Category Archives: Politics

“2, 4, 6, 8! We Just Want To Graduate!”

It was a day of activism, for hundreds of Staples High School students.

From 10 a.m. until the end of school, the courtyard was packed. Speeches, poetry, music and more drew attention to the very real issue of gun violence.

One girl said she was told there were consequences for leaving class. “I can’t get a detention if I’m dead!” she replied.

Signs say it all. (Photo/Ali Natalia)

Walkout leaders in the Staples High School courtyard. (Photo/Audrey Bernstein for Inklings)

At 3 p.m., a smaller group of students — bolstered by other Westporters, of all ages — gathered on Veterans Green across from Town Hall.

Politicians of both parties were in attendance. But the students — noting the non-partisan importance of legislation — took charge.

It was their day.

After all, it’s their future.

Staples students look ahead to turning 18 — and turning out to vote.

First Selectman Jim Marpe (far left) and 3rd Selectman Melissa Kane flank Staples students.

Registrars of both parties were on hand to enroll new voters.

“Arms are for hugging,” says the sign.

Former Staples High School assistant principal Lee Littrell (left) and chemistry teacher Bruce McFadden came to Westport to support the activism of current students.

Among the chants from this group of Staples High School students: “No more silence! End gun violence!”

Students Rally Tomorrow At Staples; Townwide Event Set For Veterans Green

When students across America walk out of classes tomorrow — to commemorate the Columbine massacre exactly 19 years ago, and demand an end to gun violence — there will be a strong Staples High School presence.

A passionate group of students has planned a day of activities. From 10 a.m. — when the Colorado shooting began —  until 2:15 p.m., they’ll fill the large courtyard.

The rally will include student speakers, music, poetry, calls to senators and congressmen, a petition, poster-making, and voter registration.

Students who attend will be marked “unexcused” from class. But, leaders say, that’s a small price to pay for taking a stand on an important issue.

At 3 p.m., Staples students invite the entire town to a post-walkout rally on Veterans Green, across from Town Hall. State senator candidate (and Staples graduate) Will Haskell will speak. There will be student speeches too, along with music and poetry.

“We have a lot to say, and we want our voices heard,” say Brooke and Peri Kessler, 2 student leaders.

“We’re not partisan. But we do want everyone to be educated and informed. This is about our safety, and our future.”

The national walkout — an outgrowth of activism after the Parkland shootings in February — was organized just a few miles from Staples, by Ridgefield High School student Lane Murdock.

Maker Faire Adds Governor Candidates

On Saturday, downtown Westport will teem with more than 12,000 Maker Faire-goers. Intrepid, curious, creative and resourceful, they’ll listen, ask questions and learn all about technology, arts and crafts, food, robotics, art, transportation and a whole lot more.

Curiosity is also a hallmark of the electoral process. Already, 31 people have filed to run for governor of Connecticut this fall. That’s a huge number — and it mirrors interest across the country in the upcoming midterm elections.

Eighteen of those candidates will be at the Maker Faire. From 12:30 to 2 p.m. at Town Hall, they’ll share their visions and dreams for the state. The Gubernatorial Forum is sponsored by Westport’s League of Women Voters, in conjunction with Maker Faire.

Hopefuls include Democrats, Republicans, independents and unaffiliateds. They come from all across Connecticut.

Two of the 31 candidates are from Westport. Marisa Manly (unaffiliated) will have the shortest trip of anyone. Republican Steve Obsitnik could also have walked there, but has a conflict and can’t make it.

The forum is free, and open to the public.

Every year, Westport’s Maker Faire gets bigger. This year it reaches all the way to the governor’s mansion.

Toby Burns: Westport’s Al Jazeera Connection

At Staples High School, Toby Burns was a Renaissance Man.

He captained the 2002 baseball team (and the year before, helped them win a state championship). He starred in Players’ “Music Man,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Into the Woods.” He sang with Orphenians.

At Harvard he studied Latin and Greek literature, and performed with Hasty Pudding and the Krokodiloes. Burns imagined himself getting a Ph.D., and becoming an academician.

But his artistic impulse was strong. He spent a couple of years after college pursuing Broadway.

Burns missed studying languages though, and headed to the Monterey Institute to learn Arabic.

He also began considering a career in journalism. He calls the field “a combination of what I love. There’s the creative side of telling stories, but it involves a lot of serious research.”

His parents were journalists — his father Eric Burns is a television commentator and author; his mother Dianne Wildman is a producer/reporter/editorialist — but it took a while before Burns realized that all those dinner discussions about current events, and how to cover them with balance, had made an impact.

Toby Burns

He went to Medill School of Journalism, where he focused on international relations, military affairs and diplomacy. He had no formal background in those areas, or even writing. But, Burns says, “I learned a ton about journalism, and how the world operates.”

He landed a job with TheStreet, reporting on oil, energy and cybersecurity. He worked for a production company in Los Angeles, then joined the Hollywood Reporter as a staff writer.

“I did the least sexy stuff there: labor and taxes,” he says.

His friends were in the entertainment world. He was learning about Hollywood from many angles. Still, Burns wanted to use his Arabic skills — and get back into the international arena.

He heard of an opening for assignment editor with Al Jazeera. He interviewed by Skype. They liked him, despite his lack of TV experience.

Which is how Toby Burns is now living and working in Qatar, for one of the largest news organizations in the world.

The learning curve was steep, he admits. For 6 months, he thought he would get fired every day.

He helps run 10 hours of broadcasts a day. He has plenty of resources: Al Jazeera has 80 news bureaus around the globe, and sends teams deep in the field. “This is not like a cable channel that has panels of talking heads,” Burns notes.

“We strive to be a prestige product. We do pure, hard news. We have no sponsors, so we don’t worry about ratings. That’s a real luxury. We just focus on stories with international relevance.”

That’s everything from wars in Syria and Yemen, to Brexit, to secessionist movements like Catalonia, to turmoil in the Trump White House.

To keep up, Burns reads 20 newspapers a day. They include the New York Times, Washington Post, and the leading ones in France, Germany, Russia, South Korea, India, South America — all over the world. He follows the wires for breaking news, and talks with correspondents everywhere.

The day we spoke, he planned coverage for a major water conference in Brazil. It’s a huge issue — and Al Jazeera was sending a crew to quickly shrinking Lake Chad to illustrate it. But it’s not, Burns notes, a story the American press would cover.

The Qatar newsroom mirrors the network’s reach. It’s filled with men and women from the US, Britain, Africa, Asia, and of course the Mideast.

The Al Jazeera newsroom.

It’s extremely exciting — and challenging. “We have to be very sensitive to cultural differences,” Burns explains. “This has reset my objectivity button back to a new level.”

That objectivity means too that a story on foreign meddling in US elections will include Russian voices. “We have to represent the entire globe,” he says.

The biggest story he’s worked on is the Syrian war. “It’s massive. A whole generation has been devastated.” It involves not just Syrians, Americans and Russians, but Turks, Kurds and many other groups.

The geopolitical and military complexities are “staggeringly large,” says Burns. “I’m finally starting to see how to build a comprehensive narrative.”

A scene in central Doha, Qatar.

Each night when Burns leaves the newsroom, his mind races. “There’s a real intellectual high. It’s so stimulating to hear so many different perspectives,” he says.

Plus, of course, “there’s the basic journalistic reward of being first to the story, or getting an angle no one else has.”

Burns knows that the Middle East is “massively misunderstood. There are so many misperceptions and stereotypes in the US.” In Qatar and his travels throughout the region, he’s come to appreciate that “the tapestry of Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions is so much richer than we often appreciate.”

A Christmas tree in the lobby of a Doha luxury hotel. Qatar is more religiously tolerant than many Americans imagine, Toby Burns says.

But Burns gives plenty of credit to his hometown.

“Westport is an incredibly international place,” he says. “There’s a UN Day, with flags. There are wildly diverse people there. At Staples, I saw many different cultures.

“I view this job as an extension of the values I got there. I’m very proud of the international side of the town. I’m honored to have grown up there.”

But although Burns spends much of his time working on geopolitics, the arts — another foundation of his youth in Westport — are never far from his mind.

Soon after arriving in Doha, Burns joined the Qatar Concert Choir. The high-quality group performs classic, contemporary and original music.

Toby Burns is indeed a Renaissance Man.

Spectators watching a military parade, on Qatar National Day.



And In Westport, They Marched For Our Lives Too

All day yesterday, Westporters attended “March For Our Lives” rallies. They traveled to New York, Washington, Hartford and Shelton.

Former Westporters marched in places like Roxbury, Los Angeles, Delray Beach, Florida — and West Palm Beach, getting as close as they could to Mar-a-Lago.

Westporters temporarily finding themselves in places like Patagonia, Chile also marched.

And when it was all over — as dusk was falling — Westporters marched here too.

Over 1,000 friends and neighbors rallied on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge, and on Main Street. Their message was loud and clear: This American scourge must end.

One of many signs, as marchers gathered at the Westport Library. (Photo/Chuck Greenlee)

Poppy Harrington, Marin Banks and Ella Harrington joined over 1,000 Westporters last night. (Photo/Robert Harrington)

On the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge. (Photo/Janette Kinnally)

A small part of the large crowd on the Post Road at Main Street. (Photo/Ellen Lautenberg and Kristan Hamlin)

Senator Richard Blumenthal with “Westport” Megan Brownstein and Melissa Post.

Marchers on Main Street. (Photo/Annette Norton)

Members of the United Methodist Church stood together. (Photo/Ellyn Gelman)

Their message is clear. (Photo/Bridget Curtis)

Rob Feakins was in Washington yesterday. He compiled this short video. It’s a fitting coda to a passionate day.


March For Our Lives: Part 2

Westporters continue to “March For Our Lives.” Here are more photos from alert — and passionate — “06880” readers.

The photo below shows Katie Baker, a Staples High School sophomore. Her mother Gwen writes:

“A few days after the Parkland shooting, she and her fellow gym class peers had to shelter in place in a supply closet. Fortunately, Staples students remained safe — unlike their Parkland counterparts. But the threat of gun violence became more than a political agenda, to these students and others around the country.”

Katie Baker (Photo/Gwen Baker)

The bottom row of victims’ names includes those at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a few miles from Westport. (Photo/Valerie Smith-Malin)

New York Senator and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer joined the Democratic Women of Westport in New York. (Photo/Lisa Newman)

Several Westporters attended the march in Shelton, Connecticut. (Photo/Lauren MacNeill)

Mark and Debbie Ritter joined their daughter Emily (Staples High School Class of 2017, now at George Washington University) in DC — with, he says.”a million people (not fake news). It was a moving and powerful experience, even though we were 4 blocks from the stage.”

More Westport students add their voices to the protest. They’re lining up to march at New York’s Museum of Natural History. (Photo/Nicole Bonn)

Local resident Roseann Spengler in Hartford, with her grandchildren.

Former Westporter John Backiel traveled from Florida to Washington, DC for today’s protest. This sign caught his eye.

If you take photos at tonight’s candlelight vigil in Westport, please send them to “06880” ( We hope to run some of the best ones tomorrow.


They March For Our Lives

Early today, a group of Westport teenagers headed to New York for the anti-gun violence “March for Our Lives.” (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

Democratic Women (and Man) of Westport, in New York. From left: Danielle Dobin, Amy Dowell, Becky Martin, Rob Simmelkjaer, Jen Gorin and Lisa Newman.

The protest at Sturm, Ruger headquarters in Southport. (Photo/Mark Yurkiw)

Saugatuck Elementary School students Owen Hill and Alex Weiner with their signs.

Staples students in New York City. (Photo/Erika Smith)

Former Westporter John Backiel traveled from Florida to Washington, DC for today’s march.

Amy Weiss, in New York City.

And — far from Westport, “at the end of the earth” — Staples High School Class of 2017 graduate Johnny Donovan organized a march for American gap year students.

He’s in Patagonia, Chile. But he’s doing what he can to make all Americans safe.

Students, Selectmen Speak In Hartford On Bump Stock Bill

More than a dozen Westporters traveled to Hartford today. They testified before the Judiciary Committee, supporting a bill that bans bump stocks and related rifle accessories.

Alert “06880” reader Jaimie Dockray reports that at least 11 students were at the state capitol. Lily Kane testified. Kaela Dockray submitted written testimony. She and her mom had to catch a train to Washington for tomorrow’s March For Our Lives.

First Selectman Jim Marpe and Third Selectman Melissa Kane both testified. “They were awesome,” Jaimie Dockray says.

“The chairman of the committee asked their party affiliations, knowing they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. When asked if they agreed on this issue, they emphatically answered ‘yes.’ They said their only problem was keeping their combined testimony to under 3 minutes.”

Lily Kane is interviewed at the Capitol. (Photo/Jaimie Dockray)

Staples Freshman Battles Gun Violence

The Parkland massacre — and a subsequent assault rifle scare at their own school — affected, then galvanized many Staples High students.

Audrey Bernstein and Kaela Dockray met with Florida survivors, and began speaking out. Over 1,000 students participated in last week’s walkout.

Elana Atlas took to the internet.

She’s just a freshman — though you wouldn’t know it from her activism.

Elana Atlas, at work.

First, she composed 3 letters. One is for Republican legislators. Another is for Democrats. The third is for President Trump.

Though each is different, they share the same message: The founding fathers gave all of us rights to life and security. They did not give anyone the right to an AR-15.

“I am not asking you to ban all guns,” Elana writes. “I am asking you to ban the ones that are not necessary, that aren’t our right to have, the ones that are meant for mass killing. These include all automatic and semiautomatic guns, as well as bump stocks.”

Her letter ends, “We are fed up with thoughts and prayers. The time for change is  now.”

Elana distributed the letters to friends across the country, and asked them to pass it on too. She called them templates, which anyone could revise as they wished.

But she wanted even more people to see her letter — and learn about gun issues.

The result is ActionAgainstGunViolence. The strongly researched, well-presented website, is a go-to site for anyone interested in facts, resources and action.

Elana Atlas’ website includes these heartbreaking texts between Parkland High School student Matthew Zeif and his younger brother Ben.

Elana has collected background information on the epidemic of school shootings; texts sent by terrified students in the midst of gunfire; counter-arguments to the “right to bear arms” clause; links to gun safety organizations; advice on how to start your own movement — and of course, her letter templates.

She even cites all her sources. Her teachers have taught her well.

Now — like students all across this town and country — she is taking everything she’s learned in school.

And turning it into action for her country.

(Click here to visit Elana Atlas’ website.)

Marching? Send Photos!

This Saturday (March 24), Westporters will join millions of other Americans, in rallies against gun violence (and the politicians who enable it).

There are “March For Our Lives” marches of every size, and nearly every location.

Westporters will gather at 6:30 p.m. in the Bartaco parking lot, then head over the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge to Main Street.

The biggest event is in Washington, DC. Others in New York and Hartford will draw area residents too.

The “06880” tagline is “Where Westport meets the world.” If you’re marching anywhere, please send photos to Include caption information, and any other details.

And if you’re going to the Ruger demonstration — or will be part of a counter-demonstration there — we’d like to see those images too.

In 2012, protesters on the Post Road bridge raised the issue of gun violence. This Saturday, they’ll cross it — for the same reason.