STONINGTON — If there was one message that Kevin Booker Jr. hoped attendees would take from the Black Lives Matter Rally in Wadawanuck Square, it's that the time has come to "stand up, speak up and follow through" against racism, inequality and injustice.
Booker, a longtime educator and motivational speaker, looked out over an audience of several hundred people who had gathered in the park in front of the Stonington Free Library in Stonington Borough on Sunday afternoon before encouraging residents to carry the momentum beyond rallies and to make a difference every day "until there is true justice and freedom for all."
"I challenge the whites here today to stand in solidarity with Black and brown people who are fighting to stay alive and fighting for justice," said Booker, a member of the New London City Council, who served as master of ceremonies. "Right now, you need to stand up on a daily basis."
The Sunday afternoon rally, which was put together by youth organizers Olivia Cyr and Emma Ferguson in partnership with the Stonington Democratic Town Committee and Rise Up Mystic, drew a large crowd to the normally quiet Borough.
Area residents, nearly all wearing masks in an effort to follow social distancing, carried signs with phrases including "White guy for Black lives" and "Love must not be silent" while participating in chants and calls for change across the town, state and nation.
Others carried signs that called for justice for Chrystal Caldwell, a Black woman and employee of a Mystic hotel who was recently assaulted by a white couple from New York who were staying as guests. A rally with approximately 30 supporters of Caldwell was also held in front of the Stonington Police Department earlier in the day.
No charges have been filed yet in that case, although Stonington police have maintained they will work with the New London State's Attorney and will be seeking an extraditable warrant for charges related to the assault.
The event, which lasted about two hours, included brief introductions from both Cyr and Ferguson, several musical performances and speeches from a wide range of dignitaries including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, New London NAACP President Jean Jordan, New London police officer and State Rep. Anthony Nolan, and educators Erica Watson and Dr. David Canton.
Each speaker talked about different aspects of injustice in Connecticut, a state that Booker and Canton each said is considered to be "predominantly white" in 149 of its 169 municipalities, despite having a more diverse minority population than is represented in those numbers.
As a Stonington resident who grew up in a predominantly white and blessed coastal community, Cyr told her audience she is well aware of the privileges she had growing up, and it was one of the reasons she helped organize the event on July Fourth weekend.
The two said that growing up, they learned of racism in school but also recall hearing that "it doesn't happen here" repeatedly. Both said Sunday that such a statement is untrue and cannot be accepted, and that the community must work together to assure that all businesses and residents are working to be inclusive and fair to all, regardless of skin tone.
"We all have a responsibility to the Chrystal Caldwell's in our community. Everyone deserves equal justice," Ferguson said.
Jordan, who has known Caldwell since the two were about 4 years old, read from "The 'Inappropriate' Manifesto" by Carolyn L. Gordon as she urged people to remain vocal and to never back down or stay silent in the face of racism or hate. In quoting the final lines, Jordan praised those who will "continue to protest and be appropriately inappropriate."
"Until we see real change, until we see true solutions, we need to continue to protest and continue to be appropriately inappropriate," she said.
As a first-term representative, Nolan said he hopes to see that change come to fruition in the coming decade. As an officer, he said that change needs to happen systematically and that means ending victim blaming and "a buffet-style justice system" that has inadequately targeted poor folks and Black communities over the years.
Nolan was clear in stating that not all cops were bad — he said the vast majority of those he's worked with should be considered "good cops" — but that even good officers need help and the system needs a complete overall to push out those officers or even unions who would commit crimes or protect bad officers.
"I know, personally, that there are more good officers than bad, but being a good officer means not standing there and just watching things happen," Nolan said."It's not enough to stand there and say 'I didn't do it.'"
While the Black Lives Matter movement has focused heavily on the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, speakers including Watson and Canton urged residents at Stonington's rally to be aware of other inequalities as well, noting a great divide between race and social class in areas including healthcare access, education and employment.
The two shared their own experiences, many which involved the struggles of growing up Black and being taught about the dangers of what many would consider everyday life, and said that to impact a change will require reversing 400 years of systematic issues.
"It's not about hiring a person or simply altering a policy. It's about changing the whole system," he said. "We need a radical change, a full do-over."
The message was heard by those in attendance. Booker, in closing the program, noted that activism means stopping one thing and starting another. He challenged a group of "three white people" to stand up and explain what they would do to further community equality.
Not one person stood alone, however, and within just 90 seconds there were already more than two dozen people standing in a line, waiting for their turn to make a promise. Booker reminded them to capitalize on this momentum.
"This is our moment to make a change. Moments like this in history don't come along often," he said. "We can't end here today, we need to go out everyday and work to make that change."