Ceremony honoring police before HS game sends ‘frightening message,’ ACLU says
MIDDLETOWN — A ceremony honoring law enforcement, military and first responders before a high school football game Friday night drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey because of an underlying “frightening message.”
The ceremony was held before a highly-anticipated Shore Conference clash between two topped ranked teams in the state, Middletown South and Toms River North.
The ceremony, organized by Middletown police Deputy Chief Stephen Dollinger, featured State Police Pipes and Drums of the Blue and Gold, state and local mounted units, military personnel from all branches of service and officers from surrounding police departments and sheriff’s units.
It also honored the Linden police officer who was wounded in a shootout with Ahmad Khan Rahimi, who is accused of bombings in Seaside Park, Elizabeth and New York City.
Dollinger told the Asbury Park Press before the event that the ceremony was also meant to respond to pro athletes who have taken a knee during pre-game performances of the national anthem, most notably by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“It’s OK to stand up for social justice, inequality and reform,” Dollinger told the newspaper. “It’s another thing to not stand up for the national anthem.”
Those comments caught the attention of the ACLU of New Jersey, who condemned the ceremony in a letter written to Middletown High School South officials.
“As initially described, the event appeared to honor police officers, veterans, service members, and first responders,” the ACLU wrote to the district. “According to press reports, however, the event is being used to intimidate and ostracize
people who express their views about systemic racism and social just.”
“Law enforcement officers are sworn to protect the constitution, and it is a disservice to the students and players that an event that should focus on them, their families, and their communities is being used to send a message that people who express concerns about disparities in the criminal justice system are unwelcome, disloyal or unpatriotic,” the letter states.
The letter was also signed by the Central Jersey Chapter of National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the Greater Long Branch NAACP.
Jasmine Crenshaw, an organizer with the ACLU-NJ, said the event sends a “frightening message” that law enforcement will not tolerate people expressing their views on the nation’s “history of unequal treatment and systematic oppression.”
“Entrance to one of the biggest sporting events in the area should not require that someone accept an atmosphere that suppresses political protest,” Crenshaw said in a statement. “The magnitude of this event chills the belief that police should be held accountable when they abuse their power or discriminate against people of color, and pressures student athletes to act as props of the police.”
At the ceremony, Dollinger told the Asbury Park Press that his comments made before the event were “twisted.”
“I said we respect the rights of everybody to stand up for social justice and equality and reform, but we also respect our country and want to celebrate the first responders, the national anthem,” the deputy chief said.
“This is just about honoring our country and the men and women of law enforcement and first responders,” he continued. “That’s all this is about.”
The ACLU said on Sunday that free speech was the primary concern.
“We’re happy to hear Deputy Chief Dollinger agrees that students can exercise their free speech at sporting events, including expressing their vies on social justice or choosing not to stand for the national anthem,” ACLU policy counsel Dianna Houenou said in a statement.