Stratford rally peaceful; justice for all urged
The Connecticut Post
STRATFORD — The words echoed from the speakers, loud and clear, and perhaps even the ghosts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, on the Town Hall green Saturday during a powerful and dramatic civil rights demonstration against alleged racism and brutality by Stratford police.
There were impassioned, emotional speeches by state and local civil rights leaders, community activists, clergy and an appeal by the weeping, shouting mother of Titasheen Mitchell, the 15-year-old who complained of police brutality during a March 21 incident in the South End. Both Councilman Alvin O'Neal, D-2, and Mitchell, who are black, contend excessive force was used against them by Officer David Gugliotti, who is white, during their March 21 arrests in front of Woodend Road storefronts after a fight between two other teens. Gugliotti was exonerated after a 60-day police internal affairs investigation. The investigation concluded there was not "substantial evidence" to prove the allegations, a finding endorsed by Mayor James Miron.
But on Saturday, black leaders refused to accept that finding, comparing Gugliotti's "cowardly actions" to slaveholders abusing black women, insisting it was only one example of what has been a decades-long history of "tyranny and racism" by some police officers against the South End's minority community.
The speeches often roused the crowd of about 350 that cheered loudly each time there were calls for the minority community "to unite and fight back" against police abuse. "Stratford, do not forsake my daughter. Do not forsake me. I beg of you," said Marcia Mitchell-Davis, her voice cracking with emotion. "I ask you, the town, to provide justice for my daughter," said Mitchell-Davis, owner of Caribbean Delights, a Woodend Road restaurant, which she called "her dream come true." The restaurant opened in 1997, years after she arrived from Jamaica in 1983. But she fears she might lose that business as a result of police retaliation and customers who now "fear coming to my restaurant."
Mitchell-Davis blasted Gugliotti for, what she called, a history of abuses against the minority community. The officer and his attorney have strongly denied those claims, though the FBI is considering launching a probe into his actions and those of the Stratford Police.
Many in the crowd Saturday wore T-shirts with images of Malcolm X and King, and carried placards imploring the town to "Stop Police Brutality," and calling for "Justice for Titasheen." "I never thought I would be back at a rally. It's like old times, but I wish it wasn't necessary in 2006," said David Farnsworth, who drove from Westport to attend the event. About a dozen skinheads showed up, as they warned, but were apparently cowed by the massive police presence, which included Stratford police, the FBI, State Police, and even members of Bridgeport's mounted police regiment.
"They were here, but we were close by," said Stratford Police Captain Harvey Maxwell, referring to the skinheads. "They didn't stay long. I guess they figured they were outnumbered."
There were no violent altercations, Maxwell said. Scott X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told the gathering he was particularly disturbed by alleged police abuse of Titasheen, and by the recent treatment of O'Neal by police. The Stratford Police Union alleged O'Neal was involved in a "road rage" incident with an 84-year-old man on May 1. The union also called on the council to remove O'Neal from office last week.
"We cannot tolerate little girls being hit in the face by a police officer, we cannot tolerate trumped up charges by police against an elected councilman, and we can no longer tolerate acts of racism and brutality by the Stratford police," Esdaile said. Nation of Islam Minister Kevin Muhammad, of Bridgeport, said black leaders want to work with police, but will "rise up and seize justice for ourselves if we are forced to. "When police become abusive and out of control, we have the right to check that power and challenge that authority. We say peace, but before we get peace we may have to get some power," Muhummad said.
Lyle Hassan-Jones, executive director of Save Our Babies Ministry in Bridgeport, praised O'Neal for trying to stop a police officer from "manhandling one of our young sisters, just like the slave-owners used to do on the plantations.
"The officer grabbed her even though she had nothing to do with the fight police originally responded to," Hassan-Jones said. "We know Alvin intervened and risked his life because to see this officer slam a young girl to a car, and slap her in the face, it was [Alvin's] duty to try and stop it. If a man doesn't do that, what kind of a man would he be?"
Hassan-Jones told the gathering "this is not a hate-fest, or a love-fest, this is just a time to tell the truth."
He said it wasn't black groups who "distributed hate literature this week, or defaced and distributed dollar bills that say kill niggers. It was the white supremacists who did that, and they have showed themselves for what they are."
The rally was first postponed a week — then cancelled by Miron two days ago because its organizer, O'Neal, bowed out. With increasing threats by white supremacists to "hijack the rally, it was better to call it off," the mayor had said. But a group of community leaders and clergy led by the Rev. Johnny Gamble, pastor at the Friendship Baptist of Stratford, stepped in and forced the mayor to capitulate and allow the rally to go forward.
"I have always said as long as this were a peaceful rally and could help to unite the town, I was all for it," Miron said. "Now, we must look to the future and find ways to heal."
Miron said police are still investigating who distributed more than a dozen defaced $1 bills found by a postal worker delivering mail in the South End on Friday.
The bills are defaced with Nazi swastikas next to the image of George Washington, with "Kill Niggers" scrawled across the bottom. The backs of the bills are marked "Niggers Suck," and signed "White Wolves."
The White Wolves are a self-proclaimed white supremacist group launched in Stratford several years ago. FBI and local police said it is a federal crime to deface U.S. currency. One of the bills was found in front of Caribbean Delights Restaurant.