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Groton RTM member apologizes for comments about Black Lives Matter protest

Groton — A Representative Town Meeting member apologized Friday for asking if “the town can just tell black lives matter they cannot come to Groton because we cannot accommodate them financially?”

Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner posted on Facebook comments sent in an email from RTM member Rosanne Kotowski to the town manager and mayor about an upcoming Black Lives Matter protest. The youth-led, peaceful protest will be held Sunday starting at noon at Poquonnock Plains Park, according to a Facebook listing.

"I am afraid that we will see the rioting and looting that we have seen everywhere in the country in Groton,” Kotowski said in the email. Other comments included:

"Who is going to clean up the garbage? What line item will that come from in our budget?"

"Specifically where are the protestors going to use lavatories? And how much is that going to cost the Groton taxpayers."

"Are the police going to be dominant on route one or are they going to have a light touch? Meaning are they going to let the protesters run wild and riot in our town?"

"Are we going to see people in black with backpacks of bricks walking down route one?"

In an emailed statement Friday, Kotowski said, “I was wrong to assume that my concerns, based on reporting around the country, are applicable to the protests in our area considering recent protests in Norwich and Mystic were peaceful.”

“As a representative of district 5 my main focus is to support fiscal responsibility in the town of Groton,” she said. “Unfortunately in my email regarding the protest I was focusing on pennies and nickels versus my constituents legal right to protest.”

“My comments, questions and concerns came off as alarmist and racist and my genuine concern was lost to all,” she added. “I should not have inferred that black lives matter is not welcome in the town of Groton as all groups are welcome under the first amendment."

"Once I looked back on my comments I realized I was wrong and I am sorry,” she wrote.

Bumgardner, a Democrat, said he has known Kotowski, a Republican, for several years and worked with her on town issues, and he was hurt by her comments, since he has known her for so long.

“My response to her is how can you tell Black Lives Matter that they’re not welcome to our community when they are already in our community?” he said, adding that he and three others on the nine-member Town Council self-identify as people of color.

He said a large percentage of the community self-identifies as African American and implored Kotowski to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. He said emails like the one she sent have “no place in our civic discourse because they expose biases towards people of color who are simply demanding that they are heard, that the injustices are heard, that the police brutality is exposed because it exists in all corners.”

The Groton Republican Town Committee issued a statement Friday in support of Black Lives Matter: “As members of the Groton Republican Town Committee, we are your neighbors and together, we join our fellow neighbors and all Americans in speaking out against racial injustice. We are committed to confronting racial bias, engaging in difficult conversations and developing solutions.”

“The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are only the newest outrages in a long line of unjust murders of Black Americans,” the statement continued. “We stand by our neighbors in saying that Black Lives Matter. We are committed to doing our part for Groton to make whatever changes are necessary to ensure equity of opportunity and equal treatment by our local institutions. As residents of Groton and your neighbors we must all acknowledge what Black and Brown Americans are facing and actively work to resolve it."

Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died May 25, after a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes while Floyd was handcuffed during a routine detainment in Minneapolis. Taylor was a 26-year-old black woman who worked as an EMT and died March 13, when police in plainclothes entered her Louisville home and shot her eight times. Afterward, officials said it was a drug raid carried out at the wrong address, and no drugs were found at Taylor's home. Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was jogging when video appears to show  two white men chasing him down and fatally shooting him on Feb. 23 in Georgia.

"We want you to know that we are by your side during this historic opportunity to be a part of the conversation on race. We want to work as neighbors, together to take actionable steps to impact real change,” the Republican committee said in its statement.

Town Mayor Patrice Granatosky, a Democrat, said by email that the town manager initially had responded to Kotowski’s concerns about the march and affirmed the town's support for the right of people to assemble. Granatosky then called Kotowski the next day to share information about the planning and allay her concerns.

Groton City police Chief Michael Spellman said his department and town police are coordinating on a plan for Sunday’s protest to ensure the safety of participants. Since it could be very hot and people will be walking a distance, water will be available to keep them hydrated. Emergency medical services will be on hand ready to help, along with a gator and golf carts, in case anyone overexerts themselves. Porta-potties will be available, he said. Police will wear personal protective equipment due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s significant anger and outrage in our community and our goal as an agency is to ensure a peaceful protest exists,” Spellman said. “Our ultimate goal is to ensure that trust is increased between our agency and the community we police.”

Granatosky added that: “All our residents have equal rights to use public spaces and to express themselves. The young women planning the rally have conferred with teachers at the high school and the police department to do their best to ensure positive outcomes. Our country is hurting right now and it is important that we acknowledge that and try to heal. We need to help our young people find their way through the pain and anger and to produce positive change. This rally is an opportunity to do that. This is a teachable moment for these kids and for our adults.”

RTM Moderator Syma Ebbin, a Democrat, called Kotowski’s words “disappointing.” Ebbin said she wants to invite the police chief, who recently spoke to the Town Council, to speak to the RTM about de-escalation and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

RTM member Ian Thomas, also a Democrat, said that while he found Kotowski’s words to be “poorly chosen” and “culturally insensitive and alarmist” and invoked “tropes and phrases that carry racists undertones,” he does not believe her to be a racist nor does he believe she used those phrases with racist intent.

“It's simply not consistent with the character, empathy and compassion I’ve seen her demonstrate,” he said by email. “She was very supportive of my fiancé and our family, which is of mixed ethnicity, as we navigated our way through a cancer diagnosis and treatment,” he said. “Every week she came by to check in, bringing food, comfort and casual conversation.”

He said what happened with the email “is an example of how we are losing the ability to communicate constructively in this country” due to niche news and media markets, as certain “channels choose to present events in the context of certain narratives.”

“I believe Roseanne was acting with genuine concern and intent, but was not equipped with the right language to communicate her thoughts clearly and with proper regard for the full context of the situation,” he added.

‘More to be done’

Bumgardner said Groton is “ahead of the curve,” from the Groton Town Police Department being on the forefront of communities implementing body cameras to the City of Groton Police Department’s autism awareness program. He said officers have de-escalated situations with his brother, a young man of color on the autism spectrum.

That being said, there’s still work to be done, Bumgardner said. He said he wants the Town Council to answer the call of former President Barack Obama for communities to review police policies.

Bumgardner also recalled how in 2014, at age 19, when he was running for state representative and knocking on doors in Groton Long Point, a woman walking behind him with her dog asked him if she could help him. He told her he was walking and he asked if everything was OK.

She said he was not supposed to be selling anything here. When he told her he was running for office, she said he wasn’t supposed to do that here. He found that odd, given dozens of local officials have knocked on doors in Groton Long Point. He said she assumed he “was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” when in reality he was just walking his community.

“That experience was just one of many that, while it may seem minor to some folks, does leave a lasting impact on black and brown people for generations,” he said.

He said it's important to expose racism and biases and listen to people, particularly young people, as they speak out in the wake of injustice and the killings of Arbery, Taylor and Floyd. He said he told one of young organizers of the protest that the lines of communication are always open.

“I’m there to stand in solidarity, and I really look forward to seeing people engage in a peaceful demonstration,” he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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