Joe Malinconico
Paterson Press

PATERSON — A lover of Caribbean food, Paterson Police Officer Winston Lyons couldn’t pass up the opportunity when he heard that a Jamaican restaurant in the city would be giving out free lunches to first responders on Tuesday.

The fact that the event was sponsored by the Paterson Black Lives Matter group was an added attraction, Lyons said.

“I think it’s a good thing,” the police officer said. “This could help mend things. I appreciate it.”

For a few hours on Tuesday afternoon, BLM activists and law enforcement officers exchanged greetings and food at Mamma’s Kitchen restaurant, a much different scene from the angry confrontations that unfolded during the past two years at protests in downtown Paterson.

“I don’t see this as a BLM and cop thing,” said Joe Moore, one of the leaders of the Paterson activist group. “I think it’s about BLM and the community at large. This is about trying to bring the community together.”

Moore noted that police officers certainty qualified for inclusion in an event designed to show appreciation for first responders and front-line workers during the pandemic.

“Anybody in the front lines, they deserve a free meal,” Moore added.

The restaurant has been working with BLM to provide meals to senior citizens during the pandemic. Mamma’s supplies BLM with the $9 lunches at a discounted price. The restaurant’s owner, Andrew Campbell, said he suggested Tuesday’s giveaway for first responders without really thinking about the convergence of the police officers and the group that has been protesting against the cops.

“A lot of police officers come here and eat,” Campbell said. “I wanted to say thank you.”

The lunches also were available for firefighters, EMTs and health care workers. Campbell provided three options — curry chicken, jerked chicken and stewed chicken — all with stewed cabbage one the side. The menu posed a problem for one Paterson police officer, Dominique Gibson, who said he eats a vegan diet.

But Campbell’s daughter fixed Gibson a special order, substituting rice for the chicken.

“I’m glad this brings us together,” Gibson said of the BLM-sponsored event. “Building bonds is obviously something we need a lot more of.”

One of the BLM members, Anthony Johnson, broke into a big smile when he saw Paterson Public Safety Director Jerry Speziale walk up to the restaurant.

The two men hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade. Back then, Johnson said, he was an inmate at the Passaic County Jail serving a 14-month sentence. Speziale at the time was Passaic County sheriff and in charge of the jail.

Johnson recalled cooking Speziale a grilled cheese sandwich and talking with the then-sheriff. He said Speziale gave his encouragement.

“That grilled cheese sandwich saved my life,” Johnson said.

He said it felt good to see Speziale under better circumstances after all those years.

“This is a proud moment for me,” Johnson said.

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