Kenia Ferreira and Eshe Griffith, two Conard High School seniors, co-led the rally, which featured speeches from several prominent figures in local and statewide politics.
By Dexter McCann and Melanie Grados. Photos by Sofie Brandt and Melanie Grados
Hundreds of West Hartford residents made their way to Town Hall Sunday afternoon to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and protest the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more.
The crowd – estimated to be about 1,000 – a diverse mix of races and ages, packed the Town Hall lawn and spilled into a barricaded area of South Main Street. While they were enthusiastic in supporting their cause, the rally remained civil and peaceful, and the police force standing by did not intervene.
The recent outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement has been in large part driven by high levels of youth support, and Sunday’s rally – the second taking part in West Hartford in the past week – was no exception. Kenia Ferreria and Eshe Griffith, two Conard seniors, organized and co-led the rally, which featured scheduled speeches from two current high school students as well as two recent Conard graduates. In addition, students from Hall, other students from Conard, and even Sedgwick Middle School students made impromptu statements to great applause from the supportive audience.
In addition to the aforementioned students, several influential town leaders spoke, including West Hartford Police Chief Vernon Riddick, Town Council member Carol Blanks, State Rep. Tammy Exum, Board of Education member Lorna Thomas-Farquharson, and New London City Councilor Kevin Booker.
Riddick was one of the first to speak, and pointed to this moment as a potential turning point in the struggle for racial equality in the United States.
“Are we at an intersection where you either have to turn left or right, and can’t move forward? Forward means the same. Left or right means change. What are we going to do? Change!” said Riddick, who received rapturous applause.
“Regarding law enforcement, every police officer out there, including yours truly, and we know this is true, we would put our lives on the line for you. We would die for you, and I told them at roll call: if you’re not willing to sacrifice your life for the public then give up your badge,” he added.
“America, we have a problem, America, let’s fix that problem,” Riddick concluded.
Exum, who represents a district comprising parts of Farmington and Avon as well as West Hartford in the state legislature, elaborated on the extent of that problem. She said she was part of the first integrated kindergarten class in North Carolina, and expressed her disappointment that more progress with regards to racial justice hadn’t been made since then.
“When I would go to towns … there were confederate flags and KKK rallies down main streets. However, I surely thought by the time I had children, these days would be well behind us, and so I’m so sad to see where we are today,” said Exum.
“When you hear about the talk that African Americans have with their children when they go out driving, when they go out into the Center, about their behavior, how to behave when a police officer pulls them over … that is real. We’re nervous every time when they leave the house, even in a town like this,” Exum added.
Exum said she has found solace, however, in the strength of the youth movement for racial equality.
“It’s young people who I have my trust and faith in … you follow a legacy of young people who are leaders who have to make change in this country.”
Ferreira, one of the many young people to speak, touched upon, among many other things, what West Hartford residents could do to help support racial justice.
“West Hartford has made some steps, but we are nowhere near where we need to be … educate yourself and your peers because ignorance cannot combat ignorance … I ask that you listen with an open heart and an open mind, understand your place in this movement, and go out and vote, and make your voice be heard,” said Ferreira, who was Conard’s student representative to the West Hartford Board of Education this year.
“Black lives matter, not just today standing here in this moment, but every second of every day!” Ferreira concluded.
Members of the audience showed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement several times during the rally. Perhaps none was more powerful, however, than an 8 minute and 46 second moment of silence held for George Floyd.
Derek Chauvin, the now-former Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd, held his knee on Floyd’s neck for exactly 8 minutes and 46 seconds. In memoriam, the crowd at the protest knelt in silence for the entirety of those 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and many held their right fists in the air to show their solidarity with the black lives matter movement.
In addition to the moment of silence, chants of “No Justice, No Peace” and “Black Lives Matter” were frequently started during interludes between speeches.
Eshe Griffith, one of the co-leaders of the rally, became inspired to take public action when she heard the movement was searching for black leadership in West Hartford. She reached out to Ferreira as well as Conard Vice Principal Jamahl Hines and librarian Rachel Tonucci, and together the four of them came up with the idea of hosting a rally.
“I voiced my frustration to [Hines] and he voiced his to me. We had a meeting before this all started, and it was just us and our peers, and we were like we understand that we’re frustrated. What are we going to do about it? This is one of the things,” added Ferreira.
Griffith was thrilled with the turnout at the rally.
“We were hearing that it was gonna be a couple hundred people coming, and I think that made this a lot more influential,” she concluded.
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