the 1925 Geneva Convention classifying tear gas as a chemical agent banned in wartime. "People are out here trying to help as medics and are being shot at by police. That's a war crime. These are not simply injustices. They are fundamentally wrong."
The Princeton University senior-to-be also hit on the overall criminal justice system, school segregation, being the son of a black father and a white mother, the importance of dialogue with people who disagree and why he changed his mind about wanting to be a police officer. Barnes has made his opinions known before the recent civil unrest and now, the rest of the community and the world is starting to listen.
"How come nobody cared what I had to say two weeks ago?," Barnes said. "I always had this voice. I always had these thoughts. I guess this is what it takes, and I don't want it to happen again."
Barnes and Lewis were rivals when both played basketball at private schools in the Shore Conference - Barnes at Mater Dei in Middletown and Lewis at Ranney in Tinton Falls. The two went head-to-head five times in two years, with Barnes's side winning four of the meetings and back-to-back Shore Conference Tournament championships. After Barnes graduated in 2017, Lewis and teammate Bryan Antoine - a guard at Villanova who was in Asbury Park Friday to support his former teammate and the cause - led Ranney to back-to-back conference titles of their own.
"I have gotten to know Elijah even better since he graduated," Lewis said. "He is a passionate, intelligent person and I learn so much from talking to people like him and my uncle Dayo. They are strong voices and they need to be heard and the best part is they challenge the system but they are peaceful, compassionate, non-violent people."
"Everyone here is from a different background and has had different experiences," Barnes said, echoing Lewis's over-riding message. "And you will never understand each other unless you talk."
Friday's event brought out locals from around Monmouth County, the Jersey Shore and other parts of the state - many of whom have athletic backgrounds. While Barnes represented Princeton, Rutgers basketball players Akwasi Yeboah, Ron Harper Jr. and Luke Nathan showed up in their black Scarlet Knights jerseys.
When Scottie Lewis first arrived at Ranney in 2015, the boys basketball program had no history of success and he and his classmates - four of whom were starters on day one as a freshmen - were tasked with building the program from the ground up. There were some growing pains along the way, but there was also a lot of early success (22 wins in 2015-16) and the journey ended with Ranney finishing as the No. 1 team in New Jersey in 2018-19.
Friday's march through Asbury Park had its awkward moments: the microphone malfunction during introductions, the downpour that drenched the crowd, the pointed question directed at the Asbury Park Police and the second march toward the boardwalk after Lewis's closing statements came nearly two hours earlier than the advertised end time of the demonstration.
Lewis is just starting the freshman year of his life in activism and with another ongoing rebuilding project, just as he did in 2015 with Ranney. He has prepared for it by organizing a basketball benefit to feed the homeless and speaking his mind throughout high school, but now he is playing at the varsity level against an ugly opponent. The hardest work is yet to be done, it will require a lot more uncomfortable moments, but just as he showed at Ranney, Lewis won't shy away from doing the work or learning from experience.
If Friday is any indication, he'll also have plenty of good teammates and those teammates will have him. That, he hopes, is still the winning formula.