Montclair residents gathered in Watchung Plaza on Saturday, June 25, to write letters of encouragement to incarcerated individuals in prisons throughout the country.

Montclair Beyond Policing organized the event.

“What we want is that human connection. Right?” said Maria Eva Dorigo, member of Montclair Beyond Policing. “I mean, they are people, they have dreams, they have families, they are like us.”

Montclair Beyond Policing works alongside such groups as Survived and Punished to receive the names of incarcerated individuals who are in jail after defending themselves against their abusers. Volunteers write letters asking questions like “Are you in safe conditions?” and “How are you being treated?” Volunteers are also encouraged to simply tell individuals about their own day and the setting around them.  

“Getting letters is a positive thing,” said Greg Pason, community member and activist. “It shows that people know you're there. So even if we don't get the response back, you know, we're starting the process. So we're going to keep at it and keep trying to make this connection and just humanize people. They're just people that want to communicate with you. Just talk and make your life a little easier. And I think that's positive no matter what.”

Trevor Hettrich, a Montclair resident, dropped in to write a letter on his way to work. He said he was participating because he cared about his community and public safety.  

“I know that when we're here, writing letters to people in prison, affected by the prison system, we are building connections which we know will procure the safety that we need in writing these letters,” Hettrich said. “I think if anybody truly cares about public safety, they should make it a priority to be out here, a part of their community and not only when it's convenient.” 

Montclair Beyond Policing was started in May 2020 after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Members came together in hopes of having a police and prison abolitionist group in town. They have weekly meetings and occasionally hold study groups to inform people about what abolition entails and how it could work in a town like Montclair. 

Although Montclair is considered to be one of the most liberal communities in New Jersey with an overwhelming Democratic demographic, members of Montclair Beyond Policing want it to be known that policing is an issue in Montclair, too. 

“When a town like Montclair, for instance, funds its police department more than it funds its libraries or its schools, that's part of the problem, right?” said Sulima Elemam, a member of the group. “So even if we don't necessarily feel like we experienced the most extreme examples that you're seeing on videos up on the internet, we're still helping to create that structure where there is no community and there's just policing.” 

Members of the group are aware of the backlash they may face when they speak out against the police, but they want people to know they aren’t attacking the police. Instead, they are criticizing the system that enables behavior that can lead to incidents like George Floyd’s murder. 

“And so someone's neighbor, or someone's uncle who is a quote unquote ‘a good police officer,’ I'm sure they're very nice people to you, obviously,” said Anneliese Scherfen, a member of Montclair Beyond Policing. “But we're looking at the system of policing and saying that this system is not broken. It is operating exactly as designed and it needs to go.”

Montclair Beyond Policing does more than advocate for abolition; the group also provides for those in the community. In their pamphlet, it states this goal: “Redistribute funds from the Montclair Police Department budget to social programs and services.” The group fulfills its promise to the community by partnering with mutual aid networks to provide basic necessities – food, clothing and toiletries – to the underserved. 

Montclair Beyond Policing will be holding a session to write birthday cards for people in prison at 3 p.m. July 16 in Watchung Plaza and a “Conversations About Community Safety” event on Aug. 2 in Glenfield Park.