Updated, 3:15 p.m.: Video added.
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s new Board of Education began its term Tuesday with members taking the oath of office as young people chanted “End hate, educate,” while circling the packed City Hall community room.
Board member Mike Barbis, the inspiration for all the passion and anger in the room, bore repeated verbal assaults stoically, declining at the end to make any comment. NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) members from other communities joined Norwalkers in repeatedly telling Barbis to resign, a raucous atmosphere that featured Barbis opponents booing those who stepped up to defend him and the unusual sight of security guards forcing a citizen to give up the microphone.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
“This is appalling behavior that is taking place in this room,” Barbis supporter Nora King said after two hours. “Who are all these people that don’t even live in Norwalk?”
Former Norwalk NAACP President Darnell Crosland kicked off the Barbis bashing as the night’s first public speaker.
“We struggle tonight to come up with signs that express words that show our disappointment in your behavior and your actions. At several community meetings, I suggested that we don’t have to look too hard for words to put on signs. We should just use your own words,” Crosland said, going on to speak the profanity that Barbis had used in an email written in June, and made public just before the Nov. 5 election.
“They are scum,” Crosland said, then speaking the F-bomb from Barbis’ email, several times. “I think those are the words that were in the email. So why struggle for other words to express disappointment when we can just choose your own?”
Crosland presaged some of the ensuing arguments, by saying, “People have expressed different feelings about you. Some people have responded to me by text messages, that ‘Barbis is a cool dude.’ I’ve spoken to you and I’ve had nothing bad to say about our conversations. Others have responded and this was a political move by the Mayor and the DTC chair and others on the email. … No one could use your words as a political ploy if they weren’t spoken. So tonight, you must campaign for your job. You must tell all of us in this room why you should keep your job as Chairman.”
Barbis at that point had already been replaced as Chairman. He is beginning his third four-year term without being a BoE officer, for the first time in years.
Doug Peeples came next, calling out Barbis, as others have, for not making eye contact, drawing hoots and hollers from the room.
“You need to make eye contact with somebody who is trying to expose your bad side,” Peeples said. “You’ve got a temper. … There is no way that you should be a part of this board because it’s going to come out again.”
NAACP members had come from Waterbury, Bridgeport, Bristol, Stamford, Hartford, New Haven, Willimantic, Danbury, New Britain, and Ansonia, Scot Esdaile, President of the NAACP Connecticut State Conference and a member of the National Board of Directors, said. He went on to explain that the NAACP in its 110 years has “fought against many races, institutions, and many racist people,” including the Ku Klux Klan.
“They had an invisible empire organized around terror and violence, white privilege, white economics, white arrogance, and white power,” Esdaile said. “Today we are reviewing an email from a powerful white Democrat in a very powerful position. …The content of the email was no different than a letter from the Grand Wizard to the Grand Dragon to the Grand Titan of the Ku Klux Klan. The arrogance and the white privilege of the chairman, Mike Barbis, to refuse to resign is not alarming and not surprising, but the silence of the Mayor and the silence of the Chair of the Democratic Party of the City of Norwalk is.”
DTC Chairman Ed Camacho was copied on the June email sent by Barbis, as was Mayor Harry Rilling, but both were silent until the email was sent to Norwalk NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams. Camacho led Monday’s DTC meeting, where Barbis was censured. He Rilling attended the beginning of the BoE meeting, when new members were sworn in, but then went upstairs to swear in Council members. He did not return.
Esdaile continued to Barbis, “If you do not resign from the Board of Ed we will not leave one stone unturned, we will keep organizing against you. We will not stand by and let the Democratic Party protect you as a racist and your racist ways. This is not a moment this is a movement. We plan on setting up shop in Norwalk until you resign off the board in every way, shape, form and fashion. We will not stop.”
“I have been around Mr. Barbis,” Norwalk Common Council member Ernie Dumas (D-District B) said. “… I’ve seen his reactions. I’ve seen him how he speaks to women on the board. I’ve seen him say a lot of different things that we shouldn’t have ever said in our community.”
Dumas continued, “We had a meeting at Calvary Baptist Church and he came in and disrupted the meeting there. We have no room for this.”
“Mr. Barbis, I am neither scum nor an a-hole,” former State Rep. Bruce Morris said.
There are Board members who have seen Barbis isolate black and Latino Board members for years, he said. “You been there in private and in emails. I’ve seen them. We’ve seen them castigate black leaders of South Norwalk. Mr. Barbis, you don’t know what’s better for black kids better than I do,” he continued, accusing Barbis of a superiority complex and racism.
“Mr. Barbis, you need to understand your reaction needs to be to resign,” said Waterbury NAACP Youth Council President Amari Brantley. “They asked us to be civil, but we have nothing, no role models to be civil of because you are not a role model and you are not role models in the youth of this city.”
“You must have a real, real tough head to take the beating you’re taking tonight,” out-of-town senior citizen Ed Gomes, a former State Senator, said. “The beating you’re taking tonight is the beating that you deserve.”
“The fact that this even has to happen just shows how racist we can be,” Diana Révolus, a Norwalker said. “If you were any shade darker, this would not be tolerated.”
She continued, “We need to speak to the reality and the truth of what this. To have that comfort to speak in that manner, in any part, especially on public schools’ emails. That makes no sense to me. The arrogance that he can’t even look up to people that he serves that tell him that says a problem. I hope all this hits him like the comatose of the soda cans that he does.”
Norwalk Federation of Teachers (NFT) First Vice President Joe Giandurco said he was “dismayed” by Barbis. “His comments are racially insensitive, insensitive and only served to divide our city. As a teacher, as a union official, I am held accountable for my actions and words, and if my actions are seen in any way to disparage my school, my building or my profession, I stand to face disciplinary action. There is no ability for me to simply suggest that I had a bad day or suffered from a temper tantrum.”
Lisa Henderson was the first citizen to be jeered, coming to the table to defend Barbis. First she read a letter from former BoE member Sue Haynie, calling Barbis “consistently strong, vocal and unvarnished,” before getting booed into pausing. Norwalk’s shifting demographics have inspired uncertainty and anxiety, she said, drawing more catcalls.
Speaking as herself, she said, “Mike Barbis is being used as a scapegoat for the many years of poor and unresolved race relations in Norwalk. This is not the way to solve the problem that we have. To all the board members sitting in front of us: if you can’t do the job that you were elected to do, then you need to resign as well.”
“The list of those rebuking Mr. Barbis for incivility includes some of the party’s worst offenders,” Donna Smirniotopoulos said. “Norwalk’s Democratic leadership signaled again with their handling of this incident their willingness to sink low in the name of political expediency. And why not? The public never cries foul.”
She laid out the recipients of the email, Rilling, Camacho, DTC Vice Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez and Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King. “Mr. Barbis may regret his angry outburst. I regret his choice of recipients as well. Ancient Rome had fewer backstabbers,” she said.
Her rant against the DTC was interrupted by newly elected Chairman Bruce Kimmel, who said Smirniotopoulos had exceeded her three minutes and then declared a 5-minute recess. Smirniotopoulos continued reciting personal grievances against Democrats as the crowd chanted and shouted, “When we fight, we win,” a NAACP slogan. Eventually, security guards convinced Smirniotopoulos to leave the microphone.
Annie Allen later defended Barbis. “As someone who has been covering politics, national politics for major news organizations for over 20 years, what Team Rilling did here is one of the dirtiest political moves I’ve ever seen.”
Barbis maintains that the email was released because he was supporting Rilling opponent Lisa Brinton. Rilling has called that “ridiculous.”
“If Harry Rilling and Laoise King were so disgusted, appalled and offended by Mike Barbis’ email, why didn’t they release it then?” Allen asked. “It’s because they weren’t offended or disgusted. They knew exactly what Mike was talking about.”
“His anger was not directed as an entire race,” she continued. “It was directed at a small few he felt were not representing the needs of their community. His choice of words was terrible… his record of accomplishments alongside many of the individuals sitting in front of it proves that he has fought for every child in this town no matter what their race.”
Pat Kirschner told Barbis she lives in his district but, “You don’t represent me. You don’t represent my children.”
“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Norwalker Stephanie Thomas said, responding to Smirniotopoulos. “…I don’t care what everyone else did or did not do. We are here to discuss Mr. Barbis. Secondly, it will be a cold day down below when a white person will tell me what is or is not racist.”
“And Mike, we have had many conversations and I actually don’t think you think you’re a racist, but I will say you should look at your micro aggressions and any kind of sensitivity training … we all need it. I think you may need it a little more than some,” she said. “…I do think you should step down because you’ve now become a distraction.”