Murphy joins BLM protests, even as others fight tickets for gatherings
Gov. Phil Murphy attended two Black Lives Matter protests Sunday — a show of solidarity with protesters seeking racial justice even as he's more broadly urged people to stay home in the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The same day, an attorney representing two New Jersey women who'd been issued summonses for their own peaceful protests — not over racial issues or police brutality, but over the governor's own business shutdowns — told New Jersey 101.5 his clients will sue Murphy, calling enforcement of the governor's stay-at-home orders arbitrary.
"Bottom line, there is either a public health emergency or there is not. It cannot be both," attorney Jim Mermigis told New Jersey 101.5 in an email.
Under executive orders from the governor seeking to curb the spread of the virus, gatherings of more than 25 people are currently prohibited — a limit several peaceful demonstrations exceeded over the past two weeks, sparked by the Minneapolis death of unarmed black man George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer.
After a Hillside march, the governor's official Facebook page shared photos saying Murphy, First Lady Tammy Murphy and their son, Josh, took part "For George Floyd and for the many before him – who lost their lives for being Black. We march because we will not accept systemic racism and bias as just part of our national condition. Black Lives Matter."
Murphy also attended a Black Lives Matter event in Westfield, sharing on Twitter a letter he had received from a high school junior who had invited him.
"Gov. Murphy is arbitrarily deciding which executive orders he will enforce. The governor permits and protects demonstrations for a public policy issue he agrees with but does not protect demonstrations whose content he disagrees with," Mermigis said Sunday.
Murphy, in several public statements at his daily briefings on the novel coronavirus and the state's response, discouraged protests against his executive order shutting down many businesses. But New Jersey 101.5 is not aware of any peaceful briefing since the start of the pandemic broken up by police, whether under the direction of state officials or otherwise.
“People have a right to protest," Murphy said during an April 29 briefing. “I wish they would do it from home. I don’t agree with them on this."
Several events in April and May did result in summonses for at least four separate women, the most recent of them last weekend.
Mermigis' law firm is representing Kim Pagan and Ayla Wolf, who separately were issued summonses for violating Murphy's emergency orders by organizing prohibited events.
The same firm represents the owners of the Atilis Gym in Camden County, who have been embroiled in a legal battle with the state since defying emergency restrictions and opening to members three days in a row before, being shutdown by health officials last month.
Pagan, of Toms River, was charged by State Police with violating the emergency orders by organizing a prohibited event. Protesters had gathered April 17 outside the State House to demonstrate against the Governor’s Executive Orders.
At a briefing on COVID-19 response the next day, Murphy said "on the protesters, I would just say listen, with all due respect, I think anybody who thinks we're doing this just to take away people's liberties and rights isn't looking at the data that we're looking at. We're doing what we're doing to try to save lives and keep as few people infected and hospitalized as possible."
At the same briefing, the state reported 7,718 patients hospitalized with novel coronavirus, of whom 2,024 were listed in critical or intensive care and 1,641 ventilators were in use.
As Murphy, his wife and son marched in Union County Sunday, there were 1,769 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in New Jersey, 379 of them on ventilators and 503 of them listed in critical or intensive care based on state data. Murphy and other state officials have been heralding the substantial dropoff in cases needing care as a reason New Jersey can move closer to a reopening, with most retail and outdoor dining resuming this month.
The same week as Pagan was charged, Murphy was asked by Fox News' Tucker Carlson "By what authority did you nullify the Bill of Rights in issuing this order? How do you have the power to do that?" The governor answered — in a soundbite critics, including Carlson, have cited countless times since — "That's above my pay grade, Tucker. I wasn't thinking of the Bill of Rights when we did this."
Wolf was charged with the same offense as Pagan about a week later, after attending a separate peaceful protest to “Open New Jersey” and was served with a summons the next day. She also received summonses for rallying outside Atilis Gym, when it opened, according to a GoFundMe setup to help cover legal expenses for both women.
Murphy was asked Friday about the difference in organizers of reopening protests having received summonses, while no Black Lives Matter protest organizers has been issued a summonses, as of this weekend.
"The decision to cite or not to cite is a law enforcement decision. I won't say it's regret or not regret, it is what it is. For the most part, the COVID-related demonstrations and compliance, lack of compliance, have kind of disappeared for the time being," Murphy said.
He continued, "And, I want to make sure everybody who is protesting out there does it peacefully and does it responsibly, including watching out for their health and the health of those with them."
A few days earlier, Murphy told reporters he saw a difference between protests over business closures and protests prompted by Floyd's death:
“I don’t want to make light of this, and I’ll probably get lit up by everyone who owns a nail salon in the state, but it’s one thing to protest what day nail salons are opening, and it’s another to come out in peaceful protest, overwhelmingly, about somebody who was murdered right before our eyes," he said last Monday. He said the racial justice demonstrations were "in a different orbit" than the ones over business closures.
On Saturday, another woman ticketed for organizing a protest aimed at reopening more businesses amid the pandemic. Jennifer Rogers shared a pair of summonses she received after a May 30 event in Morris County.
"Unfortunately, in trying to show support for all of us who are on our way to going under financially or who already have I am now facing up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine," Rogers said. She organized the rally at the Randolph Tennis and Pickleball Center, which featured state Senator Anthony Bucco and Assemblywoman Aura Dunn among its public speakers.
The business announced Sunday on Facebook that Rogers would be defending herself in filing a civil rights action.
"Governor Murphy is engaging in content=based speech restrictions which is a restriction on the exercise of free speech based upon the subject matter of the speech," Mermigis said.
He said they would continue to defend clients' constitutional rights and would be filing civil suits for Wolf and Pagan against the governor, shortly.
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