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Voices of Protest: 'We can't be quiet'

This is the second in a two-part series that profiles some of the residents of southeastern Connecticut who have protested the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Samantha Willis, 30 

Samantha Willis stood beside her four children in New London on June 6, holding a sign that said “Mama.” 

“My sign says ‘Mama,’ the words George Floyd cried out while he was being murdered,” Willis said. “I’m a mother, it broke everyone's hearts when he did that, everyone who’s a mother heard his screams and it broke their hearts.”

Floyd, a black man, was killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white. A video showed that while Chauvin knelt on his neck, Floyd cried out for his mother. Chauvin has been charged. 

“In his last dying words he cried out for his mom, like how human is that?” Willis said.

Willis, 30, of New London, brought her four children to the protest — sons Michael and Rylee, 9, Arthur, 5 and daughter Talia, 12. 

“I’m out here today for my sons, I’m a mother to black men and my kids could be next,” she said. “This is part of their culture and they need to know and they need to learn, they’re the future.” 

She said she’s always been worried about her sons’ safety, but her concerns have intensified as she has seen more and more police brutality against black men. 

“It makes me nervous for my kids to walk to the store, to walk to school, to be on their bikes, to be in a crowd, it makes me nervous,” she said. 

Willis, a nurse on a COVID-19 floor at a health care facility in New Haven, said 2020 has been a tough year, but she’s glad this movement is happening. 

“The whole year, everyone says it’s been hell, but it’s change,” she said. “We can’t build stronger if the foundation is cracked.” 

Jordan Chapelle and son Levi, 6 

“When do I go from cute to dangerous?” said the sign held by 6-year-old Levi Chapelle at the New London protest

Chapelle, who has light skin and blonde hair, is three-quarters black, said his mom, Jordan. And she wants to make sure he knows that. 

“He’s so little and right now, everyone sees him as so innocent,” she said. “Right now he has lighter skin and hair, but I don’t know how he’ll look as he gets older. I don’t know if he’ll be targeted.” 

Jordan Chapelle said she struggles with how to teach her son about his blackness, because she wants him to stay young and innocent. But she also wants him to be prepared for what his future might hold as a black man. And she wants him to know that he matters. 

“It’s hard teaching kids now because you don’t want to scare them, but you have to make them understand,” she said. “I want to instill in him that black lives matter.” 

Shawn Brooks-Fletcher, 19 

Shawn Brooks-Fletcher is a rising sophomore at Morehouse College, a historically black men’s college in Atlanta, Ga., where he is studying African Studies and sociology. On June 6, he stood with protesters in his hometown of New London, shouting “no justice, no peace” into a megaphone. 

Brooks-Fletcher, 19, and his twin brother, Shane, helped to spread messages of anti-racism and calls for justice at Saturday's protest, which primarily was organized by the group Hearing Youth Voices

“I’m appreciative of all these black people and other shades coming out to combat white supremacy,” he said. “We are unapologetic. This was not a police-run function; if you don’t break the law, you will never change the law.” 

Brooks-Fletcher wants to be an on-screen actor and said that before the COVID-19 pandemic he was set to be an extra in a Tyler Perry film. No matter where his career takes him, he said he plans to continue to use his voice to speak out against racial injustice. 

“Social justice and acting are my passions,” he said. He has invested in both of those passions here in his community, participating in a glee club, taking part in an acting workshop at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center last summer and dedicating his senior capstone project at the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut to the public health study of how racism makes people sick. 

“I love advocating for other people and having a plan,” he said, emphasizing the importance of laying out follow-up steps at the protest. 

“This is not the end. We want to defund the police and demilitarize the police and reallocate that money into our community” for things like new textbooks, he said. “We need to hold everyone accountable and have anti-racism training, not only for the police department but the teachers and for everybody.” 

Maryann Gunderman, 79

A white grandmother, Maryann Gunderman of Waterford stood in the center of the crowd as protesters blocked traffic in Mystic on June 5.

Gunderman, who lived through the civil rights movement, said that as she watched the video of Floyd’s death and the protests that followed in cities and towns across the nation, she’d “never seen things quite so angry, so violent and so racist.” 

“I never thought I’d live to see this,” she said. 

Gunderman attended the protest with her grandson and granddaughter. She said she attended it for them — for the sake of their future and their children's future. 

“I’m at the end of my life and I want to see a better life for my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren,” Gunderman said. “I felt like I had to be here.” 

As the crowd took to the streets, Gunderman approached protester Alexis Thornton, who is black, and wrapped her in a hug. Thornton’s eyes filled with tears as Gunderman whispered in her ear. 

“I told her she needed a hug from a grandmother,” Gunderman said. “I told her I was sorry. And I asked her to go out and tell everyone she knows to go vote.” 

Remembering the civil rights movement, she said she’s protested before, most recently against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. 

“I’ve lived through (the civil rights movement), through the assassination of presidents, and this is beyond what I ever thought I would see,” she said. “We can’t look away.

“Our world will not survive if we don’t start taking care of each other,” she said. “We need justice for everybody, regardless of what color your skin is.” 

She said she hopes people can learn to love one another and celebrate one another’s differences and that she understands why so many people are so angry. 

“I think people can only take so much of a broken heart and this has broken people’s hearts,” she said 

Nanayaa Asantewaa Ali, 18 

Nanayaa Asantewaa Ali organized a protest in Groton, her hometown, on June 7. 

The 18-year-old, who wants to be a human rights lawyer, said she decided to lead a protest because she felt like she and her peers needed a place where their voices could be heard besides social media.

“I got tired of commenting, instead I wanted to do something so I texted everyone I knew who could help me,” she said. “I thought it was important to have a protest because I realized Groton was super quiet while this whole thing was happening and I said, ‘No, we can’t be quiet,'” she said. 

She and her friends used Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook to spread the word, drawing hundreds of people to the protest. 

Aside from preparing for her future in human rights law, Ali works at Taco Bell and loves to take photos and draw. She sings, cheers and plays tennis. She also loves to get into debates with her parents, she said, to practice for the courtroom. 

Ali, who is black, said she has been discriminated against all through her school years for her dark skin and continuously fears that her dad or brother will be a victim of police brutality. She even stopped walking to work for fear of her own safety.

“It scares me every day, even when I walk around my neighborhood, I fear the fact I could be killed right now and no one will care for months,” she said. 

But she isn’t letting that fear stop her from raising her voice. 

“You just need to be you and get over the racists and the haters,” she said.

t.hartz@theday.com

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