BRIDGEWATER — Activists marched to Bridgewater Commons Mall on Saturday, nearly a month after police response to a fight there sparked widespread outrage over the very different ways the two teens were handled.

The People's Organization for Progress led what it called a “Justice for Z'Kye Husain March,” starting at Bridgewater Township Municipal Building.

A community public forum held on Thursday evening also covered concerns about the “recent incident at Bridgewater Commons Mall.”

Demonstrators on Saturday were accompanied by a police escort, as it had been offered ahead of time, NJ.com reported.

Video of the police response, in which one Black teen — later identified by his family as eighth grader Z’Kye— was tackled and handcuffed while a teen with a lighter complexion was left unrestrained and briefly unattended, has since gone viral.

“We are marching to demand that the officers who racially profiled and brutalized Z’Kye should be fired, and they should be suspended immediately pending the outcome of the Attorney General’s investigation,” Lawrence Hamm, POP Chairman said in a written statement.

The organization also has been calling for the names of the officers involved to be released publicly, along with their disciplinary records and the body cam videos from the mall incident.

Public forum, after delays

On Thursday, after at least two canceled public meetings since the mall incident, a community forum involved a panel including Bridgewater Mayor Matthew Moench, Bridgewater Police Captain Sean O’Neill and Somerset County Commissioner Director Shanel Robinson.

Bridgewater Police Chief Paul Payne said in a written statement that he learned a lot from the meeting and “I hope everyone who was in the room or watching from home did as well. I am proud of the work our agency has already put in on this front, even as I recognize there is a great deal more to do. I and every officer under my command remain eager to continue moving in the right direction with integrity and transparency.”

The actions of two Bridgewater Township police officers who responded to the February mall fight have remained under review by the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office.

NJ.com reported both officers have been on desk duty.

Township officials said they could not comment on the ongoing investigation in order to guarantee its integrity, but that the conversation was "wide-ranging," spanning community policing, officer training initiatives, investigation procedures and protocols and 'a wide variety of other topics including personal stories and experiences.'

Also in attendance at the event were New Brunswick NAACP Chapter President Bruce Morgan, Pastor David Hobbs of Macedonia Baptist Church in Bridgewater, community activist Tormel Pittman and former Bridgewater Police Sgt. Art Atkins.

The panel answered questions submitted in advance, as well as those asked during the event, which was live-streamed.

“I want to thank the Mayor for the invitation to be a part of the panel," Pastor Hobbs said, "I see this being a starting point for us to go forward, and I hope and pray we continue to keep our relationship going so when adversity does come, we can always stay united with one perspective: to treat everyone with dignity and compassion."

“We had an honest, civil and productive discussion and we are eager for our community to move forward together,” a collective message reads on the site where questions had been submitted.

Activists interrupt a news conference that was supposed to have included the Rev. Al Sharpton (David Matthau/Townsquare Media NJ)
Activists interrupt a news conference that was supposed to have included the Rev. Al Sharpton (David Matthau/Townsquare Media NJ)
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A day before the community forum, a news conference planned by the Husain family, with civil rights attorney Ben Crump and the Rev. Al Sharpton was disrupted by local activists — who criticized Sharpton and Crump as outsiders who were not sincerely invested in the community’s well-being.

Sharpton wound up leaving without publicly speaking at the Bridgewater Municipal Complex and Crump, Z’Kye and his family gave remarks from inside the police station.

Crump said on Wednesday that a federal civil rights lawsuit was being considered on the teen's behalf, because “it has to be documented that we will hold people accountable who discriminate against our children, because our children’s lives matter.”

teen fight at Bridgewater mall (Tamra Goins via Facebook)
teen fight at Bridgewater mall (via attorney Ben Crump)
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Local activists, including Hamm, have been pressing for Bridgewater to do a racial bias audit of all aspects of its policing and present a plan as to how it is going to root out racially biased and discriminatory practices and policies in the police department.

“We are also calling upon the Bridgewater Commons mall to lift the ban against Z’Kye and the other boy involved in the fight and that the mall withdraw its demand that his family pay for broken furniture,” Hamm also said.

Erin Vogt is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at erin.vogt@townsquaremedia.com

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