‘Some people need to wake up’: Protest continues in Bethel, despite cancellation from town
BETHEL — Despite postponement of a vigil due to coronavirus concerns, about 60 people gathered in front of the library to protest systemic racism.
The group, which included a baby in a stroller, held signs that said “Justice now” and “Rest in power George Floyd” while drivers honked their horns in support. One woman put a “Black Lives Matter” sign on her dog.
Thousands of people have protested locally and nationwide after Floyd died when a white Minneapolis cop pressed his knee on the black man’s neck for more than eight minutes. The former officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder and the three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting a murder.
Marcus Willis, who came from Torrington for the protest, said he and other minorities often fear the police because of the way they have been historically treated and killed by cops.
“I’ve had the experience of being pulled over and being terrified because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Willis, who is black.
Several police cars were parked or driving around the area during the protest, with one officer standing and talking to a protester, who held a balloon that had “Enough” on one side and the letters “BLM” — for Black Lives Matter — on the other.
Protesters occasionally shouted “Hands up, don’t shoot” or “No justice, no peace, no racist police.” Everyone wore masks. There were about 30 people at the protest before 7 p.m., but the size doubled by around 8:45 p.m.
Some protesters said they were disappointed the candlelight vigil that had been planned on the town hall lawn was postponed due concerns from the first selectman that a large crowd could lead to a spike in coronavirus cases.
Bethel resident Kaci Pomeroy, 19, said she posted on Facebook about meeting at the library, not knowing how many people would show up.
She is white and said she wanted to use her privilege to stand against racism and push for change.
“I’m tired of my friends fearing for their lives,” Pomeroy said. “I’m tired of the oppression of the broken system that people of color face literally every day. Because I don’t have to fear for my life when I’m yelling and screaming about the things I care about, that’s why I use my privilege the way I do to advocate for the black community.”
State Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennan, D-Bethel, who had organized the vigil with the first selectman but disagreed with its postponement, attended the protest.
“I’m hoping people find the outlet they need to express themselves,” said Allie-Brennan, who held a sign that read, “Hate has no home here.”
Another protest is planned for noon Sunday, where organizers plan to meet at the Doughboy Statue and sit or stand on Greenwood Avenue.
First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said he wants to hold discussions virtually and has been talking to the police captain about how to safely hold an in-person event at another space.
“Our police officers are very much in agreement that people need a safe means of expressing their grief over what happened to Mr. Floyd in Minnesota, as well as express their views about racial injustice in our country,” he said. “I am 100 percent committed to that goal.”
Knickerbocker came to the event later in the evening, Allie-Brennan said.
What Knickerbocker described as “minor vandalism” occurred on the municipal center Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. The phrases “Black Lives Matter,” “No justice, no peace” and the No. 12 with a slash through it were painted on the floor of the gazebo. The letters BLM were also painted on the side of town hall.
The phrases on the gazebo were painted over, while the letters on town hall were painted in red over red brick, so they are difficult to see, Knickerbocker said. Police have possible suspects in mind from video surveillance, he said.
The vandalism and some violence that has occurred in cities nationwide were not a factor in postponing, Knickerbocker said.
“Violence was not one of my concerns in our town,” he said.
Outdoor religious gatherings are permitted to have up to 150 people, but Knickerbocker expected more than that after similar events in Danbury and Wilton exceeded predicted crowd size.
“As an elected official who has worked steadfastly to adhere to all of the governor’s executive orders and follow the advice and guidance of the scientists, I felt I had to take this step,” he said.
Willis said he hopes the local and nationwide activism help people to better understand institutionalized racism.
“I hope people become more aware,” he said. “Not to say that people aren’t aware, but some people need to wake up.”