Rally protests police brutality
Pastor Arthur Bennett of the Interdenominational Minersterial Alliance addresses a crowd of about 300, plus police and reporters, at a Town Hall rally Saturday.
Photo by Wayne Ratzenberger
A rally against racism and police brutality filled the Town Hall Green Saturday with impassioned speeches reminiscent of the Civil Rights struggle of decades ago.
Some speakers used incendiary rhetoric, but many also prayed for God's in healing the town's divisions and making it a better place.
By and large, the rally was more anti-police and less focused on the "One Stratford" theme that its original sponsor, Councilman Alvin O'Neal, wanted it to pursue.
The question on many people's minds was: what will happen next?
"Let what we accomplished this afternoon be a beacon of what man can do," said the Rev. James Morton of the First Baptist Church of Stratford.
Mayor James R. Miron told the gathering of about 300 residents that the test of the rally would be whether something good came out of it.
Also at the Green were scores of police officers, state troopers and FBI agents, as well as reporters from nearly 20 print, radio and television news organizations from across the state.
A handful of white supremacists said they planned a counter-demonstration Saturday. However, no counter-demonstration occurred. Instead, a police official said, the racists broke their agreement with the police and entered the fenced area where the protestors had gathered.
Police Capt. Harvey Maxwell said police followed about a dozen individuals who entered the fenced-in area and stood next to them, ready to act quickly if they started trouble.
A few were heard to make comments during some of the speeches, and they were warned sternly that any further remarks would not be tolerated, Maxwell said.
Other than the misbehavior by the racists, there was no trouble.
"From my perspective, I'm moving forward," Miron said Tuesday. "The solution to this issue isn't something that I have, but I want to provide some leadership."
He said he would do that by appointing a citizens' panel that would conduct a public discussion about the racial differences in town. Miron said he has asked more than 30 interested residents to serve on the panel.
The mayor said he disagrees with those speakers who made anti-police remarks, but though he insisted on speaking last to have the last word, he decided not to reply directly to those other speakers. Instead he focused on the future instead.
"When we try to find common ground we're all better off," he said.
The rally almost didn't happen. On Thursday, Miron and O'Neal, accompanied by Police Chief Michael Imbro and O'Neal's lawyer, Charles Kurmay, had a press conference to announce the event would be canceled.
Miron said he was concerned that the White Wolves, a racist group started by two brothers from Stratford, and two other small white supremacist organizations might cause trouble at the rally in order to "hijack" the news media coverage.
"Nobody will put my five-minute speech on [the air] if they have a chance to show skinheads waving Confederate flags," he said.
O'Neal said he was withdrawing as the sponsor because his defense lawyers advised him that sponsoring the rally was not in his best interest.
The councilman was charged with interfering with a police officer in a March 21 incident in which he intervened in the arrest of 15-year-old Titasheen Mitchell in front of her mother's restaurant. The case has not gone to trial yet.
O'Neal and Mitchell's mother claim the officer used excessive force in the arrest.
Kurmay would not explain why sponsoring the rally was not in O'Neal's interest. However, Burton Weinstein, a lawyer who has brought numerous civil rights cases against area police departments, including Stratford's, said anything O'Neal said at the rally might be used against him in his trial.
Weinstein said O'Neal's sponsorship of the rally also might be construed as an attempt to influence the court.
Two black clergymen from Stratford, the Rev. Johnny Gamble of the Friendship Baptist Church and Morton, interrupted the press conference to object that they weren't afraid of a few racists. They said the issues they had with the police involved more than O'Neal's arrest.
They met with Miron later that day to name Gamble as the new rally sponsor, and that evening joined Connecticut NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile at the Messiah Baptist Church in Bridgeport to convince the leaders of the Greater Bridgeport NAACP chapter to support the rally.
Friday brought another twist. Dollar bills with Nazi swastikas and racial slurs written on them were found in the South End. One was found in front of the restaurant owned by the Titasheen's mother, Marcia Mitchell-Davis.
Captain Maxwell said defacing U.S. currency is a federal offense and the acts also are being investigated as hate crimes.
FBI agents circulated in the crowd at the rally on Saturday looking for leads into the case.
'Shackles of hatred'
"We refuse to be weighed down by the shackles of hatred," said Gamble as the rally opened.
Esdaile said: "Change comes from continuous struggle, so we must straighten our backs. A man can't ride on your back unless your back is bent."
"Why do we need a rally?" said Pastor Arthur Bennett of Bridgeport, head of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. "We are here today because people sacrificed. How dare we feel it is irrelevant?"
Two Muslim ministers from Bridgeport, Minister Kevin Muhammed and Minister Lyle Hassan-Jones, made the strongest anti-police statements.
Muhammed compared the officer's use of force in Mitchell's arrest to the rape of black slave women by white slave owners before the Civil War. Black people may have been forced to keep silent during slavery, he said, but now they must resist.
Hassan-Jones said that, in his opinion, if a police officer attempts to arrest a person who doesn't think he committed a crime, the person has a legal right to resist arrest.
He also noted that white people were the ones passing out hate messages written on dollar bills, not black people.
"I want to thank the White Wolves for coming out," said Wayne Winston of the Greater Bridgeport NAACP. "The world needs to know this is not a figment of black folks' imaginations."
Marcia Mitchell-Davis read from prepared remarks, but she became distraught, breaking down in tears before finishing.
"Police brutality has been a problem in Stratford for decades," she said. "Save my daughter from those who prosecute her."
State Sen. Ed Gomes, who is a former union official, criticized the Stratford police union for asking the Town Council last week to remove O'Neal from his seat.
"The only people who can call for a recall are the people who elected you," said Gomes, a Democrat whose Bridgeport district includes Stratford's South End neighborhood, which O'Neal represents on the Town Council.
Gomes added that the rally gave him hope. "I see the makings of a good community that will get past this," he said.
Speaking last, Miron listed some of the steps he has taken to address complaints since the dispute started, including ordering cultural diversity training for all police officers and town employees, ordering video cameras in all Stratford police vehicles, and simplifying the process for making a citizen's complaint against an officer.
The mayor also defended Stratford police, calling it a good department. "We're going to respect them and honor them," he said. "We're going to move forward from today."
©Stratford Star 2006