By Austin Mirmina.
More than 300 protesters gathered at the Higganum Town Green on Saturday, June 20, 2020, joining the swelling number of Connecticut towns that have held protests to speak out against racial injustice.
The event marked a watershed moment for Higganum, which is a predominantly white section of Haddam-Killingworth, as it tries to confront a troubling history with racism.
Residents voiced their deep-seated anxieties about the town’s connection to racism. In the early 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan used to hold meetings in Higganum, according to a 2009 newsletter from the Haddam Historical Society. And this past school year, two HK students had racial slurs written anonymously in their virtual yearbooks.
The mother of those two students, Maura Wallin, told protesters to be vigilant about speaking out against bigotry. She spoke pointedly to adults, saying they are responsible for setting a good example for younger residents.
“Now is the time to get on the right side of history and change things for generations to come,” Wallin said
People of all ages, from young children to older adults, wore masks and spread out across the Higganum Green to follow social distancing rules. Most of the protesters donned black shirts and held signs saying, “Black Lives Matter,” “Love kills hate! End racism,” and “Color is not a crime.”
HK resident Cary Chadwick, 38, brought her two children, ages five and seven, to the protest. She said her family has been paying attention to the news and having honest conversations about why people of color are treated differently.
Chadwick also said she has been using this moment of social justice to help her children recognize the importance of standing up for people who are being mistreated.
“I’m trying to teach them to advocate when they see someone who is being mistreated to be the one that steps in and says it’s not O.K.,” Chadwick said.
Seven individuals addressed the crowd from inside the gazebo, which transformed into a makeshift stage. Arjun Badami, who was the valedictorian for Haddam Killingworth High School’s Class of 2020, said one of society’s biggest issues was allowing racism to become normalized.
“We must all be actively anti-racist,” Badami said.
Fredrica Gray, who is a former executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, said she expressed skepticism about speaking at the protest.
“I really wasn’t going to come, I really wasn’t,” Gray said, to which a man in the crowd replied, “We’re glad you’re here.”
Gray said she was amazed to see the mix of “multi-colored human beings” who were “demanding justice” not only for George Floyd, but also for every person who suffers racial discrimination.
In one of the more uplifting moments from her speech, Gray described a scene from a recent protest she witnessed of an older white man holding up a sign saying, “Sorry I’m late. I had a lot to learn.” Gray used the anecdote to explain that understanding the history of racism can be a starting point for future progress.
“There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know,” Gray said. “But we’ll learn together.”
Valeka Clarke, a formal mayoral candidate of Middletown, reiterated why she and some of her peers felt uncomfortable taking the stage to speak as people of color.
“I was skeptical about coming here, because [HK] is predominantly white,” Clarke said. “But I took a chance, knowing there would be a crowd out here that would actually support me.”
Clarke expressed her frustration with being treated and perceived differently because she is black and doesn’t conform to what she called the European standard of beauty. She described a time when a white woman asked to pet her hair while waiting in line at the grocery store.
“Stop looking at us because we’re different. And start looking at us because we’re human,” Clarke said.
Elijah Manning, 38, who currently lives in Norwalk, said he has been attending protests and speaking to people in predominantly white areas around Connecticut. The reason, he said, is to spread the message to people who can’t relate to the struggle of being a Black person in white America.
In addition to speaking at protests, Manning said he is currently working with the Norwalk school board to restructure the curriculum so it makes students more aware of the injustices faced by Black people.
“The narrative has changed. You have moved the goalposts,” Manning said.
Some elected officials, including First Selectman Bob McGarry and State Representative Christine Palm, also attended the protest to show support.
Palm said she is thrilled that the issue of racial inequality is being broken wide open. She called the protest a “really important moment for [Higganum], because it’s full of people who care deeply about social justice.”
For HK resident Rebecca Mainetti, 26, the protest was a chance for HK to begin repairing its relationship with people of color and also to make it more inclusive.
“I’m really glad we were able to have a Black Lives Matter rally in the same town [as a KKK rally] so many years later,” Mainetti said. “It feels like it stuck in the right direction.”
Photos by Austin Mirmina.