Residents Pack Old Lyme Town Hall to Debate a Racism Resolution

OLD LYME — In a packed town hall meeting on Monday afternoon, residents spoke passionately for and against a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis — to wild applause on both sides — while two state troopers, one Old Lyme policeman and the police dog “Tazz” stood guard in the foyer. 

The resolution has only appeared on three meeting agendas — on Sept. 8, 2020, Sept. 22, 2020, and Oct. 5, 2020, — and was not on the agenda for Monday, but Selectman Mary Jo Nosal has asked the Board of Selectmen to consider a resolution at every meeting since August 2020.

First Selectman Tim Griswold and Selectman Chris Kerr have declined to consider the resolution, and in many meetings, would not discuss the matter. 

About 22 towns of Connecticut’s 169 towns have adopted similar resolutions since 2020, including Old Saybrook, Bridgeport, Colchester, New London, Farmington and Hartford.

Over the weekend, word spread online that Lyme and Old Lyme Democrats were planning to attend the meeting in support of Nosal. Griswold, in a conversation after the meeting had adjourned, said that an emailed “call to arms” had also circulated to oppose the resolution. 

“I think there was an email that when it was learned there was going to be a real effort to get people to come here to push the resolution, it was like ‘general quarters, call to arms.’ ‘You’ve got to come to the meeting if you feel strongly that you don’t like the resolution,’” he said. 

Griswold said he was not aware there would be officers in the building for the meeting and did not call Troop F.

“I let the trooper know that there was going to be a big crowd and I said we may need some help to limit the capacity if we have an overflow crowd. I think we fit barely with what we had,” he said. “I did not recommend that we have one, two or three policemen in the building but it just keeps an eye and makes sure tempers didn’t flare or anything, but more so for the capacity,” he said. 

A spokesman for Troop F said that no one from Old Lyme had called the barracks to ask for the state troopers to come to town hall. 

“Any special events — they go and they provide security for people attending because regardless of which, it’s something we do for every party,” he said. 

Public comment

At the meeting, Nosal made a motion for the board to discuss the resolution, but the motion died without a second from the two Republican selectmen — but with the room full to capacity, the board then voted to hear public comment before most other items on the agenda.

George Clough, a resident who called in to the meeting, said he had spoken in favor of the resolution at the April 5 Board of Selectmen meeting and had been “dismissed.” He said that the resolution that Lyme passed on July 6, could be a model for Old Lyme. 

“I think that their resolution on how to create a positive, affirmative statement on this situation could give us some guidance on how to address the issue without people from both sides feeling that we’re just saying we’re either racist individuals or a racist community.”

Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager, a resident of Old Lyme and senior associate minister of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, told the board that the resolution symbolically sends a message to the wider public that “racism does impact all of us.” 

“It’s not saying that I’m a racist, or you’re a racist. It’s saying that racism is something in this country that we all have to grapple with and it is a public health crisis,” she said. 

A portion of the crowd applauded loudly as she ended her two allotted minutes of speaking time.

Rev. Steve Jungkeit of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme said that he and representatives from three other local churches had welcomed a family of refugees from Afghanistan two days ago to their new home in Old Lyme. He said he was repeating his request that the board pass the resolution as a way to set the tone for other residents in making the family feel welcome in Old Lyme. 

“I stand here in part because of that new family from Afghanistan. They don’t speak a language that most of us recognize. They dress differently than most of us and they worship differently as well. The pigment of their skin is darker than most of ours in this room. They will stand out in a community such as ours,” said Jungkeit. “That’s why we need all of us and our Board of Selectmen to go out of our way, to go out of your way, to ensure that they do feel welcome and protected in this particular environment. 

Loud applause followed. 

A Lyme-Old Lyme High School senior named Mary, said she spoke on behalf of many students in the community “whose voices are often overlooked.” 

“It is crucial that you support the resolution to declare racism as a public health crisis because we need to take this first important step in healing racism. And I know that many of you think that the [resolution] will somehow paint our town in a negative light, but I disagree. I think that it will show that we care and that we realize that there’s a problem and that we’re willing to take steps to change… I want to be able to tell my kids that our town is on the right side of history.”

Enthusiastic clapping followed. 

Another Old Lyme resident said that she had seen a number of refugee families move to Old Lyme over the last five years, but only one family remains because there is no affordable housing in town. 

“One of the reasons I support this resolution is that it will require towns to look deeply into regulations, specifically to zoning regulations that are designed by intent or otherwise, to keep housing very expensive, and the result being that people of have lower incomes, probably other minorities or people of other communities can’t afford to live here,” she said. 

Eileen Kane, who said she was a new resident of Old Lyme, said she supported the resolution because it would ultimately commit the community to learn more about structures and policies that have created health disparities.

‘It is not controversial in the medical community to say racism negatively impacts health. [The resolution is] asking ourselves to educate ourselves about state policies, things like redlining and covenant deed restrictions on real estate that have made the segregated world that we live in in the United States,” she said.

A resident named Charlie said he had lived in Old Lyme since the age of five and had never heard anyone say anything racist. He said that now everyone is considered a racist. 

“One of the most beloved teachers in the high school was Fred Chapelle, a French teacher who happened to be black. Nobody ever made any notice that the guy was black,” he said. “Now everybody’s racist. We’re judging the past by today’s standards, because we’re so evil… In New York, they’re taking the Jefferson statue away — did anybody get to vote on that? No, because it’s all racist. Everybody’s racist. I’m really, really sick and tired of it.” 

The crowd erupted into loud applause, with shouts and whistles. 

Anthony Corrao, said he moved to Old Lyme in 1970 and raised four children in the Old Lyme schools. 

“In 42 years of practice in Old Lyme, I can honestly say I never really, really considered or heard anything of a racist nature bandied about. It just did not exist. Old Lyme is a beautiful, nurturing town. We welcome newcomers. We never look at color, creed, or ethnicity. I also agree we probably need more low cost housing. I heard that comment that 91 percent of Old Lyme is white but that has nothing to do with racism. I adamantly oppose this resolution for many reasons — it opens a door we don’t want to go through.” 

A resident named Judy said she resented that “everyone is trying to make us feel that we are racist.” 

“I have lived in town for 31 years and as far as I can see, there is no racism in here… It’s not just this town, it’s the entire world pitting us against each other, right? This is not a racist community.” 

She received a long round of applause.

Steven Wilson, a member of the Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education, read aloud a letter from Steve Ross that said that Nosal’s “sole argument” to adopt the resolution has been that “other towns have done so.” 

“I believe that 22 towns have issued such a resolution which means that 147 have not — and that puts the issue into perspective. She has not presented any data or evidence to indicate racism is a problem in Old Lyme,” wrote Ross. 

Lee Cantner asked Nosal to differentiate between race issues and racism.

“That’s big. I mean, if we look and say, okay, the slums of a town are a race problem, there’s a racial problem there. That doesn’t mean necessarily a racial crisis or systemic racism. I agree with the gentleman here — it doesn’t exist. It is not a crisis in this town.”

A resident who did not give her name said she was concerned about the potential consequences on the education system if the resolution were passed. 

“We live in a world where if 99 people cannot be affected by something and one person is, it may have nothing to do with race, and that is automatically labeled a racist issue. So my concern is, resolution can lead to what down the road — taking things away from our kids.” 

Sheila Riffle, who said she was a new resident, proposed that the Board of Selectmen put together a focus group with a professional to facilitate discussions about different points of view. 

“I would love to sit down with that person with a facilitator whose skill is to help all of us unpack what we see as racist or not racist, and just look at humanity as a whole and stop being so fragmented…. If we could have somebody help us with discussions, I have a feeling we would probably be able to find more common ground, instead of rolling our eyes at each other, and cheering each other’s comments, we can come together — and this is a topic to help us do that. We have people from a whole variety of perspectives.”

Barbara Fallon, a resident and retired physician, spoke in favor of the resolution.

“I’ve seen many, many papers that show evidence of the disparity in care for people of color and the most striking is for African American versus white, but any race that’s a minority,” she said. “I think that what this resolution is trying to bring forward is not labeling people racist. It’s identifying the fact that systemic problems have led to inequity… the point is to open up our understanding.” 

Both Fallon and resident Isabelle Barber, who said she was a public health professional, requested that the resolution be read aloud, which Griswold agreed to later on.

Bud Canady, who said he’d been a resident of Old Lyme for about 30 years, called the resolution a “Trojan horse.” He said that percentages of white people in a town do not reflect the town’s attitude toward race and to approve the resolution would be tacitly admitting there is racism in Old Lyme. 

He received loud applause with whoops and whistles. 

Barbara Crowley, who owns the Chocolate Shell, asked what it would mean for the town if the resolution is approved.

Griswold ended the public comment. He said the resolution was not moved for adoption and it was “a dead issue at this point, but later on, who knows?”  

At the end of the meeting, Nosal said she wanted to discuss the resolution another time.  

Nosal said that she had shared research with the board showing that resolutions from various towns reflected ways of addressing diversity and making sure that there is equity and inclusion in their policy setting.  

Among other research, she said she had shared information about Livingston, Montana, a town of about 7,800 people.

“They recognized that, especially during COVID, there was room for improvement, in addressing going forward how they hired, the policies they put in place at a government level, to ensure they were looking at things with an equitable lens,” she said. “I just thought that was really germane to this board since August 2020.” 

Nosal said she has been surprised that the board cannot discuss the resolution. 

“It is a value statement. It has no legal bearing. This is a statement that this board wants to recognize in all the policies that they set, that it will be looked at with an equitable lens. It does not have the rule of law — I made that clear,” she said. 

“I was really hoping that this town would take the lead in this discussion and if we are so perfect, why don’t we discuss it?,” Nosal asked. “If we’ve figured it all out, and we have secret sauce, why don’t we share that information?”

She also expressed hope that there would be an avenue to move forward with the measure. 

“I still remain hopeful and maybe with some of the public’s help who were here tonight that we’ll develop some kind of public forum and we’ll move forward,” she said. 

After the meeting, Tim Griswold said he was more in tune with the speakers who said the town was a welcoming place. 

“I am more in tune with the folks who said the town is welcoming and I think it’s sort of hyperbole that we say in Old Lyme that it’s a public health crisis. Maybe the medical people say it’s so and I’m not going to challenge that, but when you look at the process, the eight things the Board of Selectmen are supposed to do — it’s a lot of process.” 

Griswold said that if he had put the resolution on the agenda during the last year and the resolution had been voted down, he believed it would have been brought up repeatedly that his administration had made a bad decision. 

“I don’t see why we need to keep talking about it. If we’ve been not willing to do this for so many months it seems pretty evident it’s not going to change. Now, Chris is going off the board, and if I go off the board, who knows what will happen. But his and my position have been the same on it and I don’t see why anyone would expect a change,” he said.

Griswold said he was in favor of the church facilitating a discussion instead of “having a revolution at town hall.” 

“I think the church is very passionate about this. The resolution is not the end all — there could be discussion with a facilitator and it could be handled in a different forum than town government,” he said. 

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