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Cloudy Saturday doesn't dampen Sailfest fireworks, Black Lives Matter march

New London — Cloudy skies didn’t keep thousands of people from crowding the city for the second day of the 39th annual Sailfest, which on Saturday featured the typical fried food and rides but also served as the backdrop for a small demonstration in support of black Americans affected by police violence.

Despite the threat of rain, dozens of people already were in place by noon with folding chairs ready to watch the fireworks and listen to live bands playing on the end of the pier.

A U.S. Army recruiter gave out prizes to people taking their challenge to do pull-ups on makeshift workout equipment.

Latin music blasted from the Hygienic Art Park stage on Bank Street, which was packed with vendors selling everything from grilled chicken to soap.

Two young artists spent the day outside the Hygienic perfecting a project that few people will see once it's done.

Jess Oppert, 17, and Ben Doukas, 18, were finishing a mural showing abstract versions of New London buildings that will hang inside the doors of the city's police department as part of a plan to decorate the building using art by high school students and support from the state Office of the Arts Public Art Community Projects Program, Hygienic Art, the city's school district and New London Main Street.

The buildings appeared to be melting into the sky, and a closer look revealed alien-like figures hidden in the swirls of paint.

"We wanted to go with something a little less traditional," Oppert said.

Many people passing by called the painting "dope," Doukas said.

"That's what we were going for, so that made me feel really good," he said.

Jessica Keenan of Montville was ready for the fireworks with folding chairs along the city pier before noon on Saturday.

She planned to sit waiting with her son, Zak, for the fireworks that would begin just after 9 p.m.

The family comes to New London almost every year, she said, and hoped the clouds that hovered over the city wouldn’t interfere with the show, sponsored by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe.

“We sat here this long,” she said.

Several blocks up State Street, in front of the historic New London County Courthouse, Shannee Ladson-Varnell was waiting for something else.

The New London native had gathered several friends to join her for a demonstration following recent police shooting deaths of two black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, both of which were widely publicized via cellphone videos posted online.

“I just became overwhelmed,” she said.

Ladson-Varnell, who said she had never organized such an event before, texted friends in New London and invited people to join her using Facebook.

“I felt like this would be a good way to garner support,” she said. “I hope that people with a conscience will try to join us.”

The group of about a dozen people stood in front of the courthouse with handwritten signs and chanted the slogan of the movement that emerged after police killings of black Americans over the past year — "Black Lives Matter."

The gathering echoed a similar event Thursday, when members of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church gather held a roadside vigil in the aftermath of the two incidents in which police officers in Falcon Heights, Minn., shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop on Wednesday and officers in Louisiana shot Alton Sterling on Tuesday.

The demonstrators later walked down the State Street sidewalk to the 1896 Soldiers and Sailors Monument, where they stood for several hours chanting, singing and waving signs.

Passers-by generally responded well to the demonstration, Ladson-Varnell said.

"It was an overwhelmingly positive experience," she said.

Many hugged the marchers, joined in their chants and cheered as they walked by.

Some, Ladson-Varnell said, rolled their eyes or insisted as they passed that "all lives matter," not just black ones.

"We were expecting that," she said.

Erick Carrion of New London held a sign that attempted to explain why "all lives" weren't the focus of the movement.

"All lives will matter when black lives matter," it read.

"We are talking about a group of people who have been excluded ... and are being oppressed," Carrion said.

Some of the marchers stayed in front of the monument past dark, waving the signs and chanting Black Lives Matter slogans even as pop songs like Justin Timberlake's "Sexyback" blasted from speakers on the roof of the restaurant across the street.

By 9 p.m., the city's streets, parking garages and rooftops were full of people ready for the main event: the fireworks show.

Any worry about cloudy skies cleared by the time the first boom rang out just before 9:30 p.m.

The show ended with cheers from people watching across the city, then was quickly replaced by the sound of car horns honking as they rushed to drive home.


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