Category Archives: Politics

“This Town Was Built By Dreamers”

As political leaders debate the fate of Dreamers — 800,000 undocumented migrants who arrived in the US before the age of 16 — a small group of Westporters stood on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen downtown bridge this afternoon, protesting President Trump’s proposed repeal of the DACA program.

Holding a sign festooned with flags of various countries — including the US and Italy — the group reminded passing motorists that Westport owes a great debt to immigrants.

Laws were much looser in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the ancestors of many Westporters came here to work.

Darcy Hicks, Melissa Kane, Sarah Kempner and Lauren Soloff, with their message. (Photo/Theo Koskoff)

Midway through the event, a car stopped. Two men got out, and approached the group.

Slowly, Jose and Robert shook the hands of every protester. They thanked the group for representing them.

Both men are Dreamers.

Then they got back in their car, and drove off.

They were on their way to work.

One of the Dreamers, thanking a protester. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Buckets And Banners

Two Westport religious institutions have announced important projects.

Saugatuck Congregational Church is collecting supplies to assemble emergency cleanup buckets for hurricane damage in Texas and Florida.

The initiative — part of Church World Service — is open to all Westporters. The goal is to create one or more 5-gallon buckets with resealable lids. Contents should include:

  • 4 scouring pads
  • 7 sponges (1 of them large)
  • 1 scrub brush
  • 18 reusable cleaning towels (like Easy Wipes)
  • 1 50 ounce or 2 25 ounce bottles of liquid laundry detergent
  • 1 16-28 ounce bottle of liquid disinfectant dish soap
  • 1 12-16 ounce bottle of household cleaner that can be mixed with water (no spray bottles)
  • 1 package of 48-50 clothespins
  • 1 100-foot or 2 50 foot clotheslines
  • 5 dust masks
  • 2 pairs of non-surgical latex gloves
  • 1 pair of work gloves, cotton with leather palm or all leather
  • 24-28 heavy duty or contractor-type 30-45 gallon trash bags on a roll, removed from carton
  • 1 6-9 ounce bottle of non-aerosol insect repellent.

A clean-up bucket.

All cleaning items must be new. Liquid items must be capped and securely tightened. Place all items into the bucket, packed securely. Snap the lid on tight, and seal with packing tape.

The bucket should be cleaned well. It cannot have held chemicals of any kind.

Buckets can be dropped off behind Saugatuck Church by this Saturday (September 16). Signs say “Clean-up Bucket” at the drop-off point.

You can provide items from the list too, without buckets. Church members will assemble buckets on Sunday, and arrange for transportation.

Funds can be donated too, to defray costs. Checks made payable to Saugatuck Congregational Church (with “emergency buckets” in the memo line) can be sent to 245 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880 (attention: Dana Johnson).

Buckets can be dropped off behind the Saugatuck Congregational Church.

“This is a great way for a family, school group or neighborhood to lend a much-needed hand,” says co-coordinator Melissa Banks.

“As someone who had to clean Superstorm Sandy debris from my home, I know this thoughtful gift of kindness in an overwhelming experience would be greatly appreciated.”

“Damage is massive. It’s hard to know how best to respond to a crisis,” adds Rev. Alison J. Buttrick Patton.

“This project gives us a concrete way to contribute to flood recovery. These buckets are desperately needed, and have a huge, positive impact. We’d love to be overrun by buckets assembled by the many caring and dedicated hands in Westport.”

Questions? Email dana@saugatuckchurch.org.


Meanwhile, the Unitarian Church prepares for the re-dedication of its Black Lives Matter banner this Sunday (September 17, 12:30 p.m.). Community and faith leaders have been invited to attend. Everyone is welcome.

At the dedication last October, Rev. Dr. John Morehouse said, “It is our intention for this banner to open a dialogue with others in our community about race, and our role in ending racism.”

Church officials say that happened. People called to support, question and disagree with the banner. Conversations were respectful and civil.

Last month, however, the banner was removed. No one has been identified, and no motive is clear.

All that remained of the “Black Lives Matter” banner last month.. (Photo/David Vita)

Rev. Morehouse calls the outpouring of support in the weeks since the incident “tremendous. Our community has proclaimed that hate has no home here. If necessary we will replace this sign and every other sign which is vandalized and stolen. We will not be intimidated by the forces of bigotry and hate.”

The new banner was purchased with donated funds.

The Unitarian Church banner.

Bob Knoebel’s Dreamer

For 29 years, Bob Knoebel was a revered Westport YMCA Water Rats swim coach and aquatics director. The 1971 Staples High School graduate now enjoys a 2nd career in Idaho, as an equally well-respected fishing guide.

Bob is also the godfather of a young man named Enrique. In the wake of President Trump’s decision to end DACA — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for 800,000 people — he sent along these thoughts:

If you grew up in Westport, you were accustomed to your mom driving you to soccer or swimming practice, making sure you were at your games or meets on time.

Your parents were at every game. They cheered — or better yet, acted as volunteer coaches or officials.

Bob Knoebel

They also made sure you had everything you needed to succeed in school — the proper supplies, a dedicated place to study — and had regular contact with your teachers.

You took music lessons, dance lessons, swimming lessons or became an Eagle Scout. Your parents were probably college educated, and helped you navigate the college process.

Even if you didn’t realize it, they were looking over your shoulder — just to make sure. Lucky you, lucky me for being fortunate enough to grow up in Westport and graduate from Staples.

Imagine for a moment your parents don’t speak English. They have less than a high school education. You live in a trailer.

At 9 years old you missed a soccer game because you had to act as an interpreter/negotiator for your dad when he bought a goat from a local rancher, or needed you to go to the junkyard to do the same for parts for the family truck.

Your most important role in the family is what you can provide in terms of financial support.

To top it off, your mom doesn’t drive.

Imagine if you lived in fear that ICE might show up at your home to deport your mom or dad. Imagine the relief you would feel if you were offered a level of protection that the Obama-era program known as DACA provided you.

You could do the things your schoolmates take for granted, like get a driver’s license or summer job.

I am the “padrino” (godfather) for Enrique, a DACA-protected 17-year-old who is a high school senior here in Idaho.

He has more grit than you came imagine, because of challenges like these. He has completed 5 AP courses, and is taking 3 more this year. He started a tutoring program at the middle school to help other 1st-generation college  hopefuls, and recruited friends to help.

Enrique is a top student.

Enrique works after school, interning at an engineering firm. He plays saxophone in the band, and belongs to the National Honor Society and Key Club.

Trout Unlimited chose him last summer to attend a national leadership conference in Montana.

Bob Knoebel and Enrique.

He is the first Hispanic player on his high school lacrosse team, and was the top-scoring underclassman last year.

Enrique wants to go to college. Not because he hopes to change the world, but for a more humble reason: to help his family.

He’s counting on a scholarship to a private university, because he does not qualify for in-state tuition at Idaho schools.

He never complains, gets stressed or worries about his future, because he believes in the goodness of America and the promises it offers to those who work hard.

He’s not worried that the Trump administration has announced an end to DACA. He believes that Congress will act with compassion when deciding his fture, and that of 800,000 others.

In a senior class of just over 200, there are 14 other DACA-protected students alone.

It’s a world away from Staples.

But it’s Enrique’s reality. He is making the best of it.

Among many other things, Enrique is a star lacrosse player.

Marpe: Police, Fire Pension Contracts Now Up For Ratification

Following this morning’s post on the Westport police union’s stance on pension contract negotiations, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe issued this statement:

Both the police and firefighter union executive boards have reached agreement with the town on their pension contracts, and are presenting them to their membership for ratification.

We value all Westport employees including those in our public safety departments and are pleased that these agreements have been reached.

Ratification or rejection of those pension contracts is the next step. “06880” will report on those votes, when they are taken.

Former Westport Rabbi Takes National Stand Against Hatred

On Thursday, a front-page New York Times story reported on the reaction of 4 major rabbinical groups to Charlottesville.

The organizations — representing a variety of Jewish religious practices — strongly criticized President Trump’s reaction to the carnage. They also announced they would not participate in a traditional High Holy Days conference call with the president.

The Times quoted Rabbi Jonah Pesner —  director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — as saying that Jews were appalled by Trump’s equivocal response to the events.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Pesner — who participated in 2 High Holy Days calls during the Obama administration — said there was “a lot of sadness” about the decision not to speak with Trump.

Westporters remember Pesner as assistant rabbi of Temple Israel from 1997 to 1999.

“Those of us who were privileged to work with and learn from him knew that he was destined to accomplish much,” recalls former senior rabbi Robert Orkand.

“Indeed, he went on to serve with great distinction at Temple Israel in Boston, and as a senior vice president of the Union of Reform Judaism before assuming his current position.”

Orkand is “proud to call Rabbi Pesner my friend, colleague and teacher. And I am proud that his leadership has led the religious movement I served for more than 40 years to take a courageous stand in opposition to bigotry and hatred.”

(Hat tip: Susan Farewell)

Church’s “Black Lives Matter” Banner Vandalized

It was unclear whether a recent toilet-paper incident near Old Mill Beach was related to a “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker on the homeowner’s car.

But there’s no mistaking this vandalism.

Westport’s Unitarian Church is known for its focus on diversity, inclusion, openness and dedication to social justice. Its handsome building in the woods off Lyons Plains Road provides a safe haven for individuals, groups and causes of many kinds.

Last October — after a series of fatal police shootings of blacks — the church dedicated a “Black Lives Matter” banner. Speakers at the dedication included TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey; State Senator Toni Boucher; 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, and Rev. Alison Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church.

The Unitarian Church’s banner.

Unitarian Church representatives say the sign was “just a first step to engage with members of the congregation, local officials, interfaith clergy, and the community to affirm the need for dialogue and non-violent action towards the ending of racism in our society.”

When the banner went up, church officials fielded a number of phone calls. Some were supportive and thankful. Some were questioning. Some were opposed.

David Vita — director of social justice — says, “It made for lively, respectful conversations.”

In the early hours of Thursday morning — just days after neo-Nazis, the KKK and other hate groups marched in Charlottesville — the banner was ripped from its post.

The empty signpost.

Vita says, “It’s hard not to connect the destruction of the banner with a changed political climate, and an emboldened rise in racism.”

Senior minister Rev. Dr. John Morehouse adds, “We presume that those who took our sign feel that by removing it, they repudiate its message that black lives matter just as much as any other life.”

Marpe notes, “Given the current climate in this country and the state, the administration of our town and the Westport Police Department will not stand for this behavior. We will dedicate our resources to identifying the person or persons responsible for this vandalism. We urge our community to be respectful of the opinions of others and their right to express them, even if they may differ from their own. Hatred and bigotry are not welcome here.”

Police Chief Foti Koskinas says, “We support and respect the Unitarian Church, its members and their message of inclusiveness, equality and tolerance.  The police department is working with the church administration to prevent further incidents.”

All that remains of the “Black Lives Matter” banner. (Photo/David Vita)

The church is moving forward. This Sunday’s 10 a.m. service — planned before the incident — is “Heart of Racial Justice.”

Meanwhile, Morehouse promises to replace this sign. If it’s vandalized, it too will be replaced.

That will continue, he says, “until such a time as all lives — black, brown, gay or marginalized — matter as much as white lives do. We will not be intimidated by the forces of bigotry and hate.”

And, he notes, he will commit $100 to the NAACP whenever the banner is vandalized again.

(Anyone with information regarding the vandalism should call the Police Department detective bureau: 203-341-6080.)

Not Funny At All

At first glance, the early morning scene near Old Mill Beach looked funny — a Halloween prank several months early:

Toilet paper in a tree. No biggie. A bit of cleanup required.

Kids will be kids. Ha ha!

But then neighbors read this note, posted to a tree:

Suddenly, things were not so funny.

In fact, they turned deadly serious.

Because here is one of the stickers, on the homeowner’s car:

(Photos/Katherine Bruan)

Heather Hightower: The Charlottesville I Know

Heather Hightower graduated from Staples High School in 1999, and the University of Virginia 4 years later. She’s still in Charlottesville, where she’s the founder and owner of The Center for Vocal Study (and choir director at Field School).

In the aftermath of that city’s domestic terrorism incident — as the world tries to figure out what to make of her adopted hometown — she emailed “06880.” Heather says:

The Charlottesville I know is full of caring, good, hardworking people who actively seek to improve the lives of others.

The Charlottesville I know cares about its children, its small business owners, its food sources, its historical mark on this nation.

The Charlottesville I know is full of people who take the time to read about the issues and who then give careful consideration to how to best support the highest good.

The Charlottesville I know had people attending lectures on historical roots of racism, prayer vigils and other peaceful forms of activism the nights and weeks leading into this past weekend’s events.

Heather Hightower

The Charlottesville I know is committed to the values our nation holds dear, including diversity and freedom of speech.

The Charlottesville I know has the strength and presence of mind in its residents and leaders to tackle major issues and work towards resolution. We have faced some difficult issues in the past few years that have sparked national conversation. The events of this weekend, amplified by participants from out of town, do not represent the heart of Charlottesville. This city is strong, thoughtful, kind and cares about its neighbors and where we are going as a community.

The Charlottesville that will prevail is one powered by good. We have a marvelous opportunity to demonstrate how to lead in a time of crisis. It begins with how we conduct these conversations and how we rise to keep working towards change that builds community. Our community is listening, it is acting, and our artists are shining brightly.

 

Selectmen Sign ADL Pledge

All 3 Westport selectmen — Jim Marpe, Avi Kaner and Helen Garten — have signed an Anti-Defamation League petition. It requests that President Trump “publicly and unequivocally disavow white supremacy.”

The statement reads:

The White House’s repeated failure to stand up to white supremacy and other forms of domestic extremism emboldens and allows its perpetrators to increase their visibility.

Now is the time for President Trump to name the hate and acknowledge that this is not a matter of equivalence between two sides with similar gripes.

The White House’s refusal to disavow white supremacist ideology as a growing source of extremist violence empowers and abets its perpetrators.

President Trump must personally and unequivocally disavow white supremacy and end the White House’s enabling and tolerating its rise.

To truly take a stand, we urge President Trump to also terminate all staff with any ties to these extremists. There is no rationale for employing people who excuse hateful rhetoric and ugly incitement.

 

Hate Has No Home Here

The weekend’s horrific events in Charlottesville shined a spotlight on the despicable, bigoted, anti-American groups and individuals now crawling out from under the rocks where they’ve hidden for years.

It also gave fresh momentum to a no-hate movement that’s been building here in Westport.

Earlier this summer, Bedford Middle School teacher Kerstin Rao visited Evanston, Illinois. She spotted several lawn signs:

Kerstin was staying with her husband’s cousin. Both men were born in India. Like Kerstin, her husband’s cousin is in a mixed marriage.

Pushing a stroller with her relatives’ infant daughter, and seeing similar signs on every street, gave Kerstin a “truly inclusive” feeling.

She vowed to bring that feeling back to Westport.

Online, she found the website for what was becoming a national movement. Organizers laid down a few simple rules: It could not be a fundraiser; it could not be political or partisan; the original design could not be altered, and the yard signs had to be sold at cost.

“This is truly a grassroots effort to show our welcoming hearts,” Kerstin says.

She learned that a few areas in Connecticut already had signs. She bought one from a Milford friend.

When Kerstin wrote about the movement on Jane Green’s “Westport Front Porch” Facebook page, the response was immediate. She organized a meeting at Barnes & Noble.

Baker Graphics offered a great price for printing. Steam Coffee at the Greens Farms train station offered to sell the signs to commuters.

The group that met at Barnes & Noble last week loved that the project is non-partisan. They vowed to include people from a wide spectrum to help spread the “no hate” message.

On Sunday, Kerstin and her husband Vijay brought their red-and-blue sign to the demonstration on the Post Road bridge:

“Peace is non-partisan,” Kerstin notes. “We are not affiliated with any political party, religion or cause. We just want to put a message in our neighborhoods that hate has no home here.”

She adds, “As a teacher, I imagine students of various backgrounds heading back to school, maybe feeling nervous. Maybe this will be their first year in Westport schools. The thought of them looking out their bus windows and seeing so many welcoming signs — well, that is really wearing our hearts on our sleeves.”

(The no-hate group has set up a fundraising page (click here). Donations will pay for printing only. To volunteer for the effort, email hhnhhwestport@gmail.com.)