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Faces of protest

As massive protests sweep through cities from coast to coast, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in southeastern Connecticut over the past week, crying out for justice.

They’ve gathered in New London, Norwich, Mystic and Groton, calling for equal rights and police reform, and demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other African Americans killed by police officers.

They’re black. They’re white. They’re young. They’re old. They’re nurses. They’re students. They’re angry. They’re tired. And here’s what they have to say:

Alexis Thornton, 26

On May 30, Alexis Thornton stood in Parade Plaza in New London with a piece of silver duct tape across her mouth with the words “I can’t breathe” scrawled across the tape.

This past weekend, she returned to the streets of New London, Groton and Mystic to protest the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis and to call for racial equality.

Thornton said that there isn’t one instance of racism that is fueling her desire to keep protesting, but rather, a lifetime of microaggressions that she wants to come to an end.

For 26 years, Thornton said, she feels like she’s been under a microscope. Walking on eggshells. Carefully crafting her every move to make sure she doesn’t upset a white person.

“How we move comes from learned lessons that you learn along the way from a young age, racism is taught early on. It happens with everyday things you wouldn’t even think of, that wouldn’t even cross your mind,” she said.

“For instance getting pulled over, needing to make sure you have everything out but also making sure you aren’t moving too much when you reach over to your passenger side to get those things. Having to be extra respectful to the police officer and moving slowly. It’s being in a job interview, filling out a job application, being out with your friends too late — It’s almost like in any life issue we have to go above and beyond just to kind of make up for what is already taken away from us because we’re black.”

She even catches herself having racist thoughts about her own actions, she said, because it’s so embedded in her thinking.

“If I go into a store and don’t find anything I want and walk out empty- handed, sometimes I think, ‘Do I have something on me? Did I take something?’ even though I didn’t, because I can just feel the eyes on me.”

Thornton said she, and most black people she knows, live in constant fear of messing up and having the police called.

"You’re always just kind of walking on eggshells to make sure nobody is going to be bothered with what you’re doing, because even if it’s not a good reason, if they do want to take it a step further and call the cops, you never know how that’s going to go,” she said.

She said she has come out to protest over and over in the last two weeks to try to make sure the environment she lives in can change.

“I’m just tired of this, something has got to change and it needs to be sooner than later,” she said.

Thornton runs a photography business called Alexis Thornton photography, specializing in portraits and boudoir photo shoots and is going back to school at Three Rivers Community College. She used to work as a direct care giver for people with special needs, but has been out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it can be difficult to be out of work, she said she thinks it’s good timing. She gets to dedicate all her time to her activism.

For the New London protest on June 6, she helped organize volunteer efforts to hand out water and masks and coordinated with someone who wanted to sing at the rally. She said she doesn’t understand why protests are still necessary to protect black bodies.

“It amazes me how saying Black Lives Matter seems like you’re attacking America, that’s how hand in hand racism is with America,” she said. “I love living in America but people don’t love me, they don’t love my color.”

“There are so many people being killed just because of our skin tones. I just don’t see why we’re such a threat.”

Thornton said she feels a responsibility to be engaged and hopes this movement causes a major shift. She said she doesn’t think there’s ever going to be a “go back to normal.”

“It’s going to be a new normal, as it should,” she said.

 

Ro’Chaun Watkins, 10, Sean Clack, 11, and Zion Thatcher, 10

Marching down Eugene O’Neill Drive in New London on Saturday afternoon, friends Ro’Chaun Watkins, 10, Sean Clack, 11 and Zion Thatcher, 10, followed the crowd of protesters as they held home-made signs that said “I’m proud to be black,” “Our lives matter” and “I’m ready for change.”

Watkins, who is headed into sixth grade at St. Joseph School in New London next year, said that he came to the protest to speak out against police brutality.

“I’m here because of all the people that lost their lives because of police brutality and racism. I don’t think that it’s fair to the people who did nothing, but look like they did something wrong or look like someone who did something wrong. It’s wrong to shoot somebody or hurt somebody who doesn’t deserve it,” said the 10-year-old.

Watkins’ sign said “I am proud to be black” with the words “We are all the same” written across the bottom.” He said he thought it was important for black and white people to be at the protest.

“If there weren’t all different people out here all the racism wouldn’t stop and it’s important that we know what’s going on,” he said.

His classmate Zion Thatcher, 10, who is also going into sixth grade at St. Joseph's next year, held a sign that said “our lives matter.”

He said “it just felt right” to be out protesting because “equality is needed for peace and harmony.”

Sean Clack, 11, marched alongside him holding a sign that said “I’m ready for change.” Clack said he thinks racial equality is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everybody should be treated equal, especially during this time of the virus,” he said. “It’s more common for black people to get it because a lot of us are being pushed into less wealthy neighborhoods and it can affect their safety,” said Clack, who is going into seventh grade at Clark Lane Middle School in Waterford next year.

The kids are part of the Engage Academy at Miracle Temple Church in New London, a group that helps provide resources to children and parents.

Zola Campbell, 5

Five-year-old Zola Campbell, of New London, marched in New London on Saturday with her mom, Jahmarrah Thomas.

Holding a colorful hand-drawn sign that said “all we need is love,” Campbell said “we all need love.” When asked if she knew why people were out protesting, she said “I think they’re here to support everyone.”

Campbell said she came out to join the protest with her mom because “I want to know what it’s all about. I want to be a part of it too.”

Maureen Meehan, 65 and Kerry Meehan, 36

Maureen Meehan protested with her son and her daughter Kerry Meehan in Mystic on June 5.

Maureen Meehan, of Mystic, said that she joined the group protesting on East Main Street because she believes a change needs to occur in the U.S.

“I’m horrified at where we are as a nation and I felt like I needed to contribute in some small way to the cause,” she said. “We’re all one, this needs to stop.”

The 65-year-old said she has participated in protests before while attending college at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. She now works in the travel industry and has been furloughed for weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she was kind of happy that she’d been furloughed because it gave her the time an opportunity to be at the protest.

“I’m 65 years old, and it’s time for things to change,” she said. “I really hope that George Floyd was not killed in vain.”

Her daughter,who works in entertainment public relations and lives in Mystic, said there’s no reason she wouldn’t be out protesting Floyd’s death.

“It’s horrific, why wouldn’t you?” said Meegan. “I don’t know how you can sit at home and do nothing when the world is on fire.”

Michael Christie-Fogg, 44

Michael Christie-Fogg held a poster with George Floyd’s face on it as one of his daughters, dressed in a princess dress, twirled around him on the sidewalk in Mystic during a protest on June 5.

Christie-Fogg, a small business owner, attended the protest with his wife Kaileah and his 4-year-old twin daughters, Vivian and Cora.

Christie-Fogg said he thought it was especially important for him to come stand with protesters because he is a white man.

“I think it’s good for white men to see other white men doing this, white people need to talk to each other,” he said. “I hope they see that they don’t need to feel threatened by the idea, it’s good for everyone, including people who look like them. Maybe they’ll see they won’t need to be afraid.”

As a father, Christie-Fogg said that although his daughters are too young to understand what’s going on in the moment, he knows they’ll appreciate the experience when they are older and thinks it is important for them to be exposed to, especially as girls. He said he wants them to grow up knowing that both racial and gender equality are important.

“Gender equality, I think, is connected very strongly to this movement and that’s something we want to instill in them,” he said.

As a business owner — designing concrete furniture at a shop at his home — he said he thinks it’s important to support protesters.

“I think it’s important for business owners to support this movement, anything that’s good for our nation is good for business.” 

t.hartz@theday.com

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