ATLANTIC CITY — It was a “blue sky day” in the resort Friday, as Councilman Kaleem Shabazz put it.
No, Shabazz wasn’t referring to the weather. He was quoting a member of the State Police, who told Shabazz recently that the “time to make relationships are on blue sky days, when there are no crises or no events where there is nothing happening.”
But something did happen Friday afternoon at Masjid Muhammad’s Islamic Center, and that was the bringing together of city, county and state officials with local leaders from the Muslim community.
The feelings leaving Friday’s forum were those of hope that the already-established good relationship among local officials, law enforcement and religious groups continues to grow.
The aim of the forum was to establish communication among the Islamic and Jewish communities and law enforcement, and to allow the two sides to get on the same page in the event of anti-Muslim or antisemitic acts in Atlantic County, Shabazz said.
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A few dozen people sat at tables, organized in a square so they could face and interact with each other. Those people included Division on Civil Rights Director Sundeep Iyer and members of his department, Attorney General Matt Platkin, Atlantic County Prosecutor William Reynolds, Atlantic City police Chief James Sarkos and Council members Shabazz, MD Hossain Morshed and newly elected President Aaron Randolph.
Friday was the introductory stage of what were promised to be continued talks between the two sides, said Shabazz. Many of these officials are new in their roles, including Platkin, Reynolds and Iyer, necessitating a formal introduction.
Over the past several years, some high-profile hate crimes have targeted religious communities across the country, including in several Jewish communities in New Jersey and New York. Though South Jersey has been fortunate to not have had incidents of a larger magnitude, Shabazz said, the goal is to be prepared if they ever were to happen.
“We’re trying to get ahead of it, and hopefully we don’t need the civil rights division, we don’t have people who have to file complaints, but if they do they will know how to do it,” Shabazz said.
Different members of both sides spoke for about an hour Friday.
Imam Amin Muhammed welcomed the dozens of people to the facility. He spoke of his experiences living in other countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. He said all American citizens are victims when crimes happen.
“It’s always an honor to see this, because I lived in countries and studied in countries where this wasn’t possible,” Muhammed told the group. “All of these things of terrorism and these concerns, they’re important to me firsthand because I have seen the result of them on the ground before it reached our country, after it reached out country, and we haven’t done a good job collectively of combating that. And one of those ways is education.”
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Platkin wanted the group to know the state takes threats to religious communities seriously and looks into and responds to every incident that’s reported. He acknowledged that sometimes a criminal case isn’t possible because there is not enough evidence or they don’t know who did it or it didn’t reach a certain level of crime.
“But it can be made sometimes in our civil context, using our civil enforcement powers through the civil rights division,” said Platkin, referring to Iyer and division members Jonathan Green and Tisha Leonardo-Santiago, who elaborated on ways for members of the community to safely report incidents.
There were a handful of members of the community present as well, including Barry Wilson, 67, of the city, who addressed the leaders and officials. Wilson expressed his gratitude for them coming together Friday.
It wasn’t always this way, said Wilson, who recalled how hard it was to acknowledge these issues previously.
“Things are better understood and information is better shared so that people have better insight to know there are ways that we can move forward together,” said Wilson, who has also lived in other cities including Boston and Minneapolis. “That’s why I’m impressed with what I see here now.”
Contact John Russo: 609-272-7184
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