OLD LYME — Hundreds of protesters carrying signs and chanting in support of black lives and and end to police brutality and systemic racism marched peacefully from Town Hall to the First Congregational Church on Saturday afternoon.
The Rev. Dr. Steven Jungkeit was the first speaker at the podium on the lawn of the church.
“All of us feel a whole lot of different things right now — a sense of grief, a sense of mourning, a sense of outrage, a sense of pain and confusion and yes, maybe just maybe a tiny ray of hope that this will be an opening that will lead to meaningful change, maybe, just maybe,” he said.
Jungkeit questioned the meaning of the rally in a predominantly white town of Old Lyme. He said he attended marches yesterday in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport.
“I do think that now is the time for folks from predominantly white spaces to get into urban zones and to begin marching there as well, so I am going to push you and challenge you to do that,” he said. “But I also want to say it is of vital importance that all of us are gathered here in this moment to say this matters to us, too, in spaces like Old Lyme. We too believe that black lives matter and we too believe that systemic racism has to change and we too believe that we need to dig deep to address those issues and address them well.”
Jungkeit said that four years ago a group from the church took a trip to the South to learn the history of the civil rights movement and when they returned they posted signs outside that read “Black Lives Matter” for a conference on civil rights.
“I need to tell you the response was swift and fierce, just from a few, saying take those signs down now,” he said. “My question to all of you is can you hear those words now? Can we say together Black lives matter,” Jungkeit asked, as the crowd shouted “Black lives matter” in unison several times.
Among the speakers were father and daughter Joseph and Mariame Kazadi, of Old Lyme. The Kazadi family immigrated to the United States in 2016 from the Democratic Republic of Congo after fleeing their home in 2012 because of persecution.
Joseph Kazadi, an attorney, began by leading the audience in a chant, “the people united will never be divided.” He spoke about the Pledge of Allegiance, the Constitution and Bible, and asked whether the United States was upholding its principles.
“I was impressed when I saw ‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. I took the Constitution and read there is no one above the law. I read in the Bible that only justice can lift a nation,” he said. “… It’s about the future of our children… Which kind of society do we want the United States to be? We need to stand upright … Together, united, we keep the United States, not the divided states.”
Mariame Kazadi, who is a graduating senior at Lyme-Old Lyme School, said she studied the history of civil rights in the United States. She said the current protests against the deaths of those killed by police gave her hope for the future of the country.
“I was amazed by the protests in Europe and Asia and this country after the death of George Floyd because I see now the world is finally responding to these deaths, to the cries of Black mothers who have lost their children to police brutality. Because no black person in the United States should have to fear for their life … I don’t have to live in fear of my father’s life, I don’t have to live in fear of my brother’s life. I don’t have to live in fear of my life or my sister’s life. Black lives matter. George Floyd’s life mattered. Breonna Taylor’s life mattered. Say their names.”
State Rep. Devin Carney, quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“We’ve seen injustices in places recently like Minneapolis, like Louisville, like Brunswick, Georgia, that have an impact on our lives here in Lyme and Old Lyme. And we need to take a stand against racism and police brutality and be part of the solution.”
Carney told the audience he was saddened by “the talk” that black parents have with their children about how to act in front of the police.
“It pains me that those types of talks have to be done. Most of us here have never had that talk and we need to get to a point in our society where that talk is no longer necessary,” he said.
The “talk” that Carney said his mother had with him as a young child was about the evils of racism, hatred and discrimnination.
“Those are the types of talks that families around here need to give,” he said, as the crowd whooped and clapped.
“Those are the talks that will move us forward, that will get us to a point where we can end this horrible plague called racism,” he said.
The audience then responded unfavorably to First Selectman Tim Griswold, who suggested thanking the local police for their work in the community.
Griswold began by calling the killing of George Floyd “a very, very reprehensible thing.”
“Of course it promotes the anger and all the reactions that follow. So we say okay, that is bad, so how can we bridge the gap with our police because, really, our police are very vital,” he said.
Griswold said Old Lyme has a state trooper and six officers who work in the schools with children who need help and are often first responders for medical and other emergencies. He said many have served the town for more than 15 years and are always ready to help.
“So I think it is important that here in Old Lyme we are lucky to have police who we know and trust and they know our community. If we could engender that cooperation between the police and citizens throughout other parts of the country, wouldn’t that be wonderful? I expect that most people in town would not fear the police and wouldn’t that be wonderful,” he said. “So I think if we try to do our bit here, we would urge that we thank our police and…”
At that point the crowd began to shout loudly, cutting Griswold short.
From the audience, Peter Marcello of Middletown stepped forward and challenged Griswold, asking whether he had tried to talk with the minority community about how they feel about the police.
“Sir, sir, have you had the opportunity to ask the minority community if they feel like you do? Answer that. Have you asked them if they feel like you do?” Marcello asked, as he held up his cardboard sign to Griswold.
Griswold asked, “Do the police feel like we do?”
“No, I’m asking if you asked African Americans in a minority community if they feel like you do on this subject?” Marcello said.
“Of the police?” Griswold responded.
“It might be true, it might be true, but you need to ask,” Marcello said. “Would you read this sign to me, please? ”
“Petitioning police units for significant negotiated reforms,” Griswold read aloud from Marcello’s sign.
“That’s one of the things we’re doing here today,” said Marcello.
“What exactly is …” Griswold began to ask, but the crowd’s clapping and cheering drowned him out with shouts of “Black lives matter!”
“I think they do matter. I think we can discuss this at another time. All right, thank you,” Griswold said, as the crowd continued to clap and chant.
The organizer of the rally, Dave Rubino, a human rights attorney, who is the Democratic candidate for state representative, was next to speak but he offered the microphone to Marcello, who said he wanted to speak.
“All anyone has to do right now is google ‘police reform’ and you’ll see wonderful, simple police reform that can be put in place,” said Marcello.
Some of the reforms included body cams, anti-racism training, screening of the existing police force and new hires, creating a database of abusive officers and changing the culture of police work so that officers can report one another’s mistakes.
When Rubino took the podium, he said that in his work as a human rights attorney overseas, he hadn’t considered how different the American experience is for people of color.
“As a white man I cannot claim to truly comprehend the rage, the pain, the sorrow and the fear that the African American communities are experiencing, but I know it is real. And I know it’s been real for years, for decades and for centuries because it is based on a broken system or maybe a system that was never built correctly to begin with, a system that has consistently oppressed people of color economically, commercially, politically, educationally and physically,” he said.
Rubino said the pattern has to stop because there are too many George Floyds.
“I don’t suggest anything we say or do here today will move the needle. What will move the needle is that we all do this as a journey and if we all commit to ourselves that no matter how long that journey takes, no matter how treacherous that road is, we will keep walking forward,” he said.
He urged the audience to donate, to raise their voices, to write letters to their representatives and to vote.
Rubino said he had heard rumors that he had organized the rally simply as a campaign tactic but emphasized that human rights was his lifelong work, which the rally reflected.
To conclude his speech, Rubino invited the audience to take a knee “in memory of George Floyd and all the others who came before him,” as the church bell rang twice.
The rally also included the reading aloud a list names of black people who have been killed by police and a moment of silence in honor of those who had died.
Several of the other speakers included Selectman Mary Jo Nosal, The Rev. Dr. Anita Louise Schell of St. Ann’s in Old Lyme, and Associate Pastor Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.