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Protesters gather to get their messages heard during Harris visit to New London

New London — Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday didn’t bring to New London the crowds of protesters expected during a presidential visit. Vice presidents rarely do.

The handful of protesters who showed up to announce their various anti-war or anti-nuclear weapons messages were, for a time, outnumbered by police officers.

One New London officer, Sgt. Cornelius Rodgers, approached the group, joked about receiving a noise complaint, briefly chatted and then asked if anyone needed water.

The numbers had grown to more than two dozen people by the time most of those gathered had figured Harris’ motorcade would be arriving. Harris gave the keynote address at the graduation ceremony.

William Smith III of Rhode Island joked about the likelihood that his message would be seen by Harris. Smith held one end of a large banner calling for the U.S. to join with other countries and sign on to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

“(Harris) is going to tell the driver to pull over and come over and shake our hands,” Smith quipped.

Smith is associated with the Just Peace R.I. group and like Jonathan Daly-LaBelle, also of Rhode Island, showed up in New London to gain attention for a cause they believed in. The entire gathering was contained to a roadside part of McKinley Park, a swath of city-owned green space at the corner of Williams Street and Mohegan Avenue Parkway near the academy. Many visitors to Wednesday’s ceremony, some in uniform, walked past the group and nodded, smiled or simply ignored them.

Joanne Sheehan, the New England coordinator for the War Resisters League, held one side of a sign welcoming Harris and urging “no new nuclear arms races.” Sheehan has been attending these peaceful gatherings outside the graduation ceremonies at least as far back as the visit from President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

She was joined by a group associated with organizations such as the Connecticut Committee for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the Voluntown Peace Trust, St. Francis House, Connecticut Green Party and Hartford Catholic Worker. Her group was the only one to obtain a permit from the city for Wednesday’s gathering.

“What motivates me? I think we have been here for most presidents and vice presidents for decades," Sheehan said. "I think it’s important — we know they probably won’t see us — when there is someone that high up in the administration for us to express our message.”

She referenced the billions of dollars being spent on the Columbia class of submarines and the amount of money and weapons being sent to Ukraine.

"I’m not saying don’t support Ukraine. I’m saying support them in a different way,” Sheehan said. “I don’t think you fight bombs with bombs.”

Sheehan said she would like to see a shift away from the billions of dollars spent on weapons instead flow into communities like New London that would benefit from infrastructure improvements, affordable housing, child care, education and clean energy technology to improve the quality of life.

Wednesday’s gathering was a contrast to the throngs of people who had gathered for last year’s visit by President Joe Biden, many condemning Biden for what some had called human rights violations against Palestinians during a recent spate of violence in Israel and Gaza. President Donald Trump’s visit in 2017 attracted the largest group of demonstrators in recent memory.

g.smith@theday.com

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