Rahway BOE incident stirs up controversy in community

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RAHWAY, NJ — COVID-19 has pushed many meetings to online platforms to ensure social distancing. For the most part, these forums have run smoothly. A troubling incident did occur, however, during a Rahway Board of Education forum on Zoom on Thursday, Oct. 8, where the only black candidate running for a seat on the board was attacked with racial slurs by an online hacker.

The candidates running for three-year terms on the Rahway Board of Education are Sean White Sr., Bernard Robson, Jennifer Moteiro, Shanna Raysick, Edwin Quinn, Thomas O’Reilly, Carlos Garay, Dorian Timmons, Joanna Macaluso and Deborah Bridges.

White, a youth basketball coach, the candidate who was attacked, described the ordeal.

“The forum was a Zoom call that had an open panel discussion from the public, and, upon taking questions from the attendees, there was a hateful message in the chat,” he continued. “Then an attendee also shared multiple hate messages, as well as, at one point, there was a … man eating chips and disturbing the meeting. At this point, a member of my team was attempting to remove the disruptive attendees who created this confusion during my speech.”

Quanae Palmer Chambliss, president of the NAACP’s Rahway chapter, also described what transpired.

“During the candidate forum held by the Education No. 1 Team, pictures of dismembered bodies, images of the N-word, confederate flags and ‘kill N-words’ flooded the chat,” Palmer Chambliss said on Friday, Oct. 16, of the incident. “Inaudible voices were heard as well. From what I understand, the organizers filed a complaint with the county, but the city has also launched an investigation.”

The forum was held on Robson’s Zoom account, meaning it was Robson’s account that was hacked.

“The account was under Bernie’s account, as he led the call,” White explained. “But the attack was directed with white supremacist images and racial slurs toward the only black/African American on the panel. This attack took place at the time when I was speaking and responding to a question directed towards me.”

Robson also described what happened.

“While discussing social justice issues and how it affects education with the president of the NAACP, Quanae Palmer, our Zoom call appeared to be hacked with explicit sexual images and hate speech,” Robson said on Friday, Oct. 16. “The incident was traumatic, and the words ‘kill N-word kill’ were used. The incident was reported by our team to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, and the mayor reported it to the Rahway Police Department five days after it occurred.

“I was shocked and heartbroken for our community. Especially for our black and brown people and their allies. There is no room for this vile behavior in a town as diverse as Rahway.”

Even though White kept calm during the forum, he described how traumatic this has been.

“This visibly shook some of the members on the call. It essentially delayed our limited call, as we had a window of time to cover all questions and topics we were trying to address with and to the public,” White said. “Since it was during my response, I ignored it until it was over and responded that, ‘Rahway has no place for bigotry and especially in the school system,’ in which both of my children currently attend and were viewing from their grandmother’s home at the time. I was quite disgusted, to be honest, that in 2020 in the town that I love, there are people who are against me trying to put education first in our schools and ensure all of our children have a fair opportunity to succeed in this town.

“I was more upset that my children, family, friends and players from my basketball teams were in attendance and saw their loved one be threatened to ‘die’ while just fighting for equal education in our schools,” he continued. “The actions following by my town’s leadership and council have not even acknowledged me since the incident or spoken my name in their formal letters addressing the incident.

“As a team, we looked into the process and reached out to county-level investigators, but we had to contact the Rahway Police Department as well as Zoom/Facebook to have all levels involved,” White said. “Currently, Rahway Police Department has been contacted but have reached out to other members of my team, and I have not yet been contacted and, yes, they have my information.

“I plan on cooperating with all levels of investigation. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else in the future and, also, for the guilty to be punished, as bigotry should never be felt in this city again. The mayor of Rahway put out a letter and not once mentioned the exact slur or mentioned my name.

“I have not heard from any police officers or detectives pertaining to this incident. This leaves a poor taste behind, as a taxpayer. I feel as if there is no justice being served. For a person who is a community person, who is also volunteering his time to help the school system and not just for my children but the entire city, this has my family not feeling safe in this city and it’s not feeling like much of a home anymore.”

In his response, Rahway’s mayor praised the city’s diversity and condemned the actions during the forum.

“To varying degrees, I know all of the candidates in this year’s board race,” Rahway Mayor Raymond Giacobbe wrote in a letter he posted on his Facebook page. “I understand that they may differ in their philosophies and visions for the board and our schools, but I know that each of them is running because they have a passion for the education of our youth. I frequently speak of Rahway’s diversity as one of our great strengths. Having spent my entire life here, I am proud of the ways in which residents of all backgrounds work together to make our city a proud, progressive place. Last night’s horrible actions do not reflect — and, in fact, run absolutely counter to — who we are as a community.”

White views what happened as more than just “horrible actions.”

“It was definitely a hate crime against me and also felt by my family, children and friends, who all contacted me immediately, to make sure we were safe and if there was anything needed,” White said.

“The incident is an extension of deep-seated racial tensions coming to the surface,” Palmer Chambliss said. “The NAACP has believed that ‘black lives matter’ since 1909. We are the oldest civil rights organization in the world. We believe in building coalitions with organizations that share our values.”

“Black lives matter. Bringing awareness to police brutality is necessary,” Robson said. “As a society, we have to make sure that police do their job, which does not include being judge, jury and executioner. I believe in the right to peacefully protest and, further, believe that race should not determine what resources one should have available and/or how someone should be treated.”

White demands for his voice to be heard.

“I am quite disturbed by this, and I want all parties responsible for this to be penalized, and, if they hold positions of influence or power, they should resign immediately,” White said. “This is quite telling of how a barrier will keep this city from reaching its full potential.

“It goes back to the climate in our country currently. There has been a divide in this small city from before my grandfather’s generation, all the way through now,” he continued. “This city prides itself on diversity, but the hiring practices and positions of power are not equally distributed or reflected upon the actual makeup of the city. Upon running for the Board of Education, there has not been a good reflection on the children who are attending our schools. Many of our schools have been subpar in the curriculum and identifying with progressive times.”

White has a message for the people responsible for this.

“I want them to know that this has only fueled my fire, as it showed me who my friends and loved ones really are,” White said. “In times that are troubling, I know who spoke up and who did not. But I want many who did not to understand that I would have gone to bat for many of them. All this happening over me running for the Board of Education, attempting to create a better environment for our students, youth and teachers?

“This situation is taking it to the next level and that only made me open my eyes and pay attention to all the people who would have the most to lose with my win. I love Rahway and I want to see the best future for our city, and this will not take me standing on the sideline. ‘Old ways will not open new doors.’”