Lila Estime loved seeing her peers, a teacher she knew from Joel Barlow High School, and everyone who turned out for the Vigil for George Floyd. “It was a moving night to remember,” she said.
Estime, a class of 2014 Barlow graduate and one of the speakers, attended all of Easton’s schools and now studies biology at Sacred Heart University. “I like that it was bipartisan,” she said. “We all came together for a good cause. Change is possible with hard work.”
Perfect late spring weather contributed to the serious but friendly small town ambience, the sun streaming onto the field and later bursting into a sunset behind Samuel Staples Elementary School.
Floyd, 46, an African American man, was brutally killed during a police arrest May 25 in Minneapolis. Protests in response to his horrific death, and to police violence against other black Americans, quickly spread across the United States and internationally, from large cities to small towns, including Easton.
More than 300 people of all ages turned out for the the June 8 vigil on the Morehouse Road playing fields. They wore masks and kept their social distance, in keeping with the rules for the event. Some carried signs while others lit candles as the evening wore on. Some just sat or stood and listened.
Devon Wible, Tara Gottlieb and Sarah Lehberger organized the vigil. Renowned Easton musician Dan Carlucci played guitar.
The lineup of speakers included First Selectman Dave Bindelglass and selectmen Bob Lessler and Kristi Sogofsky, in addition to Police Chief Rich Doyle, state Rep. Anne Hughes, the Rev. Cary Slater of Covenant Church, local Girl Scout Troop 31490, Wiley Mullins, Estime, and others. Lessler read the Declaration of Independence.
Robert LaValle, a former band leader at Helen Keller Middle School and now a columnist for the Easton Courier, read his poem, “I Can’t Breathe” and sang “We Shall Overcome,” urging others to join in.
“I believe systemic racism is a fact,” Bindelglass said, addressing the large crowd. “I believe inequality of opportunity and of resources dominates our society, and I believe that the vast majority of police officers in this country are very good people. But I believe we continue to put them in a system that leads to the horrible outcomes not just for their victims but for themselves.
“I’m sure that in Easton none of us considers ourselves a racist but if you ask the chief, if there is an Arican American walking down one of our roads the likelihood is high that the police will be called. Occasionally there are calls about suspicious looking white people but it’s not the same. Our police in Easton have a great record, accusations of bias or excessive force largely do not exist, and we should be proud of that.
“I believe if anything happened in Easton it would be because the officers were put in a bad position, not because they are bad people. That’s why reforming how we police is critical. Black lives matter, blue lives matter, all lives matter.”
Doyle recited some of the words in the message he released last week condemning the killing of Floyd at the hands of police officers and said he is happy to meet with anyone who has concerns about police conduct.
“You may ask what I have done since all of this has transpired,” he said. “I’ve asked my officers to remain calm. They may face inquiries about this incident. What I’ve done internally, which you should know about, is last week I pulled out our Code of Ethics and ordered a review of all of our policies. I’ve also ordered our officers to take a class offered by our insurance carrier on bias-based policing.”
Chief State’s Attorney Richard J. Colangelo Jr., who is chairman of the Easton Police Commission, also released a statement that stated, in part, “The actions of those officers are reprehensible, heart-wrenching, and criminal. There is nothing to defend. There is nothing to debate. I share in the sadness and outrage of those here and across the country.”
Sogofsky said that in the past couple of weeks her kids have seen what’s happened on the news and they’ve asked questions. “This led to all kinds of discussion: A discussion of what happened, a discussion about the reaction and a discussion of why people did what they did. And their response quite simply, as second and third graders, was that doesn’t make any sense. People are people and it shouldn’t matter.
And while that view is obviously very childish, naive and innocent, it’s also idealistic. I believe my responsibility as a parent is to foster that idealism: To believe that people are people and to better understand the experiences of people who may not look like us. My hope is that as changes move forward that the focus is on the people in the communities and not on all the politics. All the dialogue and the discourse and collective effort are positive steps and need to continue.”
“George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s are image bearers of God whose lives are precious,” Slater said. “And yet their lives were casually taken because they are black.” He lamented that the virus of systemic racism has been allowed to grow in the nation and established a foothold in too many churches. “We will not ignore the sin of racism. Black lives matter,” he said.
Hughes thanked the community for showing up. “I welcome us to stay in the discomfort of this moment because our discomfort is where the work begins. We begin to understand the terror and the fear of our black neighbors, the terror of racism.”
“As your legislators we stand behind those closest to the violence. We are pledging to make policy change and transformation, to pass meaningful legislative reform that directly impacts the violence of this moment. We have a lot of work to do.”
A moment of silence for Floyd was observed for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time the white officer kneeled on the black man’s neck. The names of 21 black people killed by police officers in Connectiut over the past five years was read aloud.
Estime read a poem about empathy and told a story. “I had a wonderful high school experience,” she said. “Joel Barlow is amazing. But since we’re telling stories, I remember one experience sitting at the lunch room table in September when we were just back at school. North West [the daughter of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West] had been born that summer. One girl said, ‘She’s cute, but I think she’s just a little too dark.’”
“I remember being so devastated but also confused because I’m darker than North West. Afterward she had three or five people come up to me and say she really didn’t mean that. I remember sitting there and thinking I don’t ever want to have a girl and have her enter this world and feel like she’s too dark.
“The people who are the victims of police brutality are not too dark. Their skin color is not a crime. I’m just here to say that the work will be uncomfortable, the work will be hard, some may not like it. But the work has to be done.”
When Mullins moved to Easton after graduate school, he recalled attending town meetings where “people turned out in droves” when the discussion was about affordable housing. The feeling was that “we don’t want those people here,” he said. “It almost meant to me, coming from the background where I came from in Alabama, that ‘we don’t want people to somehow denigrate our community in some fashion.’ I’d like you to think about that.
“I went to a school board meeting one time with a friend who was on the board and wanted to bring some deserving students from urban communities, Bridgeport perhaps, here to Easton to school. It sort of fell on deaf ears. That was disheartening too. Everyone wants the best for their children and sometimes can’t find a way out.”
He asked people to ask themselves, “How many of you have invited your black friends over to dinner? When was the last time you’ve seen a black person other than the few of us scattered around Easton? Do you know anybody who’s black?”
Cindy Slane, who has lived in Easton for 30 years, was among the large group of people who attended the vigil. “This is not a black people’s problem to solve, it’s our problem,” she said “We’re the ones who have benefitted from white privilege.”
She also spoke of concerns that Easton had not done enough on initiatives such as building affordable housing.
“Easton can be a town that moves things forward, or it can be a town that social distances and quarantines, but not in the way Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx prescribe,” Mullins said. “Is this going to be a moment or a movement? A movement takes hard work, a movement takes sacrifice.”
Kelly Wendt contributed to this article.
Photo at top: Wiley Mullins looks at a sign Karen Thorsen and Doug Dempsey brought to the vigil. — Jane Paley