Ferguson shooting case spurs rally in New London

Editor's note: This corrects the last name of the Ferguson, Mo., shooting victim.

New London — On a sunny August afternoon just more than a year ago, a crowd marched to Parade Plaza, decrying a jury's declaration that a Florida man was not guilty of murder when he shot an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin.

An even larger crowd of about 75 people made the same march Sunday afternoon, chanting the same words ("What do we want? JUSTICE!") - but in support of a different unarmed teenager fatally shot half a country away.

Chelsea Cleveland, who works with a New London organization called Hearing Youth Voices, said the group was at a party when they got word from other local activists that they wanted to do something to support protesters in Ferguson, Mo., where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by police.

So a few members of Hearing Youth Voices "stopped partying and started organizing," said Cleveland. Two days later, they stood in Parade Plaza, having brought out a crowd that only grew over the afternoon to see a program packed with speeches, song, poetry, even dance.

Hearing Youth Voices collaborated with New London Parent Advocates, the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation, the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, ACLU-CT, the Connecticut College Teacher Education Program and others to put together Sunday's rally: "Black is Not a Crime: Solidarity with Ferguson & Justice for Mike Brown."

Although the organizations pulled together a lineup of speakers and entertainers that easily filled the two-hour rally, the event still managed to feel raw and emotional. Passionate chants of "hands up, don't shoot!" and "no justice, no peace!" and "yes we can! si se puede!" were intermixed with poignant performances.

A mother read a poem that depicted her struggle to explain the realities of racial profiling to her son. A biracial man described his discomfort with the knowledge that his mother and cousins are treated differently by police than he is.

Another speaker expressed the realities of being a young black person today: thoughts on hoodies and "hashtag protesters," a disconnect with politicians in suits, questions about whether it is necessary to record police on camera phones.

"They'll track me whether I go to college or go to jail," because I'm a statistic either way, Attallah Sheppard said while reciting a poem she wrote during the Trayvon Martin case.

Sheppard is a member of Writers Block Ink, a regional program that encourages writing and performance about social issues. She wrapped up the performance with words of unity, reminding the audience of "the same color we bleed."

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio also spoke Sunday, criticizing the "militaryesque escalation" of the situation in Ferguson and noting that he stood in the same spot, dressed in a hoodie, last August to discuss the Trayvon Martin verdict.

"We will not stand for Apartheid in America," said Finizio, saying the Martin and Brown situations represent "the institutionalization of racism (and) the institutionalization of classism."

State Rep. Ernest Hewett of New London was also in Sunday's crowd, although he didn't speak publicly.

"I showed up because I stood right here in this same place when we did the Trayvon Martin thing, and here we go again," said Hewett in a short interview after the rally.

He said people need to march in the streets, get outside and insist on an independent investigation in Ferguson. But he also said he wants to see people be more proactive when things aren't so troubled, by doing things like registering to vote, fulfilling jury duty and attending city council meetings.

Toward the end of the program, Regina Mosley, leader of New London Parent Advocates, somberly read a list of names and ages - mostly male, mostly in their late teens or twenties.

"All of these black men and women were unarmed and murdered," said Mosley before a moment of silence on their behalf. "Being black is not a crime."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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