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Standing room only as Old Lyme debates racism resolution

Old Lyme — More than 100 people descended on the Old Lyme Town Hall on Monday in what some referred to as "a call to arms" and others called a "show of solidarity" in a public discussion about racism in this town where 91% of residents are white.

The atypically crowded Board of Selectmen's meeting was galvanized around a proposed resolution that would identify racism as a public health crisis in town. Word had spread among proponents and opponents of the resolution through various email channels.

An email to supporters from the Lyme-Old Lyme Partnership for Social Justice said the group was "hoping to create a show of solidarity by filling the board meeting with local residents who are in favor of the resolution's passage." In response, an email from the Republican Town Committee with the subject line "A Call to Arms" invited members of the party to "do what you can to make sure all sides of this important debate are represented."

The crowd spilled into the hallway outside the meeting room, which has a maximum capacity of 100 people. Resident state trooper Matt Weber and his K-9 stood with a town police officer and a state trooper in the hall at the request of officials.

The resolution was first proposed last August by Mary Jo Nosal, the lone Democrat on the Board of Selectmen. The resolution has failed to come up for a vote despite 22 attempts by Nosal to engage the two Republican selectmen in discussion since then.

Resident Bud Canady spoke in opposition during the meeting's public comment period when he called the resolution "a Trojan horse." He said accepting the resolution would be a tacit admission that there's racism in Old Lyme when "anyone who lives here knows that's not the case."

Canady, like many who spoke up on both sides, said the town is welcoming and open. He said the town's demographics are not an indication of inherent racism.

"Hey, in the wintertime I live in Utah. There's about 10 percent Black people there, too," he said. "Do you think Mormons are racist? Of course not."

The Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager, a resident and senior associate pastor at First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, described the resolution as a symbolic way to send the message that those in Old Lyme realize racism affects everyone.

"It's not saying that I'm a racist or you're a racist; it's saying that racism is something in this country that we all have to grapple with, and it is a public health crisis," she said.

The church's senior minister, the Rev. Steven Jungkeit, said representatives of three local congregations this past weekend went to New Haven to bring home a family of refugees from Afghanistan to a jointly owned house in Old Lyme that has previously been a respite for families from Syria, the Congo, Puerto Rico and Iraq. The newest family to move in includes a mother, father and five children, with the youngest born just three and a half weeks ago.

"That's why we need the board to set a tone for other residents so that we all go out of our way to make them welcome," he said.

The crowd was roughly split based on applause for the 21 speakers, with slightly more people standing up in favor of the resolution than against it.  

The draft resolution proposed by Nosal is based in part on a template created by Hartford-based Health Equity Solutions. It comprises eight action steps, ranging from fostering a "justice-oriented" town government to solidifying partnerships with other organizations that are confronting racism.

Similar measures have been endorsed by officials in Lyme, Old Saybrook, New London and Norwich. Gov. Ned Lamont in June signed into law a sweeping bill addressing the effect of racism on public health at the state level.

Nosal at the beginning of Monday's meeting asked the selectmen to add to the agenda a discussion on the resolution, which is in keeping with parliamentary procedure that allows a member to add an item to the agenda if it is seconded and then approved by a two-thirds majority.

The motion was not seconded. Discussion instead took the form of debate among more than 20 people in the room during the part of the meeting reserved for public comment.

Resident Barbara Fallon, a retired oncologist, said she first heard about racism as a public health issue when she was a graduate student in the early 1980s. She said she tucked the information away, but didn't really understand it.

Since then, her work with people of all different races has shown her "evidence of a disparity in care for people of color" that manifests itself in such areas as cancer outcomes and complications in babies born to Black women compared to white women.

Martha Rumskas, a former Old Lyme animal control officer, spoke in opposition. She said she never saw anyone exhibit racist tendencies during her 21 years working for the town.

"Maybe some people feel racism, so they feel guilty. So they figure, 'we gotta pass this resolution to make us feel better.' But I've never felt it. I don't think we should pass this resolution," she said.

Some proponents referenced an ongoing investigation into Old Lyme police officer Jay Rankin to suggest the presence of racism in the community. Nosal has told The Day that Rankin is being investigated for allegedly yelling a racial slur at a pedestrian on Main Street in Old Saybrook.

Others spoke about the effects of racism in areas like housing, where a lack of affordable options combined with local, state and federal policies over the years has contributed to segregated communities.

Eileen Kane, a resident and professor of modern history at Connecticut College, said it's important to understand how the nation's past contributes to modern day, local realities.

"I don't agree that this has nothing to do with our community," she said. "Old Lyme is part of all of America."

Sheila Riffle, a resident whose interest in town government and regular attendance at recent meetings grew out of a neighborhood issue on Tantummaheag Road, said it was wonderful to see so many people at Monday's meeting. She proposed forming a focus group with a professional facilitator to help guide the conversation going forward.

Nosal at the end of the meeting submitted to the selectmen another draft resolution, this one from a town of similar size and demographics in Montana. Then she reiterated many of the same points she's brought up over the past 14 months.

"My approach has always been to acknowledge the difficulty of discussing systemic racism, to share related educational information and other resources with this board, to welcome other opinions, other approaches," she said. "I still remain hopeful and maybe with some of the public's help that we heard tonight, we'll develop some kind of public forum and we'll move forward."

Selectman Christopher Kerr after the meeting said he did not second Nosal's motion to add a discussion on the resolution to the agenda because the three selectmen talked about it "over a year ago and nothing's changed."

Griswold, when asked by reporters about Nosal's effort to get the discussion on the agenda again, wondered about the point of going through the motions when he and Kerr don't intend to support the resolution.

"I guess if you put it on the agenda and turn it down, or you don't put it on, is there much of a difference?" he said.

Griswold said the issue is better addressed by local churches.

"They could organize some of these things, which I think they have," he said. "There are other avenues to continue to discuss this."

Griswold said he asked for police coverage based on the anticipated crowd size. He discounted any idea that the police presence was related to the "Call to Arms" subject header on the Republican Town Committee email.

"So the phrase 'call to arms' in no way, in my opinion, meant people would bring guns or knives or other things of that sort," he said.

He said he didn't expect a physical presence by multiple law enforcement officers when he called Weber, the resident state trooper, for support in case an overflow crowd exceeded the room's capacity.

"I did not recommend we have one or two or three policemen in the building, but it was to just keep an eye, make sure tempers didn't flare or anything, but more so for the capacity," he said.

e.regan@theday.com

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