One of Westport’s largest political protests since the Vietnam War drew a crowd of about 1,500 to downtown Westport this afternoon.
Organized by young people — and overwhelmingly young, but with families and at least one 80-year-old woman — the event was loud, enthusiastic, and peaceful.
A number of attendees were from Westport. Others came from surrounding towns and cities, including Norwalk, Bridgeport and Stamford. Many carried homemade signs.
Ten days after the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, the crowd chanted “I can’t breathe,” “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace.”
Floyd’s death — and similar actions around the country — was the catalyst. But placards invoked other black people killed in the country, and an array of injustices.
(Photo/Jennifer Meerow Berkiner)
Bobbi Brown — the youngest member of Bridgeport’s Board of Education — set the tone as the event began, on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge. The symbolism was apt: That’s the site of some of the most memorable political protests in Westport. And this afternoon’s demonstration was, in part, a bridge between a wealthy white suburb, and its more socioeconomically and demographically diverse neighbors.
Brown spoke passionately about the need for involvement, education and activism. She was joined by several other young black leaders.
But she also handed the megaphone to a variety of speakers. A young autistic white man spoke of his marginalization. A young white woman in a wheelchair cried as she talked about supporting her black friend.
Westporter Mary-Lou Weisman said, “I’m in my 80s. My generation failed you. We have hope you can do what we didn’t do.”
Holding the hand of a 7-year-old white girl, Brown noted, “It’s up to us to make the world better and safer for her, and everyone.”
The crowd — growing bigger by the minute — then marched the short distance from the bridge to police headquarters.
Chief Foti Koskinas told the crowd, “You are making sense. You are making a difference. We are listening.”
More speakers took the megaphone by the station house. Everyone took a knee.
A half-white, half-Filipino college student said, “We were born into an enormous amount of privilege. We can walk around freely. But Westport cannot ignore injustice. We need to use our privilege to do better.”
The group then massed back on the bridge. The speakers, chants, pleas for justice and promises to act continued.
“Are you fired up?” one speaker asked the crowd.
“Yes!” they roared back. “Fired up!”
Police Chief Foti Koskinas promised to keep this in police headquarters.
State Senator Will Haskell was in the crowd, handing out masks.
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.)
For the 3rd year in a row, TEAM Westport challenged teenagers to confront some harsh realities.
For the 3rd time, they responded.
Westport’s multicultural town commission invited high school students at any school in town — or Westporters attending high school elsewhere — to consider this prompt:
In the past year a troubling number of highly charged and tragic incidents – from Ferguson to Charleston to Chicago – have prompted public discussions and protests on college campuses about the state of race relations in the U.S. People disagree on the nature of the problem and on the appropriate way to address divisions in our society. In 1,000 words or less, describe how you, personally, make sense of the events that have occurred.
This year’s winner — announced tonight at a ceremony in the Westport Library — is Jacob Klegar. The Choate Rosemary Hall student — who won last year’s contest too — receives $1,000 (and the opportunity for his essay to appear here, on “06880”). A senior, he heads to Harvard University next fall.
Silver medalist Ellie Shapiro (Staples High School) earns $750, while Ali Tritschler (Greens Farms Academy) wins $500.
TEAM Westport contest judges (from left) Jaina Shaw and Dr. Judith Hamer, and (far right) Mary-Lou Weisman flank winners Ellie Shapiro, Ali Tritschler and Jacob Klegar.
Congratulations to all! Now read — and reflect on — Jacob’s excellent response.
October 20, 2015: a University of Missouri graduate student goes on hunger strike protesting racial slurs on campus; the football team refuses to play until the president of the university resigns.
November 13, 2015: Yale University students protest over culturally appropriating Halloween costumes. November 11, 2015: Claremont McKenna students hunger strike. November 18, 2015: a Princeton University sit-‐in.
Across the country, the Black Lives Matter movement and a number of other social justice groups have brought racial discrimination to the forefront of society’s attention. The movement, like any that pushes for major change, has not been without backlash, whether in the form of physical violence against protesters or, more symbolically, in the anonymous act of placing tape over the portraits of black Harvard Law School professors.
Jacob Klegar, reading his essay tonight at the Westport Library.
I support the Black Lives Matter movement and all they have done to bring attention to police brutality and other forms of racial injustice. But I believe it is time for a shift in goals. Society has been saturated with discussion of the deaths of innocent black citizens – it is now time to solve the problem through legislation. The best, most thorough way to fix the underlying societal problem that has caused these deaths is to make far-reaching changes to housing and education – a transformation that must originate with the government.
The tumultuous decade of the 1960s was the last time protests of this magnitude burst out over racial issues. We remember this era for Martin Luther King Jr., whose nonviolent protests to end segregation make for heroic stories that are told in every middle school in America. It is of little surprise, then, that the legislative acts that turned desegregation into law have been somewhat overshadowed – Brown vs. the Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were the measures that firmly laid the Jim Crow “separate but equal” statutes in the dust.
My reason for mentioning these is to emphasize that grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter have their best chance of becoming successful by working through the current established system of law. Many people are now passionate about racial justice, and nearly everyone is at the very least aware of the cause – it is time to turn social pressure into real results, time to lobby Congress and bring cases to the Supreme Court to effect the movement’s ultimate goals.
This plan of action begs the question of what, in fact, the legislative and regulatory goals of the movement should be. I believe that they should focus on the root of the problem – the underlying, often subconscious racism in our society. Some ideas that have been suggested concentrate too narrowly on the police themselves, such as the often-‐repeated idea of putting cameras on law enforcement.
Measures like this one would help to convict police officers who make racist attacks, and it would perhaps prevent a portion of these attacks by keeping the police more attentive, but I do not believe that these deaths would stop occurring. Instead, the focus should be on educating our nation’s youth, putting them in an environment where different races are acknowledged but treated as equally as, say, different academic interests.
TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey (left) and First Selectman Jim Marpe (right) congratulate Jacob Klegar.
How can such a major shift in societal mindset be accomplished? I suggest a combination of teaching a respect for different races – which is already being done, to some degree, in classes like US History – and, more importantly, putting students in an actual diverse environment from a young age. The largest obstacle to solving America’s race problem is the segregation of black and white communities, often a result of historical happenstance and socioeconomic background.
For example, cheap inner-city housing is inhabited by those of a lower socioeconomic background, often giving rise to a predominately black community. Conversely, suburban areas like Westport usually have higher costs of living, and the result is a largely white population. Government-‐mandated cheaper housing units in wealthier neighborhoods would add diversity to schools, and if instituted on a wide scale, could do much to eradicate racist undertones from the thoughts of the next generation.
As for the protests on college campuses themselves, I support the intent, as well as the execution – for the most part. The spread of awareness of racial issues is unquestionably a positive idea, as is the elimination of racist practices and microagressions, often unintentional, from people’s behavior.
The aspect with which I do take issue, however, is the environment that makes it difficult to speak conservative opinions on these campuses without the hushing cries that label the speech as offensive. When a college only invites speakers espousing liberal views, it can be alienating to those with other opinions.
It is not the approach an institution of education should take – rather, it should promote real discussion, inviting speakers to campus whose opinions may be unpopular with much of the student body. Helping students understand each others’ opinions should be a cornerstone of any college’s goals – and besides, understanding how others think is the most effective way to change their minds. The Black Lives Matter movement is an important voice, one that has not been heard nearly enough until only recently, but it should not be so loud as to drown out others.
Black Lives Matter has done much to combat racial injustice. While the movement does have a tendency to quiet conflicting opinions, its spread of awareness and passion for the cause of racial justice far outstrip its relatively minor defects. The next step in the effort is to effect far-‐reaching change through the established governmental process, by lobbying Congress or passing cases up to the Supreme Court. Laws that serve to desegregate housing and teach respect for all races through our education system would do much to solve the racial tensions in our society.
The events that have occurred reflect poorly on our country, and they require major changes to correct them. The people are prepared – now is the time to combat racism head-‐on.
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