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Four hundred march for justice in Waterford

Waterford — About 400 people gathered at Clark Lane Middle School Sunday afternoon for another local iteration of the nationwide movement against racism and police brutality.

The deaths of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman who was killed by police inside her home in Louisville, Ky., sparked nationwide protests, which have made their way to southeastern Connecticut. New London, Norwich and Groton have had particularly large marches.

The theme of youth-led local movements continued at Sunday’s protest, which was organized primarily by two Waterford High School 2018 graduates, Luther Wade and Brianna Jones. They worked to plan a route, collect water and food donations for demonstrators, start and monitor a Facebook group and put together a program of speakers.

“I wanted to do this here, in this community, because I’m surrounded by white people,” Wade said. “I’ve been surrounded by white people since the day I moved here. So I need that support, and I need people like Brianna and my white counterparts to take action and be just as outraged as we are because if they don’t care, nothing will change. The system still has us in chains.”

Protesters set out from Clark Lane at 12:30 p.m. wielding signs and shouting call-and-response chants, including: “Hey hey, ho ho, these racist cops have got to go,” “No justice, no peace! No racist, police!” “I can’t breathe” and “Black lives matter,” among others.

As marchers made their way to Town Hall, Waterford police officers were spaced out along the road but stayed back from the protestors.

At Town Hall, Wade showed just how white the protest was by having white and black people in the crowd raise their hands. The number of white protesters dwarfed that of black protesters. Wade said people of all races must fight the battle against racism together.

A few of the speakers in front of Town Hall were young black people who grew up in Waterford. They touched on microaggressions they said they suffered in town, a local police force they called prone to racial profiling and the need to educate the education system on race.

Kobe Haley, 21, lives in Waterford and went to high school in New London. He condemned the Waterford Police Department in certain terms, recalling black friends of his who, while driving from New London to their Waterford homes or simply through Waterford, were accosted by cops.

“What are you doing here?” Haley asked, mimicking police. “It’s late, do you live here?”

“Why does being a Waterford resident mean being white to this system?” he added.

Haley raised his voice: “I don’t know if they can hear me, but Waterford Police, you are not border patrol! This is not an ethnic state, the diversity may be low, but Waterford still has a little bit! I may have had one or two other black kids in my class, but they were there! We have the addresses! We pay taxes! Waterford police department, you’re not border patrol!”

Another speaker, Naomi Jones, graduated from Waterford High School in 2017. She gave a blistering speech recounting her years coming up in the Waterford school system.

“I was told by my teacher that I would never be a writer. By the way, that was fifth grade,” Jones said. “Or when I was asked to tie down my hair because it was distracting the students … Or when my guidance counselor told me that every college I wanted to attend was a far reach.”

Before leaving Town Hall, Wade listed demands pertaining to public education in town, including holding year-round diversity training, ensuring that 25% of all school staffers be of African-American descent and hiring black guidance counselors.

After the Town Hall rally, the group, still hundreds strong, marched to the Waterford Police Department and Public Safety Complex and pointedly took a knee and an eight-minute, 46-second moment of silence, meant to represent the amount of time Chauvin kneeled on Floyd's neck.

The march concluded with protesters walking back to Clark Lane.

Taylor Wininger-Sieve, a 16-year-old Marine Science Magnet School student, said her background growing up in diverse Norwich informed her decision to attend recent local protests. But Winninger-Sieve didn’t just march. She and Waterford High School student Danielle Nykyforchyn, 15, led chants and kept people involved on Sunday. Wininger-Sieve’s voice was almost gone by the end of the protest.

“I wanted to come to Waterford because this demonstration was mostly for educating a majority-white population,” Wininger-Sieve said. “I’m trying to use my privilege and my background to educate others.”

Nykyforchyn talked about her classmates’ strong presence at local protests.

“Most of my friends have made it to at least one protest in the area, and we would like to make it to all of them,” Nykyforchyn said. “We can’t vote right now, but we can come out, we can march, we can protest, and we can hopefully convince people who can vote that they should vote for change.”

Kristina Rivera, Waterford High School Class of ’98, was one of many parents who brought their children along to the peaceful march. She echoed much of what Naomi Jones said during the rally about Waterford’s schools, and, specifically, Rivera said she won’t send and hasn’t sent her son to school in Waterford because his skin tone is darker than his sister’s, who goes to Waterford High.

Rivera commended the young people leading the protest.

“I love that the youth have spoken up,” Rivera said. “We were the era of Rodney King, I was 11 years old. I wish my parents spoke out, but unfortunately, our parents were the generation of keeping our mouth quiet.”

Coretta Gates, who attended the protest with her infant child in a stroller, said she wanted to show solidarity by marching.

“We’re black, and it’s one thing to always know and feel the oppression, but to see so many people out here, and so many allies in particular, is beautiful,” Gates said. “I think that’s different than in times past.”

Brianna Jones and Wade said Sunday’s protest should only be a precursor of what’s to come.

“I hope all these white lives here understand and hear the message and go home and continue fighting for change,” Wade said.

“After today, we’re not done,” Jones added.

s.spinella@theday.com

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