Editor’s note: We apologize that GOOD Morning Wilton’s livestream of the Wilton event wasn’t usable due to technical issues. Wilton resident Alison Jacobson graciously shared the video of the event. Photographs and other videos were taken by Drew Gumins and Lily Kepner. Of special interest, check out the drone footage captured by Gumins.
Tuesday evening, Wilton joined the long list of towns and cities across the country that have experienced a protest in response to the brutal killing of George Floyd who died by asphyxiation when a Minneapolis police officer restrained him by kneeling on his neck.
Floyd’s killing has inspired renewed calls nationwide for Black Lives Matters movements and has stirred passionate demonstrations decrying institutionalized racism, police brutality, and racial division. So too were those emotions and cries for justice on display in Wilton, as approximately 300-400 people showed up at Our Lady of Fatima Church (OLF) for a peaceful event organized by local clergy members calling for peace and an end to racism.
The event had been planned in a little over 24 hours, led by Rev. Shannon White of the Wilton Presbyterian Church and OLF’s Father Reggie Norman. Originally billed as a walk from the Wilton Train Station to OLF where the program would be held, organizers canceled the walk portion shortly before the start of the event.
Attendees at the event were predominantly orderly and peaceful as they listened to remarks from speakers that included religious leaders from several Wilton houses of worship, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and Police Chief John Lynch, as well as Rev. Dr. Lindsay E. Curtis, a Wilton resident of 23 years who is also the senior pastor at Norwalk’s Grace Baptist Church. Many offered prayers and inspirational quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Robert Kennedy.
The most powerful moment occurred when Rev. White asked the crowd to remain silent for 8 minutes 46 seconds–the length of time the Minneapolis officer knelt on Floyd until he died.
“It may be uncomfortable for some of us to be quiet that long, but that’s okay. Because times like this need disruption, we need to be disrupted and to feel uncomfortable,” she said.
Fr. Norman acknowledged that attendance at the event was larger than what Gov. Ned Lamont has permitted for gatherings in the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, even at a house of worship with its limit of 150 people outside. Almost everyone in the crowd wore a mask and some chairs were set up for socially distanced seats.
“Many of you are breaking the law right now because you’re not socially distancing,” Norman said. “That is not our first selectman’s fault, so please don’t write her hate mail. Please don’t harass the police chief. They did this because of the magnitude of this event and they allowed it because of our first amendment rights. So we ask if we all remember we are brothers and sisters and we have to love one another, not harm each other.”
Editor’s note: In an email Wednesday morning, Vanderslice told GOOD Morning Wilton why the event was allowed to go on despite the governor’s order. “On Tuesday, I called Town Counsel, who informed me that the gathering appeared to be a 1st amendment gathering and as such was not subject to the Governor’s executive order on the limit to the size of gatherings.”
Norman also wanted to make the event apolitical.
“This isn’t organized by any political group. It’s fellow Wiltonians coming together to say that we want to make some change but to do it in a positive and professional way,” he said, adding, “Most importantly, we just ask that everyone throughout this remain respectful of everybody else, no matter your political affiliation or views, we will gain more by being United and peaceful.”
In Norman’s introduction of Chief Lynch, he said that Lynch was one of the first friends he made when he moved to Wilton seven years ago, and that he knew Lynch well.
“I want to tell you something. I know for a fact he was outraged at what happened. Just as many other cops are, please cooperate. Listen to them. They want you home safe and they love you also.”
Lynch told the crowd that he shared in their hurt after learning about how Floyd died. But he emphasized how different his department is.
“I want you to know that our department, all of our officers have worked really hard to come together, treat people with respect, and we are all appalled at what we saw. I don’t want to focus on that, but we have a lot of work to do,” he said. After offering a quote from Dr. King, Lynch added, “I’ll leave you all with that, and with the promise that we will work harder to accomplish this, and we’ll all live as equals.”
There were a handful of mostly high-school aged younger participants who looked for more accountability. They interrupted the planned program as Chief Lynch left the stage with one shouting a question, asking him, “What are we going to do to make people of color feel safer in this community?” Many in the crowd told them to be quiet.
Vanderslice said that Wilton was a caring community with generous hearts. “The fact that so many of you are here, many more than we anticipated would be here, it’s just a testament to the type of community that we all live in. By being here, you’ve all taken the first step in change.”
Rev. Curtis told the crowd, “I could not be prouder to be living in Wilton than I am this very moment.”
Racism, Curtis said, is “not just a black problem.”
“It’s shared by all shades of color. We come together today, but I ask you, how will we act tomorrow? We come in the time of stress. We come in a time that our hearts are broken. Those eight minutes. There was a knee on the neck of George Floyd. Eight minutes! But there have been over four hundred years that a knee has been on the neck of individuals who happen to look like me. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
He lauded what a protest like yesterday’s could do to help and what their true purpose is.
“This is not about bricking, looting, robbing, stealing. This is about, this is a struggle for our society and how we see each other. I stand firm. I know who I am. I looked in the mirror every day and I make no apologies. Black lives do matter.”
Rev. White brought another element of the riots into her talk with the crowd. She referenced the multiple attacks on journalists covering the protests across the nation, and she asked for a moment of silence to honor their efforts.
“Many of you may not know, but during my time in ministry, I was a TV reporter for News 12 Westchester. And so it’s been painful for me to watch the media be hit by pellets and tear gas, as they’ve tried to cover the story and to present an honest depiction of what’s going on around in our cities,” she said.
White received rousing applause when she said that white people have much work to do to learn about their own biases as well as the forms and root causes of racism,
“The reality is it is not any person of color’s job to teach white people about racism. It is white people’s job to teach ourselves and to reflect and to have conversations and to convict each other and then go and have honest and real collaboration,” she said.
White called on Wilton to step up for that reflection, saying the community has to do better at following through on that work and uncovering Wilton’s white privilege.
“That’s hard work. People get tired really quickly. I’ve been here in town for seven and a half years. And I’ve seen the town gets tired of talking about this stuff. And so we let go and we don’t talk about it. And then another thing happens. So I’m calling us to accountability, white people.”
Taking to the Street
At the event’s end, a group of about 25 young adults surrounded Lynch, peppering him with angry questions, and accusing the Wilton Police Department of racial bias. One African-American teen asked whether he’d be safe if he was pulled over by a Wilton police officer; others accused the organizers of wanting to prevent them from protesting by canceling the walk to OLF from the train station. Fr. Norman, Rev. White and Middlebrook School teacher Michael Gordon lowered the friction by vouching for Chief Lynch’s dedication to fairness and equality, and offering the opportunity for the teens to get engaged with them in more discussion and solution-seeking action.
Many of those same attendees joined dozens of people who streamed onto Route 7 after the program finished and began walking up the road toward the train station. They spontaneously created the demonstration many had originally hoped for.
About 50 of those predominantly high school-aged protesters continued walking, turning around to head back down Rte. 7 toward Town Hall, with several stating their intent to purposefully block traffic and cause disruption. For about an hour they sat in the middle of Rte. 7 near the entrance to Town Hall Campus, where they engaged in a somewhat heated discussion with Chief Lynch. Several officers stood by, with police cruisers positioned a block away on either side and traffic detoured away from the location.
The conversation showed some of the need for work Rev. White had referred to earlier in the evening, specifically around communication. At times some of the demonstrators demanded Lynch account for incidents of police violence that had happened elsewhere; at other moments Lynch, who stood close to the center of the circle of teens around him, tried to explain his department’s stance against racial bias, to no avail.
Once again, the teacher many of them were familiar with stepped forward to try and mediate. Discussing his own experience with police as a black man Michael Gordon described the fear of interactions with police that he has every day, but also the respect he has for the police officers in Wilton.
Once more, the group held a moment of silence lasting 8 minutes 46 seconds. This time everyone was lying prone on the ground on their stomachs, several with hands clasped behind their backs as if constrained by imaginary handcuffs. It was a statement about the position George Floyd had been held in until his death.
The officers stood nearby, watching over the protesters in respectful silence until the timer rang. Peacefully, the group stood up and dispersed.
Editor’s note: We have amended the description of what happened when someone in the crowd yelled out a question to Chief Lynch. It was as he was leaving the stage and not while he was still delivering remarks.