Friday, November 27, 2020

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Protesters in Deep River and Essex Demand Police Accountability and Racial Justice

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The JEDI Center hosted a Vigil in support of Black Lives Matter in front of the Deep River Town Hall on June 5.

Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier

The JEDI Center hosted a Vigil in support of Black Lives Matter in front of the Deep River Town Hall on June 5. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

Like so many towns and cities across America in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, local citizens are gathering to rally for greater police accountability and racial justice.

On June 5, a vigil for “Peace, Equity, Justice—Black Lives Matter,” as described in a Facebook post, was held in Deep River, led by the group, Justice Equity Diversity Inclusion (JEDI) Center of the Lower Connecticut River Valley.

The JEDI Center has held peaceful rallies to raise awareness on important social issues outside Deep River Town Hall since 2017. A core group of between 5 to 10 JEDI members typically attend.

The rally on June 5 was different. More than 100 people showed up over the span of a two-hour event.

The large turnout was a sign that “the high-profile murder of George Floyd really touched a nerve with folks,” said Colin Bennett, lead organizer for the JEDI Center, by telephone on June 8.

Bennett, who also owns Bennett’s Books on Main Street in Deep River, was impressed with the number of young people in the crowd.

“They grew up with the trauma of seeing this, even if they didn’t experience it, they are seeing this is something that they [black men, black women, and people of color] have been dealing with,” said Bennett.

Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was arrested by Minneapolis police after purchasing cigarettes with an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill. After being restrained with handcuffs, he was pinned to the ground by three police officers, with one, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes.

Video footage of the incident was captured by witnesses on the scene and a local business’s security camera.

Since his death, there have been ongoing and at times, violent, protests throughout the country calling for reform and social justice.

“To be honest, this is a pivotal moment in the history of this country where this could be a catalyst for real and transformative change,” said Bennett. “I think people are excited and eager for that.”

First Selectman Angus McDonald, who attended the rally, said by telephone on June 8, that on a personal level, he wants to “listen and try to improve my behavior. And as a politician, help improve our society and community.”

In Essex, a small group has been gathering nightly from 5 to 6 p.m. at the corner of North Main Street and Prospect Street “to bear witness to the need for all of us to recognize that black lives do indeed matter and society does need to make fundamental changes,” said Reverend Deacon Geoffrey Smith by telephone on June 9.

Smith resides in Essex and is a deacon at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Cross Street. He is also chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church Center in New York, New York, making him a member of staff to the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, Michael Curry.

Despite Smith’s connection to events unfolding on a national level, Smith’s daughter, Ellen Smith Ahern, was the impetus behind the nightly vigils.

Ahern lives in Essex with her husband and young children. She proposed the vigil as an alternative to rallying in a large group due to health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think given how deeply segregated Connecticut is as a state, it is really essential for communities that are primarily made up of white people to really stand in solidarity with black and brown communities of color both to mourn and bear witness, and memorialize the murders of African Americans and also to represent to our white neighbors and fellow residents that we do not accept this violence,” said Ahern by telephone on June 9.

“As white people in a country that is built upon structural racism, we are accountable for these actions and we are also responsible for the change that needs to happen to make sure that people of color are safe and healthy and can live with dignity and justice alongside everyone else,” she said.

By email, Ahern pointed to the national network, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), as a good “resource for those interested in racial justice, particularly for white communities looking to support the movement.” More information on SURJ can be found at www.showingupforracialjustice.org.

The Police Response

On June 1, the Connecticut State Police issued a statement on Floyd’s death.

“We’re disgusted that anyone wearing a police uniform would do what we all saw in that video. We’re angry that the actions of a few will affect all of us. If you wear a badge and aren’t appalled by what you saw, please turn it in and find a new profession; we don’t need you. For the sake of the community, for the sake of good law enforcement officers everywhere, and for the sake of our country, enough is enough,” said the written statement, issued by Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella and Deputy Commissioner Colonel Stavros Mellekas.

Lieutenant Kenneth Cain, commanding officer for the Connecticut State Police Troop F in Westbrook, which is responsible for policing in Chester, Deep River, and Essex, said his opinion, and those of the officers in his barracks, is an “echo” of the written statement issued by the Connecticut State Police.

“What we saw on that video was appalling,” said Cain by telephone on June 9. “When it ended, I was sick to my stomach.”

Cain says he has been present at a dozen or so demonstrations throughout the troop’s jurisdiction since late May, including the one in Deep River.

“First and foremost, we’re all on the same page as the protesters for the most part. We’re just as outraged as they are,” said Cain. “Secondly, a lot of people look at law enforcement and think a cop’s job is to make arrests. The reason we are out there is to protect your constitutional rights. It’s our duty to protect your right to protest, demonstrate, that is what we are there for.”

He is working with local leaders in Chester and Deep River to organize a public forum to discuss issues of importance to the community.

“We are all for having people’s voices heard,” said Cain. “I know the State Police is on board to listen and open up a dialogue with community members.”

Change at the State Level

The Connecticut State Legislature passed legislation as recently as last year to increase police transparency through the release of information publicly, specifically police body camera footage and statistics on the use of force.

A police transparency and accountability task force was formed as a result of that legislation.

Governor Ned Lamont asked for this group’s recommendations for lawmakers before a special session is convened to introduce legislation aiming for reform in the criminal justice system and ensuring greater police accountability.

State Senator Norman Needleman (D-33), who is Essex’s first selectman, discussed the need for reform at a June 3 Essex Board of Selectmen meeting.

Needleman said, “the core problem of the racism and bias that that incident stems from needs to be eradicated.”

He intends to push for mandating ongoing training for officers on “bias, de-escalation, racial sensitivity, sexual orientation” issues locally, and at the state level, while addressing the need for a more just and equal society.

“We really need to have a moment here where we think about what is the right path forward? How do we really work to mitigate poverty through housing policies, education policies, things we should do as a state and as a community to really make sure that we address the core issues, once and for all,” he said


Elizabeth Reinhart covers news for Chester, Deep River, and Essex for Zip06. Email Elizabeth at e.reinhart@shorepublishing.com.

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