New London - In a city grappling with charges of discrimination against a black firefighter candidate and racial profiling by city police, Sunday's "hoodie rally" in protest of the killing of a black teenager in Sanford, Fla., served as both a call for justice in the Trayvon Martin case and a call for action against racism locally.
"This doesn't just happen in Florida. It's happening right here in New London," said Donald Wilson, president of the New London Chapter of the NAACP, organizer of the rally on the Parade Plaza. "It's happening in Waterford, Norwich and Groton. It's happening all over. You could be the next innocent victim. We need to make sure our police are protecting and serving, and if they're not, we need to send them on their way."
A racially mixed crowd of about 200 people, including many teenagers, attended the rally, more than half wearing hooded sweatshirts like the one Martin wore in a show of protest against stereotypes based on clothing and race. Several carried signs with slogans such as "Justice for Trayvon," and "Stop Racial Profiling." Debbie Phillips of New London displayed a poster she had made recounting the murder of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old who was killed in Mississippi in 1955. Till, like Martin, was a visitor in the neighborhood where he was killed, she noted.
"It's very similar to the case we have now," she said. "Racism is still alive and well."
I-jhay McLeod, 11, who attended the rally with his grandmother, approached Phillips to tell her he recognized the name on her sign because he had read about Till's death.
"You're a smart boy," she said.
Rallygoers included Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, wearing a Batman logo hoodie, Chief Administrative Officer Jane Glover, also wearing a hoodie, and Police Chief Margaret Ackley.
Among speakers was state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, who has been an outspoken critic of the city's firing of Alfred Mayo, who would have been the first black to be hired as a city firefighter since 1978. As he stepped to the microphone, his head was uncovered.
"My name is Rep. Hewett," he began.
He then pulled the hood of his gray sweatshirt over his head.
"God only knows who I am now," he said.
He reiterated his belief that Mayo has been treated unjustly, saying, "I can't let it go," and challenged the crowd not to let discriminatory practices in the city that have recently come to light go unaddressed.
"If you do nothing, nothing will happen," he said.
Mayo was also among the speakers.
While much of the rally focused on the Martin case and racial issues locally, speakers also sought to inspire the audience and instill hope that their actions will make a difference.
"There's not just one color here, and to me this shows that this case is shedding light on deeper issues we need to face together," said Curtis K. Goodwin, owner of I Am Me studios in New London. Several singers and a rap artist connected with his studios performed at the rally.
"Hood up and stand up," singer Connor Longwill, 13, of New London, told the crowd at the end of his performance.
Karen Clark, grandmother of McLeod and Azarria Darden, 4, retold a story she shared at a recent NAACP meeting about police entering her apartment with what she said was an illegal search warrant and roughing up her daughter while they searched for a third party who wasn't there.
"They are the future Trayvons," she said, referring to her grandchildren standing beside her. "I don't want them to grow up thinking they have to duck and hide."
The rally ended with Laura Lillian Dickerson of Norwich reading two poems written in 1996 about being hassled and profiled by New London police. The poems, in a book titled, "Thoughts: the Poetic Perspective of a Black Man," were written by Roland Dunham Sr., now the vice principal of Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.
"Do not remain silent about the things that matter," she said.