This is a printer-friendly version of an article from

06/10/2020 07:00 AM

Rally for Black Lives Brings Madison into National Conversation

Members of the Madison community and others gathered in front of the First Congregational Church Madison’s steps for a peaceful candlelight vigil on June 7 to honor the memory of George Floyd and join in support of communities of color in the United States. Find more photos from the vigil at by Kelley Fryer/The Source

As the sun sank low over the trees on June 7, a steady stream of families, groups of students, couples, and people of all ages and descriptions joined a growing throng outside of the First Congregational Church of Madison, holding signs and candles in witness to the injustice that has touched every community in the country.

Three weeks ago, when a white Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a black man, in broad daylight as other officers watched in silent acquiescence, people of all races took to the streets to protest a criminal justice and law enforcement system they say has been used as an instrument of violence against black Americans that has extended from the nation’s founding to the present day.

In Madison, that anger took shape as a peaceful vigil of about 400 people standing together to mourn the loss of Floyd and the countless other black Americans killed by law enforcement.

“Some people say that Madison is silent and Madison doesn’t care, but I think this is a huge representation from our town that we can make a difference,” said Christina Cewe, one of the event’s organizers, who identifies as a black person with a diverse background.

There were no chants and no marching on June 7. A group of young people read the names of black citizens killed by police in recent years, including Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her apartment by police officers in March, and Eric Garner, choked to death by a New York City police officer in 2014.

The entire demonstration only lasted about 45 minutes, though many people lingered afterward, speaking in small groups or holding their signs in quiet solidarity.

Like many other demonstrations, the assembly took eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence—with most people kneeling—to recall the amount of time it took the police officer to choke Floyd to death. Many shed tears during this moment, including another one of the organizer’s, Grace Brueckner, who comes from a diverse racial background.

Brueckner, who provided the initial spark for the gathering in Madison, said she had been unable to watch the video that shows Floyd’s murder, though seeing images and reading about his death were enough.

“I thought of all the families in town that are people of color, and I knew that Madison needed to do something, and nothing had been done,” she said. “A day went by, and nothing was done, and then a week went by and nothing was done. And then I just knew I had to do something.”

The First Congregational Church gave Brueckner and the organizers the use of the church along with other support. Reverend Todd Vetter, who is white, spoke at the beginning of the demonstration, calling on the community members to continue to open their eyes and their hearts to the plight of their neighbors.

“Your presence is a blessing to us,” Vetter said. “But so also is your frustration with the way things are, for your holy impatience with the indifference so often shown for too long by too many toward the systems of racism and violence that continue to claim the lives of people of color in this country.”

With babies and toddlers spread out in the grass with their parents, elderly residents sitting on the rough asphalt walkway, and college-age people waving signs along the sidelines, there was a clear sense that this issue transcended generations. Though many came from Madison, others came from various nearby and not-so nearby places.

Alex Ford and Dan Murray, both white, attended together, with a sign saying “Defund the Police.” Ford is from the bay area in California, while Murray lives in Boston. They have been quarantined in Madison since the onset of the pandemic and heard about the rally through social media, they said.

Both hoped to push for specific action, as well as an open dialogue in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“Safety and accountability, and the fact that in 400 years almost we’ve never had an honest discussion about many of these things,” Murray said. “We’re constantly at [a] boiling point.”

“Having hard conversations, talking to the people in your lives that feel differently and are maybe more hesitant. Read and educate yourself, listening to black voices, sharing black voices more,” Ford said.

Kate and Craig Patla of Madison, who attended the protest with their son, Will, 13, waited for the event to start while hanging out in the back of their pickup truck, parked on the Town Green.

“We want to make sure our kid understands this moment and how different his world would be if the color of his skin was other than white,” Craig Patla said. “The incident with George Floyd has increased our consciousness about this issue and left us embarrassed by not having already addressed this properly. We need to draw a line in the sand, if not in the past, then going forward, we need to stand with that community.”

Trew Moore, 12, of East Haven, who is black, attended the protest with Elijah Moore, 13, and his parents Venice Moore and Vernon Moore, and his brother Khristian Moore, 4, and his little sister Trinity Moore, 1 ½, who also goes by her nickname Ladybug.

“I’m very inspired to see how many people are here showing respect,” Trew Moore said, as his little sister and brother raced gleefully around the grounds of the church after the event. “It made me very happy.”

‘We Don’t Want to Chill Anything’

Though many protests have focused specific attention on the failures of local governments and police departments, most people lauded the efforts of Madison officials and the Madison Police Department (MPD).

Though many protests have focused specific attention on the failures of local governments and police departments, most people lauded the efforts of Madison officials and the Madison Police Department (MPD).

Among local officials and politicians in attendance were First Selectman Peggy Lyons; selectmen Erin Duques, Bruce Wilson, Scott Murphy, and Al Goldberg; Director of Youth and Family Services Scott Cochran; State Senator Christine Cohen (D-12); Police Commissioner Thomas Cartledge;  State Representative Noreen Kokoruda (R-101); MPD Chief Jack Drumm, and MPD Captain Joe Race, all white.

MPD officers kept a loose perimeter around the rally, many on bicycles, and afterward mingled with attendees.

Drumm oversaw the placement of three dump trucks from the town’s Public Works Department, one at the intersection of Meeting House Lane and Copse Road, and two near the intersection of Island Avenue and School Street.

Drumm said the trucks were being used to prevent “someone from getting a running start to interfere with the crowd.”

“We use that for sporting events. We use that for races. It’s something that studies have shown works,” he said.

At least one officer knelt along with the demonstrators from his stationed position during the eight minutes of silence in honor of Floyd. All 28 members of the MPD were on duty, according to Race.

“It’s everyone in tonight,” said Race, on Sunday afternoon before the protest. “Our plan is not to be seen, we don’t want to chill anything. We want to support it.”

He added that the goal of the police department was to remain alert to the possibility of any criminal activity, but that they expected the protest itself to be peaceful.

Going Forward

Unlike other rallies around the state, there were no specific demands made by the organizers, though some people spoke of another rally soon, possibly including a march. Many signs carried by attendees focused on education, both in the school system and personal, anti-racist education for all people.

Cewe, who grew up in Florida, said in Madison she has dealt with “things she never had to deal with” before.

“At the same time there’s a large group of people that are beautiful and wonderful folks and are great neighbors,” she said. “I think the education of it for everybody is to understand that you might not see certain things and think that it doesn’t exist, but it is there.”

An online meeting of Madison’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee was recently attacked and bombarded with racist imagery and language, according to the committee’s chair, Joyce Gensler. Also in recent days, racially charged social media rumors anticipating an invasion of people from New York and New Haven to riot or loot caused consternation in town.

As of Sunday evening, there had been no problems of that nature reported, according to Race, and that area protests in a number of towns had remained peaceful.

Learning about the specific ways that every community contributes to racist structures will be part of the important work going forward, according to Cewe, with Madison also dealing with “the intersection of race and class” as a highly affluent town.

“People are going to have to realize ways within each of their towns how they can get involved to help change some of that,” Cewes said.

Sarah Snyder, who identifies as white and Jewish, another of the event’s organizers, said getting involved in “the structure of each board,” lobbying their local elected officials as well as paying attention to what children are being taught in schools.

“We’re all responsible to teach each other and...everyone of us who shows up here has a responsibility to carry this forward,” Snyder said.

Brueckner said she specifically planned to get involved in Madison’s ongoing search for a superintendent, seeking to ensure that person would be anti-racist and committed to multiculturalism. She encouraged other residents to pay attention to what the schools are teaching and how they can better be instruments of anti-racism.

Zoning regulations and practices are also something that should be examined, according to the rally’s organizers. Many predominantly white communities have used complex and strict zoning to prevent the building of affordable housing and codify other practices that keep non-white residents from moving into town.

Another demand that has been echoed across the country is the defunding of police departments, instead allocating money toward social programs that reduce crime and improve communities.

Cewe said she had not personally researched that initiative, but was effusive in her praise for Drumm and the MPD for their work in town.

“From what I’ve seen from this town, especially now, the police are here to help us, they want to help us—our town leaders are here to help us, they want to help us, and the Madison community is here to help us. So I think with that, we’re going to change,” Cewe said. “Coming together like this is definitely hope for the future.”

Madison Patrol Officer Robert Strickland, who was working as part of the Madison Police Department bike patrol, joined those kneeling and sitting in a silent vigil on the Madison Town Green on June 7. Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source
Madison Department of Public Works trucks were parked to block intersections and ensure safety around the June 7 Black Lives Matter vigil on June 7. Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source