Residents of New Jersey town say mayor's racist comments are reflection of bigoted history

CLARK, N.J. — Recently surfaced audio recordings capturing Mayor Sal Bonaccorso using profanity and racist language has propelled this small town into a national spotlight.

But amid the outcry, Black residents of Clark and the surrounding area say that they aren’t surprised — and that the town’s history of bigotry is now on full display.

Bonaccorso, who has been mayor for over two decades, has resisted calls to resign. He apologized last week and acknowledged he is the voice heard on secret audio recordings made by former Clark police Lt. Antonio Manata. Bonaccorso is heard on the recordings using the N-word and other derogatory terms. He also admitted to saying female police officers were “all f—— disasters.”

“I was not shocked. I was disgusted, but I was not shocked,” said La’Tesha Sampson, a Black resident of Clark, in describing her first impressions of the recordings. “I am keenly aware of many of the sentiments of the people here.”

Sampson, 42, is a licensed psychotherapist who has a practice in town.

“The town we live in is not known because we have a great park or a great program. We are known because of the history of racism,” Sampson said.

Sal Bonacorrso.
Sal Bonacorrso.via NBC New York

The recordings, made by Manata in 2018 and 2019, also allegedly captured Police Chief Pedro Matos and Sgt. Joseph Teston making racist comments, according to Valerie Palma DeLuisi, an attorney representing Manata.

Matos and Teston could not be reached for comment. Bonaccorso did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The state Attorney General’s office announced last week that it is investigating the “leadership” of Clark police but declined to elaborate.

The prosecutor’s office took over the town police department in 2020 amid misconduct allegations, with the state attorney general promising a public report on the problems there, NBC New York reported.

‘No dark Clark’

Clark, a town of 15,500 about 13 miles south of Newark, is more than 90 percent white, and fewer than 2 percent of its residents are Black. The 4.3-square-mile community of well-manicured lawns and comfortable homes has a median income of $106,691, which is higher than the Union County median income of $82,644, according to U.S. Census data. The county, unlike Clark, is much more diverse, with Blacks accounting for nearly 24 percent of the population.

Residents of Clark and Rahway, in central New Jersey,  told NBC News that people of color refer to the town as “no dark Clark,” a phrase that has a double-meaning — that racial minorities are not welcomed there and that, for their own safety, they should avoid being in Clark at night. They said it’s also well known that Black and Latino drivers are pulled over more frequently and at disproportionately higher rates than white drivers.

“People are afraid they’re going to get stopped for no reason through the five-minute stretch that is Clark,” said Hanif Denny, 29, an activist and lifelong resident of Rahway.

“If people want to get onto the Garden State Parkway, there are two ways to go,” Denny said. “You can go through Clark, or you can go around the outskirts of Clark to get onto the Garden State. And most people will go around.”

Clark police said it doesn’t collect racial data on traffic tickets. Police did not respond to requests for comment about accusations that the department racially profiles drivers.

Raheem Perkins, 28, of nearby Rahway, said the courthouse in Clark is often packed with people who are not white. He said he has received tickets in the town before and been to the municipal building multiple times, but can’t necessarily say he was profiled.

“Inside the municipal building, anybody in there, just the eye test alone, you see 80, 90 percent Black and brown people in the municipal court building, getting tickets, fines,” he said.

“That room is Black. That room is Black and brown. And the town is white. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Carlos Orsini, 27, of Rahway, who is Puerto Rican, said growing up near Clark he was always leery of the town. Earlier in his 20s, he said he was pulled over in Clark because of tinted windows and police searched his car before letting him go without a ticket.

“Tints is the gateway to get you for something else,” he said. 

Bonaccorso, 61, has been involved in other recent race-related controversies.

In June 2020, during an anti-discrimination rally in Clark amid protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, Bonaccorso told a crowd: “I am pro-Black for all the good Black people that I know in my life.”

He later said in a statement on Facebook that he has been mayor a long time and is still learning.

“As a public official, I felt that it was my duty to speak to all of those present in hopes of fostering an atmosphere of goodwill and progress between the citizens of Rahway and Clark,” he said. “I truly meant it when I told everyone in attendance, ‘If I didn’t care. I wouldn’t be here.’”

In 2017, members of the Plainfield High School girls’ basketball team found a mannequin hanging by its neck in a Clark school before a game, according to a report.

The incident prompted Bonaccorso to make a public apology in front of the Plainfield council, said Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp. Mapp, who is Black, said Bonaccorso needs to resign in the wake of his latest statements.

“Clearly his statements … on that tape showed that he was not sincere in any form, shape or fashion when he pretended to be apologizing for the behavior of whomever in Clark was responsible for placing that instrument of racism,” Mapp said.

In the videotaped apology Bonaccorso issued for his taped remarks, which the township posted on YouTube last week, he  said he made mistakes.

“I deeply apologize for my hurtful and insensitive language. It was wrong. I am embarrassed and ashamed to have spoken that way about a race of people. I’ve learned and I have changed. And it will not happen again,” he said, reading from a statement. “However, a true measure of a man is whether he can admit an error and then learn from it.”

He also acknowledged his own “blind spots” and said the 2020 marches for racial justice changed him.

“I started to see a much bigger picture of how discrimination played into a complex history,” he said. “These experiences challenged my assumptions. I have never discriminated against anyone based on race, gender or any other groupings. I always treat people respectfully and fairly.”

Bonaccorso also apologized for calling female officers “disasters.”

“I’m sorry. They were also a part of a larger, difficult conversation we were having about performances of several officers employed by Clark PD.”

Residents calling for Bonaccorso to resign 

Despite the mayor’s apology, some Clark residents said it is time for him to step aside.

A 48-year-old biracial woman who didn’t want to be named out of fear for her safety said the town is “most certainly” racist.

The woman said she has warned her husband, who is also biracial, to be careful while driving through the town. But she also noted that outrage in the community might be tempered because of low crime rates and a strong school system.

“I do like how the town is run. My kids go to the school. I like how pretty it is. I like how safe it is,” she said. She acknowledged that she has only had positive experiences with town police and even voted for Bonaccorso in the past. But, she added, “I don’t think racial profiling makes the town safe.”

Another resident, a 76-year-old white man, said Bonaccorso needs to lose his job immediately but not because of his racist comments. He didn’t want to be named because he said his comments could be deemed unpopular.

“I don’t think he should hold a job, but not because of him being prejudiced, but on the basis of …  spending my tax dollars on his nonsense.”

The man, who said he has lived in Clark for more than 50 years, said of his town: “There’s no two ways about it. It’s been racist. It always has been.”

‘Nobody cared about the contents of the recordings’

In September 2019, Manata went to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office and said he intended to file a complaint against the town about harassment and discrimination in the police department, according to a lawsuit filed this month. That incident led to a $400,000 settlement with Manata that included a nondisclosure agreement. He also turned over the recordings to the town so they wouldn’t become public.

Media outlets recently obtained the recordings.

The town council approved the settlement on Feb. 3, 2020, Manata’s lawyer Palma DeLuisi said. The settlement included the equivalent of Manata’s salary for two years while he remained on administrative leave and $275,000 to reimburse him for what he would have collected in pension as a captain because he was next in line for a promotion. 

The county prosecutor’s office is named as a defendant in Manata’s suit. He alleges that when he contacted the office to notify the Professional Standards Unit of his intention to file a complaint, he was warned against it and told the office could not promise him confidentiality “due to the personal relationship between the Chief of Detectives at UCPO and Chief Matos of Clark PD,” the lawsuit said.

Manata also alleges he was targeted by the prosecutor’s office for being a whistleblower while prosecutors ignored the content exposed on the recordings, the suit said.

The prosecutor’s office cited Manata’s lawsuit when declining comment.

Palma DeLuisi said that when Manata intended to make the formal complaint in the fall of 2019, word reached the town and the mayor. Manata was then prohibited from returning to work, she said. 

He was escorted out of department headquarters by Matos, the lawsuit said.

Manata’s last day on the department’s payroll was Feb. 28. But he is not receiving his pension because the county prosecutor’s office is investigating him for making the tapes, she said, and he can’t collect a pension amid an ongoing investigation.

“He is accused of violating department rules by making the recordings,” Palma DeLuisi said. “Nobody cared about the content of the recordings. They only cared that he made the recordings. The fact that the mayor is still in this position of power, is quite frankly, the fault of the prosecutor’s office. Because they knew about these recordings, from at the very latest, July of 2020, when they took over the police department. But in reality, it was before that.”

“The fact that they did nothing allowed the mayor to run and be re-elected. He was re-elected in November 2020.”

A representative with the prosecutor’s office declined to comment on Palma DeLuisi’s allegations.

Manata told NBC New York the corrosive police culture began when he was sworn into office.

“Right in front of my family, I was told I was going to be sworn in as Anthony, not Antonio, because my name would fit in better with the town. I would sound white enough,” he said.

Manata was hired by the police department in 2007.

Bonaccorso is ‘very well insulated’

There are many reasons why Bonaccorso has managed to keep his job, according to residents in Clark and neighboring communities. Some said he’s stubborn and will not resign. Others said he is part of a good ole’ boys’ network and he’s insulated by his own council, composed of seven other Republicans.

“His council, his police force, they are all on his side. They agree with his way of thinking. There is no one there to challenge him,” Orsini, the Rahway resident, said.

“He’s very well insulated. There are Clark residents who have been coming out and saying he has to go. But it’s a small amount,” he said.

Several councilors could not be reached for comment. Councilman Steven Hund on Tuesday declined comment on advice from his lawyer, he said. Councilwoman Angel Albanese also declined comment.

Clark, N.J., Mayor Sal Bonaccorso listens to a resident at a town hall meeting.
Clark, N.J., Mayor Sal Bonaccorso listens to a resident at a town hall meeting.NBC New York

Some of the state’s most high-profile politicians are calling for Bonaccorso to resign.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s office said Wednesday that Bonaccorso has “irreparably damaged” his ability to lead the town and should “resign immediately.”

“His hateful language has no place in society,” Murphy said in a statement.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said that Bonaccorso’s language on the recordings was “vile” and he should step aside.

“The revelation of these tapes has made Mayor Bonaccorso’s core beliefs known,” Menendez said.

Bonaccorso was elected mayor in 2000. He ran unopposed in the last election, 2020, and is up for re-election in 2024.

Sampson, the psychotherapist who is also a community activist, said she expected more from the town council.

“One thing that’s been disheartening to me, is that the entire council has said nothing,” Sampson said.

“There was no apology from council. There was no acknowledgement that, ‘Hey, these words were hurtful to members of our community. We are working toward this positively.’”

Sampson said some of the town’s racism is spread by families who pass down their abhorrent beliefs over generations while they continue to live in Clark.

She added, however, that she knows not all of Clark is racist, as was demonstrated at a recent council meeting in which many residents spoke out about the recordings.

The town needs to move forward collectively because the pain the scandal has caused is evident, Sampson said.

“People don’t know what to do.” she said. “I just hope the community takes this seriously and can really work to come together because it’s not so much for us adults. It’s for our children.