Nick Haas, leader of Ramsey Alliance for Social Equity Justice, delivers a speech, during a protest outside the Ramsey Borough Hall, on Sunday, Jan. 24th, 2021. The protest is against charges against him delivered after speaking out again an alleged “racial profiling” by Ramsey Police Department.(Photo/Julian Leshay)
In a candid conversation with Nick Haas, he reflects on last year –– and the events that shaped him into who he is today.
This article is part of ‘Leaders of Impact’ – a series brought to you by WeekenderNJ, a community project publication for the people, by the people. The series, which comprises essays and conversations over the course of this year, points to everyday individuals, community leaders and organizations, social justice and systemic racism activists –– who contribute to making our communities a better place to live.
During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the first moments of his activist awakening, the meaning of defunding the police, how the coronavirus pandemic has shaped the American response to the protests, our political and social system, his community garden project, the moments leading to his summons on January 13th, and what’s next for him.
While Haas is incredibly smart, focused on pushing our local political system to move from symbolism to substance, he also has a lighter and kinder side. He is emphatic, laughs often, draws you in; his passion is infectious, and he is not seeking the limelight; he’s interested in change.
After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, 2020, Haas wanted,
more than anything, to be out in the streets of Ramsey, NJ shouting, protesting, holding a sign. He wanted to join the thousands of others who flooded city streets across the nation and across the world to call for justice for Floyd and every black man and woman unjustly killed by police.
What began as outrage and an emotional response to George Floyd’s death, evolved into starting the social equity justice movement in Ramsey, NJ - Rase.NJ. Haas found himself in an unexpected situation where he had to take a stand, but not for individual glory.
Q: Can you tell me who Nick Haas is?
“I was born not far from here, at Pascack Valley Hospital, and have lived in the county my whole life. I went to school at Binghamton University, in New York, where I majored in Neuroscience and graduated last year. Prior to the pandemic, I was on my way to go into lab work and research. COVID-19 threw that off a bit.
And then, after George Floyd’s death, I really wanted to do some form of activism at home. After a bit of research, I realized that there isn’t really much activism going on around here, especially in Ramsey. Knowing that Ramsey is mostly white and conservative, I didn’t have much faith that there would be a lot of support for ‘Black Lives Matter’ here. I was actually thinking of just holding a sign downtown by myself, because I’ve seen people do that around the country. But I decided to try to put fliers on door steps around town leading up to a Sunday protest, and I was shocked that our first protest had about 60 people. I was blown away actually. I mean, I did not expect that at all. And that was basically the first of our almost weekly Sunday protests since then. That also turned out to be the first Rase.NJ - The Ramsey Alliance for Social Equity - event. After that, we had a few meetings with some of the more enthusiastic people from our initial event, and then we were off and running. We established our goals for how we would act in Ramsey, and what we would try to accomplish.
From there, I’ve met so many incredible activists by going to different actions throughout the county, North Jersey, and New York City. I learned about so many innovative ways of helping the community, and that is how I was inspired to start Common Food for Common Good. At an ‘anti-eviction action’ event, where a landlord was trying to illegally evict a renter, I’ve met an activist involved in planting gardens on unused lawns along interstate highways - which is state property; but he said ‘this is the Garden State, and I’m trying to grow food for the community. Why wouldn’t they let me do that?’ Of course after a few weeks of trespassing, signs were posted. A couple of weeks after that, everything was destroyed by police, and he was arrested.
I thought it was a great idea to turn unused lawns into gardens to feed our communities, while also helping the environment by mitigating the negative impact of for-profit grocery stores, with the shipping and big agriculture involved in that. If we could use unused lawns in a way that won’t allow the police to come and take it from us, I think that would be great. So, basically, I’ve been reaching out to any organization I saw that has a bunch of lawn and asking them for their permission to use a portion of it."
Q: And how were their responses?
"A relatively small percentage of organizations go for it, but I’ve reached out to quite a few organizations. So if they all would go for it, I would be pretty overwhelmed since I’m just beginning to build a network of volunteers, gardeners and distributors of the food. So, it looks like I will have five or six gardens this year."
Q: Is this your first time gardening?
“I've done a little bit of gardening before. There is actually a community garden down the road from me that is owned by a church, and I’ve done gardening for them. They donate their food to the Center for Food Action in Mahwah, so I’ve had a bit of experience with gardening. I also have a friend in college who studied sustainability and policy regarding that, and he’s going to be involved in helping out.”
Q: How can people help, or get involved in your project?
“Pretty soon I’m going to put out a social media post to recruit people, either as gardening volunteers or distribution volunteers. I’ve had several people reach out to me who are interested in being involved in this project. We’ll have gardens throughout the area. So, people can choose to be involved in a garden that is closer to their residence. Most of the gardens tend to be at churches or temples, so I’m also inviting their congregations, to see if they would like to participate in this project.
I would like to turn this into a grassroots organization and movement. If I could create a playbook, so to speak, for other people around the country to turn unused lawns that they see in their community into a garden, I think it would help the environment. We are in a situation right now in terms of our environment where we need all hands on deck in order to overcome the crisis we’re in.”
Q: I want to switch gears a little - What is it like to be the leader of Rase.NJ?
“It’s been a very interesting experience. I’m sure you can guess, as somebody who started a local movement for social equity justice in a conservative town, I'm very passionate about trying to improve our society and move towards a more equitable society. Many people in this area would consider this very radical. Some methods I would pursue, some policies I support, would be considered very radical for this town, especially.”
Q: And why is that?
“It’s no secret that Ramsey is mostly white, tends to be conservative, every politician in Ramsey is a Republican, and many are conservative Republicans. Ramsey is kinda like a little bubble where people tend to be insulated from the social struggles that are occurring throughout our country, and it tends to translate to people thinking that these problems don’t exist in Ramsey. Like Ramsey is exempt. Ramsey is not racist. Ramsey doesn't have these problems with the police. Ramsey doesn’t have bullying based on racism in schools. But the reality is that is just not the case. This is a national problem. It exists in every town. Every police department. Every school in America. Homophobia. Transphobia. Racism. All these things are ingrained in our society at this point. So much so that people don’t even realize that it’s there.
We’ve had people telling us, while we were protesting, ‘why are you doing this here?’ - ‘not Ramsey!’ - or they drive by and say ‘where are all the black people in your group?’ And it’s like, that’s kind of the problem, you know? I have spoken to black people or indigenous people, or people of color, that are scared to be in Ramsey or to show up to a protest like that for fear of social repercussions, even threats to their well-being. That's a huge problem, and it begs the question, ‘why aren’t there more people of color in Ramsey?’ Even people of color that are fairly wealthy tend to not move to Ramsey. ‘Why is that?’ I think that the answer is probably that there is quite a lot of racism in Ramsey, and the reality is that white people don’t realize that. Because if you’re just a white person walking down the road, walking your dog and all your white neighbors are being friendly to you, you think, ‘oh it’s such a friendly town.’ Sure, for you. But if a black person moved in and walked down the road it may not be quite that friendly for them. Or they may be harassed by the police for example. It certainly happens, it’s unacceptable, and something needs to be done about it.”
Q: Would you say that your town’s reaction has been more negative, or was it also welcoming?
“We’ve had a spectrum of all types of reactions to our protests. I would say that the overall reactions of people driving by, or walking by, or on social media, were very positive. They were happy that someone was bringing attention to all these issues in little old Ramsey. Of course, occasionally we’ve gotten awful reactions. Like someone shouted at us saying, ‘the South will rise again.’ Racial slurs. The ‘N’ word. So those are disheartening of course. Very disheartening. But, overall I’m encouraged by the turnouts we get, by the positive reactions we get from people. We have a little flier that we hand out to people as they walk by, explaining why they should really care about social equity along with some statistics that demonstrate our society’s inequities in a clear way. We use the COVID-19 pandemic to demonstrate that. Because people of color die at a much higher rate than white people of COVID-19. If black people died of COVID-19 at the same rate as white people, thousands less of them would have died. We can’t deny statistics. So we try to convince people, even though we live in a white town, mostly white town, to open their hearts and minds to these problems and not be silent anymore. Because silence is what has led to these issues being so entrenched in our society.”
Q: How concerned are you about health issues at protests?
“Yes, it’s definitely something to think about. It’s definitely something that’s in the back of your mind. Fortunately, there is a large overlap in those who think that black lives matter and those who think that science is real, so everybody is good about wearing their mask. The one thing that freaks me out sometimes is if we all share the same megaphone, and some people take their masks off to speak into the megaphone; like - ‘please keep your mask on. We can hear you fine.’ But overall, everyone is good about wearing their mask. We stay distant for the most part. As far as I know no one has gotten COVID-19 from one of our gatherings.”
Q: What keeps you going?
“At the root of it all is love for all people and empathy. Something that all activists share, I think, is a very deep-rooted empathy. When they see somebody suffering, when they walk by somebody who's homeless, some people can just walk by them and not be affected. But when I see that, it affects the rest of my day. Or even longer. And that empathy drives me away from inaction.
When I don’t take action I feel much worse about the situation. Even when I'm active, I still feel horrible for the people who are trampled by the system. But, at least I feel like I’m doing what I can to help them and correct the situation that has been created by my ancestors: Europeans. I think that we need to listen to black leaders on these issues, but it really is also up to the white allies to undo the damage that has been done, and to be right there with them in this movement.”
Q: Do you think you’ve made the right choice of taking these steps?
“Yes, I think so. When you’re taking action to completely shake up the social structure of this society, of course there are going to be pushbacks. Always. When you’re going up against the power structure it will fight against you. It’s like an immune system. When there is a movement to defund the police, of course the police will be super opposed to that, and will do whatever they can to kneecap that movement. If that means going after organizers, going after leaders, and intimidating people, then that is what they will do. I mean, we’ve seen it time and time again throughout history. That's just what happens. Which is why it’s great to read about history. To read about the civil rights movement. Or, to read about the movement for queer liberation. I always like to remind people that we need to have an honest education about how our rights were obtained in the past.
I’m actually gay, and I like to remind people how we’ve got our rights. We didn’t get our rights by voting. We got our rights through direct action. Through protest. And some of the protests were even violent. And that’s actually how progress happened. They are called the stonewall riots for a reason. They were literally riots. Because they said, ‘you know what? We’re done with this. We are not taking this anymore.’ And from that uprising, all of our rights as queer people came.
And this is why we need to stand by our trans community members. Because it doesn’t stop at gay marriage.Gay marriage is nice, but that does not equate to having safety for trans people, dignity for trans people, and employment protection for trans people. Gay people cannot forget that it’s the trans women of color who started the queer liberation movement, which has led to all the rights we have now. So it’s only right for us gays, now that we have a little more leeway with the police, or with society in general, and are more accepted, to now use our privilege to push for them. We need to be right behind our trans leaders now, and really fight for them. I absolutely love the stonewall protest that happens every Thursday - I watch the live stream, and I really, really want to go to them. But, I’m afraid to go into the city because of Covid-19. But I love Queen Jean. She’s a huge inspiration for me.”
Q: Do you think former President Donald Trump and COV-19 played a role in the spread of the global movement of BLM?
“I think that Donald Trump as President has been a complete disaster on many levels, but one silver lining, I think, is that he proudly spoke about many things that the United States has been doing for a long time in secret. He brought all these things to the forefront - racism, xenophobia, transphobia. All these things have been there. But a president has never been proud of it and made it his main strategy to espouse all these horrible things. So it’s just so abrasive and visceral for people to hear that liberals who have not been very involved in activism before say, ‘Wow this is horrible, I actually do need to stand up against this.’ And that’s part of the reason, I think, why we saw such a huge movement over the summer. So much support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Because having Trump as president, with all the horrible hateful rhetoric he spouts, actually awakened quite a few people to the movement and awakened them politically. And I’m hoping they stay awakened, even now that we have a democratic president. Because like I’ve said, a lot of these issues are going to continue unfortunately.”
Q: Do you think Barack Obama is partially to blame for the systemic failure?
“Yeah. I always like to remind people that when President Obama was in office, he deported more people in his first term thanTrump. And that’s shocking to people. Because, you know, he’s a black president. He won a Nobel Peace Prize. At first glance you’d think he’d be a great civil rights president and progressive, but in reality he’s just another neoliberal president with very neoliberal policies. Didn’t really do much to push for medicare for all for example. He didn’t do much for emigrants. Many of the problems that existed before him, he continued. And he basically kept the infrastructure intact for Trump to really take advantage of, and be a monster.”
Q: Are you anxious about Joe Biden’s administration? Do you think it's a repeat of the Obama era?
“I think that overall he will be a bit better than Obama, but not on his own accord. The mobilization on the left and the activist wave we have seen over this last year really shows the strengths of the left, and their voting block also, which is something politicians always keep in mind. There is quite a large chunk of people on the left who politicians depend on for their vote, so I think that the overall size, magnitude and visibility of the BLM movement and other movements for social justice over this last year are really going to help to push the Democratic Party to the left. That being said, I think they are still going to push any neoliberal policies they can get away with, which will help corporations. So this is a time that I think we need to be vigilant and to watch them closely. I also think it’s a great opportunity. If we are able to stay organized, stay mobilized, and strategize well, I think that we could have quite a bit of progress in these coming years. So, I’m hopeful, but vigilant.”
Q: Switching gears a little - Can you talk about what led to you being served Summons by Ramsey P.D. on January 13?
“I am not going to talk about the court case specifically, but I’ll talk about the whole lead up to it and the incident.
Of course, we all know what happened on January 6: the insurrection by our now former president. Fortunately we voted him out, but we saw white supremacists marching into the Capitol. People holding Trump flags - the same Trump flags that we see our neighbors flying all around town. And those flags were marched into the Capitol by insurrectionists, right alongside the Proud Boys flags and other neo-Nazi flags.
That showed all of us watching that they are on the same team, you know? All these people that fly the Trump flags, they were all invading the Capitol together and attempting a fascist coup. So, it was terrifying to watch that, and it was absolutely shocking to see the dichotomy of police reaction. I mean, looking back, it’s even more striking. This past week, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in the same week the Proud Boys were designated a terrorist organization in Canada.
If you compare the police reactions to these two groups, the dichotomy is so striking. At the Black Lives Matter protest over the summer, the national guard looked like an occupying army in Washington, DC. And then you fast-forward to when the Proud Boys were marching in DC, and it was like, ‘whatever’, and the national guard didn’t respond after being called six times."
Q: Were you surprised to hear that police officers took part in storming the United States Capitol, along with vets and other public officials?
“I mean, I am not surprised. It is horrible, and it is shocking when you first see it. But it’s not surprising. So many police officers endorsed Trump. And throughout that whole year, many police departments were intimidating, beating and tear-gassing Black Lives Matter protestors that were peaceful. It’s very sad, it’s shocking, and very scary that these people who are supposed to protect the community are so inclined to be part of a white supremacy movement.”
Q: Is there anything else that you can talk about leading to your Summons by Ramsey P.D. on January 13?
“I can talk a little bit more about Sunday. Every Sunday we do our protest, almost every Sunday, we have a specific topic that we focus on based on the event’s of the prior week: policies that are being considered or tragedies that are in the news.
‘Refuse fascism’ was going to be that week's topic. We weren’t really planning to march on the road. And the police chief has warned me in the past not to do that without his permission. Based on that moral compass, I should not have marched on the street. But based on a totally different moral compass, which is that we need to give the side of love and compassion more visibility, the decision to take the street is justifiable.
We need to give the side who's refusing fascism visibility in this mostly white and conservative town, where people have been seeing their neighbors fly that Trump flag that was just marched alongside these white supremacists flags in Washington DC.
We need to show this town that people are going to stand up against fascism. I think seeing a group courageously standing up against fascism gives other people the courage to stand up.
So, that is ultimately why we’ve decided to march on the road. Despite the risk of it, we marched about 10 minutes on the road to our destination before arriving there. We were already moving out of the road, into the public park to give some remarks and wrap up our little protest. Just as we were exiting the road, a police officer came up behind us and ordered us to get off the road, which we already were. As soon he came up behind us and saw our group, he parked, got out, and basically pursued one person, despite the fact that we were all marching on the road together. He pursued the one black man in our group. I mean, people can have whatever interpretation they want, but that’s just the facts.
In that moment, I was trying to block his path from getting to that protestor, because I interpreted it clearly as racial profiling, and I’ve seen enough videos throughout this country to know that can sometimes end very badly.
I see it as my role, and other white allies roles, to step in and protect the people of color in our group. So that’s what we were doing. The officer was trying to get the ID of that protestor, and also his mother who was there. While he was doing that, other protestors, white protestors, were trying to give their IDs, and he made it clear that he did not want to see their IDs. I mean, we were all on the road together, so if he was going after that protestor for walking on the road, then he’d be going after all of us."
Q: Do you think we should defund the police? And why?
“Right now, I think the police have way too many responsibilities. They are simply not qualified to do most of the things they do in their day-to-day operation. We’d be much better off, in my opinion, taking a large chunk of their budget away from them and putting it into social services. Maybe a paid EMT service. For example, in Ramsey, we only have volunteers and the police budget is millions of dollars. Maybe a paid fire department, paid mental health service, and having a community center. Take some money away from the police, build a community center, and hire some social workers to work there full time. If we have all this money allocated for the police, and we really think that we want to use that money to keep our community safe, then I think that money would be better spent elsewhere.”
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
“I would say always stay true to your ideals and your morals. If you’re driven to activism because you really care about our world, and all the people in it, that's a gift. Unfortunately, our society tries to stamp that out of us. Tries to drain humanity out of us, so that we become overly productive robots, for lack of a better word. So I would say do your very best to not allow that to happen. Embrace the love that you feel for other people and for the community. Embrace the empathy. Don't shut it out just because it makes day-to-day life easier. It’s not easy going through life with a lot of empathy and caring deeply about other people, because you look around you and there are so many people who are suffering. Honestly, it would be a lot easier to not care about them. But nothing will change for the better unless we do care about them. Our society wants us to not really care about the fact that black lives don’t matter to the system, or the fact that homelessness is rampant. Because, it allows our society to not address it. If people don’t care about these issues, then there is no need to address them. But as soon as enough people care about it, then it becomes a real political issue that people vote for; that’s when change can occur.”
Q: What are your thoughts about fame and fame sake celebrity activists?
“It’s like performative activism. It’s basically like piggybacking on the movement to get more followers for whatever they are doing. Whether they are influencers, making money off of that, or whatever. Getting more fame, making more money, and in reality they are not invested in the movement. They don’t have any stake in the movement. A lot of those people, I’m sure, tend to be white and not at as great a risk to be trampled by the system as most marginalized folks are. So it gives them the luxury to hop on the movement when it’s convenient for them, and as soon as it meets too much aversion they can just hop right off. And that’s not going to help us. It’s really not.”
Q: What are your thoughts on certain politicians being idolized and treated like celebrities, rather than public servants?
“I see that as similar to the performative activists. Like the performative activists, celebrity politicians attempt to use social movements to gain fame and advance their own careers. Hence, they tend to be more interested in advancing their career than in advancing a given movement. That type of politician will appear to be fighting for a certain issue, only to abandon it when continuing to fight for it becomes politically inconvenient. Idolized politicians, who are treated as celebrities, are often able to get away with doing things that are not good for their community. Their celebrity persona insulates them from due criticism. For these reasons, it is dangerous to consider politicians celebrities rather than public servants.”
Q: What is your favorite thing about what you do?
“I think something that is really great about activism is all the amazing people that you meet. When you’re out there all the time you really form bonds with people. You have each other's back. You care about the same things, and everyone has empathy also. It can be very lonely when you have love and empathy in your own heart, and you don’t go out there and participate in activism. You start to think you’re crazy sometimes, because your family and your friends maybe don’t feel quite as passionate as you do. And they are going along with their lives and their careers, and they kind of ignore all these issues. And you're like, ‘Am I crazy?’‘Why am I so unable to ignore all these struggles that people are going through?’ And then you go out to these protests, and you see ‘I’m not crazy. This is a real issue. This is a real problem, and I’m not the only one who wants to address it. I’m surrounded by people who are full of love and passion, and are creative.’ Ultimately, that's' how friendships form in the activist community.”
Before we ended our interview, I asked what was next for him.
“I’m taking a little step back for the time being from Rase.NJ. It’s been very stressful this past few weeks, but fortunately I’m approaching the time of year when I'm going to start getting really busy with Common Food for Common Good. I’ve been meeting with organizations that have land. I've been doing more research on sustainable gardening, looking for where I'm going to get supplies, and brainstorming for fundraising ideas. So, that’s where I’m putting most of my energy for now: Common Food for Common Good. This spring, I’m going to create a half of a dozen gardens, which will be a good starting point, I think. It’s going to give us a little taste of what community gardening for mutual aid entails, including the distribution side of things. It will be a fun challenge to start to build a distribution network. I'm hoping that in the future we can continue to expand this organization further, eventually out of this area. Ultimately nationally, because I think this is one of many strategies we can use to counteract climate change.”
A protester poses for a photograph while holding a protest sign saying “#DropTheCharges!” and standing in solidarity with Nick Haas, while outside the Ramsey Borough Hall on Sunday, Jan.24th, 2021. (Photo/Julian Leshay)
Two protesters hold a Ramsey Alliance for Social Equity banner and a sign saying “Drop The Charges I Stand With Nick Haas” outside the Ramsey Borough Hall on Sunday, Jan. 24th, 2021. (Photo/Julian Leshay)
A crowd of about 15 individuals gather outside Ramsey Borough Hall on Sunday, Jan. 24th, 2021 to protest the Ramsey Police Department for an alleged “racial profiling” incident and charges delivered to Nick Haas after speaking out on the incident publicly. (Photo/Julian Leshay)
A group of three individuals, two hiding behind the American flag, counter-protesting the RASE organization and their stance on Ramsey Police Department across the street from the Ramsey Borough Hall on Sunday, Jan. 24th, 2021. (Photo/Julian Leshay)
Leader and organizer of Ramsey Alliance for Social Equity (RASE) Nick Haas leads the protest as people watch on East Main Street in Ramsey, NJ, on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. (Photo/Sunah Choudhry)
Leader and organizer of Ramsey Alliance for Social Equity (Rase.NJ) Nick Haas (left) and Instagram live stream coordinator Jennifer Sauer protest outside of Ramsey Town Hall during a phone call in to propose a diversity and inclusion committee to advise the council on issues of social justice, on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. Behind them is Ramsey Chief of Police Bryan Gurney and an unidentified police officer. (Photo/Sunah Choudhry)
A man holds up a peace sign and a woman in the backseat claps her hands in support of Ramsey Alliance for Social Equity's (Rase.NJ) protest, on Sunday Sept. 20, 2020. (Photo/Sunah Choudhry)
A man in a red Jeep laughs at protesters and responds, “Lower taxes'' as they chant “Black lives matter” on East Main Street near the train station in Ramsey, NJ, on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (Photo/Sunah Choudhry)
For information about other ‘Leaders of Impact ,’ check out our lead article in WeekenderNJ from January 2021.
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