MIDDLETOWN — Civil liberties groups criticized a pre-game show of force by law enforcement officials on Friday at one of the most highly anticipated high school football games at the Jersey Shore.

Deputy Police Chief Stephen Dollinger organized the rally as a protest against San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick’s anti-racism demonstrations in which he kneeled during the national anthem played before NFL games.

The rally for police, first responders and the military scheduled before the Middletown South home game against Toms River North was supposed to include 100 uniformed cops, including two who were shot during the arrest of bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahimi in Linden last month, as well as a flyover by the State Police Aviation Unit.

Kaepernick’s controversial demonstration inspired other professional athletes as well as student athletes across New Jersey to follow his lead.

“It's OK to stand up for social justice, inequality and reform," Dollinger told the Asbury Park Press. "It's another thing to not stand up for the national anthem."

The football game rally follows a Black Lives Matter rally last month at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County meeting house in this mostly white township.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Central Jersey Chapter of National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the Greater Long Branch NAACP said Friday that the police rally was disturbing.

In a joint letter to school officials, the nonprofit organizations said that students and athletes cannot be forced to participate or stand for the national anthem.

"We understand that the national anthem raises strong feelings, but for more than 70 years, the law has been clear that students may not be compelled into patriotism by their government," the letter says.

“The statements made by the deputy police chief and the event’s ostentatious show of power send an ominous, frightening message: that, as an official stance, law enforcement will not tolerate expressions acknowledging our nation’s history of unequal treatment and systematic oppression," ACLU-NJ organizer Jasmine Crenshaw said in a statement. "The magnitude of this event chills the belief that police should be held accountable ... and pressures student athletes to act as props of the police.”

Eugene M. Stewart, president of the Central New Jersey Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said police officers are sworn to protect the Constitution, including freedom of speech.

"This [rally] contradicts that constitutional oath, and it’s inappropriate for a State Police helicopter and other taxpayer-funded state resources to support this event," he said in a statement.

 

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.