Trump protesters, supporters gather while judge hears permit complaint
New London — Other than some dueling chants and a few heated arguments, protesters and supporters of President Donald Trump shared a small park near the Coast Guard Academy for more than four hours Wednesday without incident, even engaging in some civil disagreements about issues ranging from religion to climate change to immigration and free speech rights.
The two groups converged on McKinley Park, the closest public space to the Coast Guard Academy, where Trump addressed a graduating class of Coast Guard cadets. Trump supporters arrived as early as 7:30 a.m. to establish their presence atop a grassy knoll at the back of the park, separated by a low stone wall from protesters who arrived about 8:30 after marching from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument downtown to occupy the lower section of the park along Williams Street.
Across the road, about 20 Bikers for Trump parked their motorcycles along an exposed rock ledge that amplified the roar of engines they revved several times throughout the morning. More than a dozen police officers manned the site, at times hovering close as Trump supporters angrily challenged protesters, but the only arrest was of a man wanted on a warrant for charges unrelated to the event.
"I have never seen such a multigenerational response," said Carolyn Patierno, pastor of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church and one of the organizers of the Unify and Resist Coalition of about 15 local grass-roots groups that came together for the protest. "I'm very heartened by the response. This has been such a unifying process, and we hope to keep it going."
About 250 people of all ages, carrying signs expressing concerns about climate change, health care, Trump's ties to Russia and myriad other issues, joined the demonstration, their chants often drowning out speakers addressing the approximately 50 Trump supporters with microphones.
Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh, the organizer of a Trump-welcoming and free speech rally, missed her own event to argue for an injunction allowing her exclusive use of the park. The request ultimately was denied by Judge John J. Nazzaro after about three hours of testimony in New London Superior Court.
Among the protesters were about a dozen Connecticut College students and 16-year-old Robert Rae of Groton, who wore a T-shirt with the saying, "My generation. Not my president."
"I don't believe he's fit to be in office," Rae said.
Another high school student, 18-year-old Jason Mascara of Killingly, was among the Trump supporters, carrying a "Blue Lives Matter" flag to show his support for police officers. He said he hopes to become a policeman.
Jason Coffin, a senior at Central Connecticut State University, said he came from his home in Colchester to show his support for Trump and for free speech, "because I believe that's really important."
While the turnout of Trump supporters was smaller than the protest group, he said "it still felt good to be around the supporters, especially in a liberal state like Connecticut." He even engaged in some good conversations with the protesters, he said.
"I really liked talking to them," said Coffin, who held a "Deplorables for Trump" sign. "We had civil conversations about transgender rights, immigrant rights, free speech and religion, because I'm a Christian."
Another Trump supporter, Army veteran Howard Smith of Gales Ferry, said he came because he believes that Trump "needs to see the people come out to support him, with all the negative press he gets." Overall, he said, it was a positive experience.
"Considering it's two diametrically opposed sides here, it all went pretty well," said Smith, who held a "Drain the Swamp" sign.
At the beginning of the protest, Patierno led her group in reciting guidelines for nonviolence and instructed them to maintain silence once they approached Hodge Square and during their time at McKinley Park. Shortly after the marchers arrived there, though, chants including "loose lips sink ships," and "black lives matter" began, answered by "all lives matter" and "USA" from Trump supporters, one of whom was dressed in a white robe resembling Ku Klux Klan attire.
"We understand that expressing our desire for silence was a challenging request," Patierno said. "It is very difficult to stand before someone dressed in a KKK flag and robe and not feel your emotions stirred. I understand the need for the response."
Thomas Brown, 25, of North Stonington said the Make America Great Again hat, the shield, black gloves and white cape identified him as one of the Knights Templar and not Ku Klux Klan. He said the outfit was meant to draw attention and spur a dialogue with protesters but said he believed in equality among all races.
“We’re here to welcome our president. If I can do it in a way that can rile people up — I’ll do it,” Brown said.
Several protesters said they came to honor the graduating cadets and express their view that they deserved a better graduation speaker than Trump.
"Op sec is something the military and military families learn on day one," said Melissa Daly of Groton, who carried a "loose lips sink ships" sign and said her "significant other" is a Navy officer. Op sec, or operational security, is the term for the responsibility to protect national intelligence. Trump, she said, breeched op sec by sharing sensitive intelligence with the Russians.
Danielle Gutowski Mello of Pawcatuck, pushing a stroller with two of her three children, said she wanted to set an example for them and demonstrate her support for the Coast Guard.
"It's really disrespectful when he's at the Coast Guard when he has so little understanding of what the Coast Guard does," she said. "If he's concerned about borders and drugs, that's a large part of what the Coast Guard does."
Laura Lillian Best, founder of the Black Social Justice group in Norwich, held a sign that read "Racial justice" during the protest.
"Him being here at the Coast Guard is such a hypocrisy," she said. "It's like a desecration."
George Blahun of Quaker Hill, who took the day off from his job as a real estate broker to join the protest, expressed a similar view.
"My dad spent 38 years in the Coast Guard, and to have him come here after proposing to cut $1.3 billion from their budget is just unconscionable," he said.
Ronald Steed of Groton, an Episcopal Church deacon and retired Navy captain, said he joined the protest to honor the cadets' embarking on "careers of service" and to express the church's concerns about immigrant rights and the poor under the Trump administration.
"I do represent the church, but it is a personal desire, as well," he said. He added that as a retired military officer, "I am also worried that we be competently led. Intelligence is important to get and to safeguard."
Standing across the street with the Bikers for Trump, many of whom are combat veterans, Richard Mills of West Hartford said he was here to support Trump.
"When President Obama got elected ... I didn't vote for him, I didn't agree with him, but I supported him," Mills said. "Now, it's our turn to support President Trump."
Mills said he believes Trump is doing a good job, especially because he is standing up to North Korea.
Controversy over use of McKinley Park led to a court hearing on Wednesday.
Attorney Bryan Fiengo, who represented Hopkins-Cavanagh and filed paperwork with the court late Tuesday, argued that the Parks and Recreation Commission voted to allow her exclusive use of the park but the permit itself, issued on Wednesday, was not for exclusive use. The permit that was issued was akin to a denial, he said.
City Attorney Jeff Londregan said the city never delayed her permit and argued there was no written documentation proving Hopkins-Cavanagh would have exclusive use of the park. In fact, Londregan said, "I don't think the city could take a park and give it to 50 people" and infringe on the rights of other members of the public.
Nazzaro, in a ruling from the bench, said Hopkins-Cavanagh had failed to prove "irreparable harm" was caused by the lack of an exclusive permit. While he agreed that Hopkins-Cavanagh had sought and was told by the Parks and Recreation Commission she would have exclusive use of the park, the permit was subject to review by the city and the U.S. Secret Service.
City police had consulted with the Secret Service about what areas might be closed for Trump's visit. Nazzaro said after meeting city representatives and with members of the Secret Service, it was announced that the park could be open to the public.
Hopkins-Cavanagh said she was happy with the event but frustrated by the city's action that led to many of her planned speakers and rally participants to cancel.
"Basically they destroyed the event," Hopkins-Cavanagh said of protesters. "They did not have a permit to use the park and obstructed our ability to use the park."
Patierno said her group had a permit to assemble at the park until 1 p.m.
Reva Seybolt drove 5½ hours from her home in Vermont to be at the protest. Like many others there, she had also participated in the Women's March on Washington on Jan. 21. Both she and another out-of-stater who also attended the Women's March, Sarah Malinowski of Fishers Island, N.Y., were motivated mainly by concern for the environment and Trump's rejection of climate change science.
"I want a fact-based, evidence-based world," Malinowski said.
Sally Booth of Mystic added that she's also worried about what's happening to the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump.
"I lived in China, and the air there is so polluted and the water is so bad," she said. "People don't know the importance of the EPA."
Among teachers at the protest were Anthony Graesch, an associate professor of anthropology at Connecticut College who came with his wife and their two children, and Gary Williams, a retired Pine Point School history teacher from Hopkinton, R.I.
"This president is illiterate on a number of different levels," Williams said. "He doesn't know American history, he doesn't know Constitutional law, he doesn't know the importance of listening and he doesn't know the importance of treating handicapped people and females respectfully. This is not the country I grew up in."
A few dozen feet away, Vicki Strickland of Quaker Hill held a "Women for Trump" sign as she surveyed the crowd of protesters in front of her.
"We should give the guy a chance," she said of Trump.
Seated nearby was Judy Moran of Oakdale, also a Trump supporter.
"I just feel like he's getting a bum deal with the media that are brainwashing people to think he's a horrible person," she said. "If he does half of the things he promised, we'll be a better country."
Ed and Nadine Conrad of Groton said they could have stayed home to watch the Trump motorcade drive past their house, but instead decided to join the supporters.
"We wanted to see what this was all about," Ed Conrad said.
Both were grateful that the two groups could gather peacefully.
"It's a right we have in this country," Nadine Conrad said. "As long as nobody gets hurt."
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