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Demonstrators march in New London to protest George Floyd death

New London — Cries of “I can’t breathe” echoed through the streets of New London on Saturday as hundreds of demonstrators marched to protest the police-involved death of a handcuffed black man Monday in Minnesota.

Protesters first gathered on Parade Plaza in the morning to speak out against George Floyd’s death, holding posters and shouting into megaphones, calling for justice, before moving into the street and marching through the city.

About 2:30 p.m., after a few hours on the plaza, protesters began to inch their way onto State Street, blocking traffic.

“You need to disrupt the peace,” shouted Joseph Pinero, a black man who was raised in New London and now lives in Hartford. Holding the hand of his 2-year-old son, Micco, he encouraged protesters to walk back and forth through the street to take a stand but avoid arrests by not fully impeding traffic.

“When you say ‘No justice, no peace’ you actually want to have no peace,” he said, explaining that disrupting traffic keeps people from getting to work or going to pick up takeout food and therefore gets their attention.

Pinero said he’s been demonstrating for the Black Lives Matter movement for years and that Saturday’s protest was the largest he’d ever seen in New London. He said it was important to speak out to prevent police brutality from continuing.

“It’s going to happen here in five years, in 10 years, it’s already happened years ago,” he said. "It’s just a cycle and we’re not changing anything because we’re not looking at what needs to be changed.”

With demonstrators marching back and forth on State Street, New London Police Department Chief Peter Reichard stepped in to help direct traffic so drivers could pass safely through, as protesters erupted in louder and louder chants of “no justice, no peace.”

The event in New London took place at the same time as other demonstrations across the country, some turning violent in cities like Louisville and Los Angeles, to protest Floyd's death. In Norwich, city police officers reported about 100 demonstrators gathered Saturday afternoon on Chelsea Parade, Lt. Tim Rykowski said. It was a peaceful assembly, he said, with no incidents and no one hurt.

Floyd died after police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Video taken by bystanders shows Floyd pleading with officers that he was in pain and couldn't breathe, then going limp. Chauvin was taken into custody on Friday and charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder, according to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who said he also anticipates charges for the three other officers involved in the incident. All four men were fired from the department Tuesday.

Local police leaders have condemned Chauvin's actions.

Dozens of demonstrators in New London referenced Floyd’s death with signs, some with his name and others with messages like “He couldn’t breathe” and “Why can’t people that look like us breathe?” Multiple black men held signs that said “Am I next?”

Jainneka Jackson of Norwich, who organized the protest, said she felt compelled to get people together in one space to make their voices heard. She said she watched the video of Floyd being killed and wanted to do something “to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again.”

She used Facebook to spread the word and said she was impressed by the size of the crowd, and was happy that no one was hurt.

Lael Richardson and Alexis Thornton wore duct tape over their mouths with “I can’t breathe,” scrawled in red ink across the tape.

“We’re here to be known and heard that our black lives matter,” said Thornton, who is black.

Thornton said she was prompted to come out to protest because she feels that black men “are an endangered species” and need to be protected. And right now, she said, they’re not.

She said she wanted white people in the community to know that their voices are needed, too. “Speak up, stand with us. Stand with us or you’re standing against us. Being quiet is just as bad. Stand with us, talk with us, hold a poster with us. You guys don’t have to do this, but we do. So, stand with us.”

On Eugene O’Neill Drive, Tiffany Lively, a white woman from Mystic, stopped her car in the middle of the road and got out to hold two large signs that said “black lives matter.” Lively had tears streaming down her face as she raised the signs into the air.

Charity Taylor, who is black, approached her and wrapped her in a hug. “Look at this white woman,” she shouted to the crowd, “shedding her tears because she fears for us.”

“It’s not about black and white, it’s about right and wrong. Period,” Taylor said.

Earl Dudley, a black man from New London, joined the demonstration with his family, holding his 2-year-old daughter Khalis in his arms. He has had conversations with his sons, ages 10 and 18, about what they should do if they encounter a white police officer. His advice to them has been to remain calm, be aware of the laws and know their rights.

All of his children are mixed race but “at the end of the day they’re considered black, so I just want to make them aware of what we’re going through and try to prepare them as best as possible if they ever encounter such a situation,” he said. “But there’s really no way to prepare them for something where they don’t have to be doing much of anything and it could still happen.”

Efrain Dominguez Jr., president of the New London City Council, joined in the demonstration and commended other council members for showing up and speaking out. “We’re doing our very best to not allow something like that has happened across the nation, and especially in Minneapolis, to happen here in our city,” he said.

City Councilor James Burke said he came out to stand in solidarity with his community and to say that “George Floyd’s death was a murder and that we are all saddened and angered and frustrated at the state of police-community relations across this country" and to demand change. “As much as I’m very proud of the work that New London does, all of our public institutions can do better to be anti-racist," he said.

New London Mayor Michael Passero also appeared at the rally and said he was shocked at the “complete disregard for human life” displayed by the police officer in the Floyd case.

“I hear their anger,” he said of protesters in New London. “It just happens too often in too many cities in this country. I want to believe it wouldn’t happen here but we also want to make sure it can’t happen here.”

He said prevention of such an incident involves strong leadership and culture at the department and policies that include training on tactics on de-escalation. “We work very hard both in my administration and police administration to ensure that there isn’t a culture within the department that could allow something like that to happen here.”

Passero said he was proud to see that the unscheduled march downtown was peaceful. “They were angry. They expressed their frustration but they were peaceful and I think they got their message across,” he said.

Capt. Brian Wright said the police department is working to speak up against the injustice and work with community members and organizations to make sure such an incident never happens in New London. “Their actions were unacceptable, we will not tolerate such brutality or injustice,” he said of the officers involved in Floyd’s death.

On Saturday morning, Wright and other members of the department joined the local NAACP chapter and other community organizations and local churches in a virtual town hall event to discuss the incident and strengthen community relations.

“It’s important that we all speak together with one voice,” he said.

At Saturday’s protest, Wright said no arrests were made, no one was injured and no property was damaged.

t.hartz@theday.com

Editor's Note: Fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death on Friday. One of the charges was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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