More than a dozen spoke at the rally which ended with an impromptu march through West Hartford Center.
By Ronni Newton
A powerful yet peaceful protest drew a crowd estimated at more than 2,000 to the steps of West Hartford Town Hall on Tuesday.
Nearly every single person wore a face covering, and as the diverse crowd packed the lawn and spilled onto the sidewalks and into the roadway, which had been blocked off by police cars, they kept as much distance as possible between themselves and the other protesters, cognizant of the fact that along with fighting racism and protesting the brutality of police in the treatment of George Floyd and other black men, the country is still fighting COVID-19.
Among the dozen who spoke was West Hartford Police Chief Vernon Riddick.
“I think it takes courage for them to ask the police chief,” Riddick said of being asked to speak. Some of the homemade signs being waved by protestors were overtly critical of police.
“As I stand here before you, I apologize on behalf of all law enforcement for what happened to George Floyd,” Riddick said. After 27 years in law enforcement, 24 of those with the Waterbury Police Department where he served as chief before being named chief in West Hartford in 2018, Riddick said he knows what urban policing is all about.
“I also know what wrong policing is all about,” he said. “When I saw that video I was sickened.”
Riddick said it’s not acceptable, and “the good cops have got to stop the nonsense.” The crowd cheered.
“As an African American male, if I’m driving not in uniform, I’m nervous. I’m nervous. I get it,” Riddick said. “My father gave me the talk. My father gave my brother the talk. When my brother and I decided to get into law enforcement, we did it to make a change.”
Riddick implored those who think a change is needed to join law enforcement to help make that change, as President Barack Obama said, “sometimes you have to be the change that you seek. … Help stand for change. Help stand for righteousness,” said Riddick.
“I feel your pain, I truly do. I get it. I also stand for change. I’m not afraid to stand in front. I’m not afraid to fight,” Riddick said.
Tuesday’s protest was organized by West Hartford native and Hall High School alum Mimi Gonzalez, 25. Gonzalez just graduated from the Obama Foundation Leadership Corps in November 2019.
“I’m always looking for ways to make change from where I come from,” she said. In just one day, she organized the protest.
Gonzalez said her 15-year-old sister, Jaelisse, has autism and wanted to participate in a protest. Their father, who is black, is a Hartford firefighter, and Gonzalez said her sister has been very worried about something happening to him.
“I wanted to nurture her passion, just wanted to lift her up,” said Gonzalez, so she organized a protest right in her hometown. She had no idea it would grow into such a large event.
Earlier in the day Gov. Ned Lamont spoke of protests throughout the state being done “the Connecticut way,” peacefully and with a show of mutual respect.
The crowd was asked to take a knee for eight minutes, the amount of time a now-former Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck, causing his death. Riddick, and the many other members of the West Hartford Police Department who were in attendance, joined them.
There was chanting, there was clapping, and if not for the coronavirus there would have been much more hugging.
“Black Lives Matter,” the crowd said in unison.
“Say his name,” the leaders shouted. “George Floyd,” the crowd responded.
“What do we want. Justice. When do we want it. Now.”
The protest was not intended to be a march, until one of the speakers urged the crowd to take to the streets, where they continued the chants on a loop through the Center.
The protest was broadcast by We-Ha.com as a Facebook Live event.
The entirety of Chief Riddick’s speech as well as the end of the march can also be seen in video below.
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