WILTON — They wanted to march. And to be seen. And to be heard. That was the beginning and conclusion to an evening of protest.

Despite an official cancellation of the march to end racism on June 2, in favor of a gathering in the parking lot of Our Lady of Fatima Church, many people of all ages made the one-mile walk from the Wilton train station down Route 7 to the church a mile away.

People wanted to be seen and heard as they marched chanting and carrying signs, some of which read: Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere, Equality Always, Black Lives Matter, Respect Existence or Expect Resistance, I Walk for George Floyd, and I Can’t Breathe.

Among them was a family from Bethel. Sixteen-year-old Laura Weiss said after seeing protests all around the country she thought, “I gotta come. What can we do, even if it is as small as a few hours out of your day?”

Her 11-year-old sister Julia she felt “it was the right thing to do.”

Their mother, Jen Glover-Riggs, said, “I wanted the kids to see what they could do. I’m so sad and angry. I want them to see we all have a voice. We can stand up for others.”

There, in the lot behind the church that is not visible to the main traffic artery that runs through Wilton, they joined more than 100 others, swelling to some 200 to 300 people who, almost always, listened politely, and in many cases enthusiastically, to the speakers.

Sitting in one of the many chairs spaced six feet apart was Marcellin Mbwa-Mboma, who came from Weston with his four children and nephew.

His reason, he said, was “I believe we have to bridge the racial divide. We are made in the eyes of God. We must strive to live together in love and peace.

“We are moved by peace, by hope for better communities, a better workplace, a better nation, a better world. Black lives have to be respected,” he said.

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The evening was arranged by members of Wilton’s clergy, and was led off by Our Lady of Fatima’s black pastor the Rev. Reggie Norman.

Over the past few days, he said, “my emotional roller coaster is all over the place.”

He recalled how his mother grew up in the segregated south and was taught to never look a white person in the face. When she came north in 1967, it took her a year to overcome that admonition.

Norman said he asked her about that and she told him to close his eyes.

“When you close your eyes you start listening to other people differently,” she told him. “Now imagine, with your eyes closed that you had never seen another human being. … You would find out that they bleed the way you bleed, they have the same organs that you have, and they’re just like you.”

“We need to recognize we are all God’s children and he loves all of us regardless of who you are and what you have. … We must all work together to change this world we live in,” he said.

Norman introduced police chief John Lynch, who he said was “a personal friend.”

“This goes pretty deep,” Lynch said.

“All of our officers have worked really hard to come together, treat people with respect and we are all appalled at what we saw.” He said he did not want to dwell on the events in Minneapolis that resulted in the death of George Floyd except to say “we all have a lot of work to do.”

He chose instead to quote Martin Luther King Jr.: “In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.”

He promised, “we will all work harder to accomplish this and we’ll all live as equals.”

At this point some from the crowd shouted “what will we do to make people of color feel safer in this community,” but the question was not addressed as First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice came to the stage.

She described Wilton as a “caring community, a community with generous hearts” and the size of the crowd was a “testament to the type of community we live in.”

She asked those assembled to think about what they could do, “what are the agents of change that you can do to make a difference?”

Silence

After pausing for eight minutes of silence to commemorate the length of time a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck, the Rev. Lindsay Curtis, a Wilton resident who is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Norwalk, spoke.

“I have lived in Wilton 23 years,” he said, “and I could not be prouder to be living in Wilton than I am this very moment.”

“This issue of racism is not just a black problem,” he said. “This issue of racism is shared by all shades of color. We come together today, but I ask you, how will we act tomorrow?”

He referenced the eight minutes a police officer’s knee was on Floyd’s neck. “Those eight minutes … But there have been over 400 years a knee has been on the neck of individuals who happen to look like me.”

“When will we stop the inhumanity to humanity? When will we see each other beyond the color of our skin? When? When?” he said to enthusiastic applause.

“When can we stop saying ‘I can’t breathe?’ When will we all be able to breathe, after all we all breathe the same air? We all shed red blood. Why do we have to live in a society that divides us by color? That divides us by our economic status. That divides us by who lives in north Wilton and south Wilton.”

He denounced the violence that has occurred across the country saying, “this is not about breaking, looting, robbing, stealing. This is a struggle for our society and how we see each other.”

“Black lives do matter, but as a Christian I submit to you, all lives matter.”

The Rev. Caroline Smith, pastor of Wilton Baptist Church, quoted the book of Amos: “Seek good, not evil. …Hate evil, love good. Maintain justice. Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness in an ever-flowing stream.”

The Rev. Dr. Anne Coffman, senior pastor of Wilton Congregational Church, offered a prayer of healing. She prayed for wisdom “so each of us will take the responsibility of doing the deep work of transformation so that each of our hearts will break with the things that break the heart of God.”

The final speaker was the Rev. Shannon White, pastor of Wilton Presbyterian Church, who told the crowd, “it’s not any person of color’s job to teach white people about racism. It is white people’s job to teach ourselves and to reflect and have conversations and then go and have honest and real collaboration.”

“I’m calling on us — white people — to do the hard work. Step by step, it’s not easy. … We have to face this. Why is it hard for people of color to live in this town? I’ve heard stories.”

She said she is hoping colleagues in different spheres — politics, education, clergy — will help with that effort. “Get with people who look like you and start to talk,” she said.

Wilton protest on June 2

Media: The Wilton Bulletin

After protest

As the crowd began to disperse, a group of young people, many of whom appeared to be high school students, approached Chief Lynch and peppered him with questions about what his department was doing to “make people of color feel safe in this town.”

“Why do you feel they are not safe?” Lynch asked, to which a young woman replied “this town is full of racists.” She referenced local social media sites.

Attempting to respond to her, Lynch said, “we are open and transparent … everything is recorded.”

Father Norman stepped in, saying “This is the first step, not the last step. We will not fix 400 years of oppression in one hour. We will get a dialogue going.”

Lynch said he was open to having discussions.

Norman asked one of the group to collect names and email addresses and he promised to have a meeting with them.

“We’re not giving up on this,” he said.

Not content to end the evening, a crowd of about 50 or so who had been walking north, turned around and marched down Route 7 shouting, “I can’t breathe!”

Accompanied by police and with cruisers behind them to stop traffic, the marchers stopped in front of the town hall campus, where police headquarters is, and sat in the road. They remained there for more than half an hour while Lynch, assisted by Middebrook Middle School teacher Michael Gordon, engaged them in discussion.

A black student said “if I’m driving and get pulled over, I want to feel safe.”

Lynch admitted he couldn’t “understand what you’re going through, but we do recognize it and we’re trying to fix it.”

In addressing the students about police behavior Lynch reminded them they all wear body cameras, which police requested.

“They really try to do the right thing,” he said of his officers. “You may disagree and I appreciate that.”

Gordon reminded them they have as much a role to play in fighting racism as anyone else, particularly when they witness racist behavior.

“This won’t stop until you, and I’m talking to the white students,” Gordon said, “until you step up … that puts it on them to say, ‘I’m wrong.’”