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New London and Ledyard recognize Fourth of July with Black Lives Matter protests

Amongst the sea of people chanting and marching up State Street in New London on Saturday afternoon was at least one sign that read, "No freedom 'til we're equal."

Earlier in Ledyard, a sign read, "It is more patriotic to recognize flaws in your country and to want better for it than to turn a blind eye."

These signs touched on the choice a few hundred people made in New London and Ledyard Saturday: to recognize Independence Day this year not with a backyard cookout or more traditional event, but by attending a Black Lives Matter protest.

"You are in the right place right now, and you are on the right side of history right now," an impassioned Felicia Hurley told around 300 people gathered at the Whale's Tail in New London in the afternoon.

As she and her father, Steve Hurley, played djembe drums, people gathered to dance in front of them and wave flags — such as those of Jamaica, Trindad and Haiti — while the audience clapped from the steps.

The protest was organized by the social justice organization Hearing Youth Voices. One chant leader earlier led singing of, "We're gonna rise up, rise up 'til it's won" to the tune of "Blessings" by Chance the Rapper, and another had the Black people in attendance repeat, "I love being Black, I love the color of my skin, 'cause it's the skin that I'm in."

"Why do you choose to protest on July 4th, a holiday that represents independence and freedom? Maybe because we know we are not free," said Junior Dufort of Norwich.

He read his list of demands for the city: that municipal leaders invest more in Black businesses through contracts, more money goes toward de-escalation training, and the police force is one "that guards our city, that protects us, rather than viewing us as enemies."

Earlier in the day in between the Ledyard Congregational Church and Bill Library, James Griffin — a 2018 graduate of Ledyard High School — also read demands for the town.

He also wants police to invest more in de-escalation training, and for officer complaints to be logged in a public database.

Other demands include ending use of the 1033 program that funnels surplus military equipment to towns, removing school resource officers from schools because it "perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline," the school board making "massive changes" to K-12 curriculum and inviting the Mashantucket-Pequot Tribal Nation to collaborate, and the town investing in diversity, equity and inclusion training.

In extensive remarks, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, summarized the reforms Senate Democrats have proposed and touched on other goals.

She said the state needs to provide more support for minority-owned businesses, address unequal zoning regulations to increase affordable housing opportunities, expand access to absentee ballots, change Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day, and remove the John Mason statue from the Capitol building. She also suggested changing the name of the Thames River back to the Pequot River.

Given the setting in Ledyard, the peaceful protest contained much talk of Indigenous lives in addition to Black lives.

Phyllip "Seeing Fox" Thomas, treasurer of the Mashantucket-Pequot Tribal Youth Council, spoke of his experiences in Ledyard schools. Hair has been a source of pride in the tribal community, he said, but when he got tired of people telling him he looked like a girl or to go back to his teepee, he cut his hair off.

Layla Sebastian recalled teachers defending students who called the tribal reservation "the hood" or called tribal students "ghetto." She said she was told in elementary school she didn't "look tribal," and yet multiple kids called her and her cousin Pocahontas.

Ledyard Mayor Fred Allyn III spoke briefly at the beginning before heading out.

"Change is never easy, nor is it comfortable," he said. "Effectuating positive change means changes at home, schools and the workplace. The impact of racism on another human being will never be forgotten and the wound never fully heals."

The microphone was later opened up to anyone who wanted to talk.

Resident Al Mayo said of police, "They're hoping it dies down. They're hoping this crowd turns from 100 to 50 to 40 to 20 to 10 to we're not even here before."

After remarks, the crowd marched the brief distance to the police station, where they held signs, chanted, and wrote messages in chalk on the sidewalk, such as "Black Lives Matter," "white silence = violence," and "This is not political."

e.moser@theday.com

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