NORWALK, Conn. — Jalin Sead looked back Sunday and was shocked to see how many people were following him as he led a Black Lives Matter protest off Interstate 95.
Now, he’s looking forward.
“I think it is the birth of, like, a new day in civil rights in Norwalk,” Sead said Tuesday. “I know that’s probably a big statement to make but I think the energy, and if we capitalize and keep the momentum going, I think that this is coming to be something that leads to some great stuff in Norwalk.”
Although Sead didn’t know who organized the rally, “I kind of ended up in the front with a few other people because nobody really stepped up,” and he, along with rapper Joe Grit$ and Bridgeport activist Bobbi Brown, “kind of took the lead.”
As protesters coalesced in front of the Connecticut Avenue Stop & Shop, he estimated there were 100 people. He, Grit$, and others led the group onto I-95. As they headed up the ramp at Exit 14, “I looked back and the crowd was huge.”
Multiple participants say there were probably a thousand people there. Lisa Seidenberg, a Westport resident, said, “I had no idea what to expect. I thought it would be a few people. And I was very surprised.”
As a “white woman of a certain age,” she didn’t know if she’d “stand out or be accepted,” but it was “totally, totally fine” and the crowd was diverse, though “mostly young.”
“The Norwalk police were there in force, but I didn’t feel a tension,” she said. She complained that the news media, which she used to part of, is playing up the looting. President Trump stages a “ridiculous photo op,” and he loves that the media is playing that on a split screen with people being tear gassed. Meanwhile, Democratic opponent Joe Biden is being ignored.
“It really irritates me that people focus on that and then, you know, people forget what this is all about,” she said. “The virus is not coincidental. The virus led to, you know, opening people’s eyes to what to the inequity in our country, which is nothing new. But people tend to forget about it. And now, people are unemployed, it just it will require a huge change.”
“I don’t want to say there should be a civil war, but, you know, people are riled up enough to, you know, make the representatives change things and that’s a good thing,” she said. “And I think they should stay in the streets, not looting, because it creates a bad playbook for the other side, but I think they should stay in, stay committed, and not, you know, not go home and go to the beach.”
Jim Russell, a Ridgefield resident, also participated in Sunday’s march. Nationwide unrest is a topic everywhere, he said after the rally.
People were still talking about it on Tuesday, he said, expressing surprise at the traction the message has gained, not only among individuals, but also among institutions, including museums.
He wishes he had set up a table at the protest to register people to vote.
“I’m sitting here thinking that 80 percent of my life today is encompassed in that illusive, invisible privilege I’ve been granted as a white person,” he said, explaining that his father served in World War II, received an education via the G.I. Bill, and bought a home in Levittown.
“Dad was able to receive his master’s degree from Harvard,” Russell said. “He was able to get a good job. And we went to live in the suburbs, and we were able to go to good schools and eat healthier, so on and so forth. This privilege permeates our society … The kind of world I entered into, I don’t want to leave it to the young people … We need to make enduring positive changes with every single generation.”
His experiences in other parts of the country have been shocking, he said. “A lot of change has to be done, it’s very sad. Now we have a lot of support up here. So I am positive that things are going to move forward from this. There is some good that will come out of this.”
The uprising “makes me think of Tiananmen Square,” said Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams, who did not attend, not because she doesn’t believe in the cause, but because possible exposure to COVID-19 has kept her housebound. Former Stamford NAACP leader Jack Bryant died from COVID-19, and two Bridgeport NAACP leaders spent two months in the hospital, she said.
Sead shares her belief that lasting change is coming. “From what I’m hearing from the young people in Norwalk, I think this could be a new day for the fight for civil rights,” he said. These young people don’t have political aspirations, “they just want to do something that’s going to affect change in a community. I think that what’s needed. I think we need more activists and less politicians, but I think we need more activists that’s gonna really push the politicians to be accountable,” and also create new policies, like a police community review board in Norwalk.
“Sadly, we’ve been here before,” Sead said. “Somebody unfortunately passes away and the nation gets these bursts of energy to protest and change, which is great and I love, but I think we don’t capitalize on that momentum. And I think I’m going to take responsibility as a leader. We kind of let it die down. And unfortunately, it doesn’t pick back up again until something else happens like this.”
When protesters spilled onto I-95 North, protected by Norwalk Police, I-95 South remained open. Still, drivers slowed and honked their horns in support. While Sead lauded Norwalk police for their handling of the crowd, “there are issues,” he said, adding that “there’s a different side of Norwalk police that people don’t see,” and that residents of Norwalk public housing “have a different view.”
Multiple young people spoke of having been mistreated by local police, and Sead alleged that a man arrested after the rally and beaten up while in custody had filed a complaint. Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said he has no knowledge of a complaint being filed, and online arrest reports show no arrests Sunday afternoon.
Kulhawik “does a great job reaching out, and he reached out to me on many occasions,” Sead said. But if people have a complaint, they have to go to police and confront the “blue line.” He thinks a community review board would help.
So why is George Floyd’s death the flash point?
The pandemic, with people stuck at home watching the news – about African-American medical technician, Breonna Taylor, killed by police in her Louisville, KY., home; African-American jogger Ahmaud Arbery, shot dead by armed residents of a South Georgia neighborhood, and the “tough to watch” video of Floyd being murdered – created a perfect storm of horror and outrage.
Sead drew a distinction between looters and protesters, saying the former take away from the message and sense of unity of the latter. He hopes to build on that unity by organizing a “black business weekend” to mark Juneteenth, the anniversary of slaves being freed, June 18-21, when Norwalk residents will be asked to support black businesses.
“I don’t believe that most of the people that are causing the violence are part of the protest. There might be some people who are and I, I don’t want to condemn them because they’re angry…I think Martin Luther King said that riots are the language of the unheard. And I think that a lot of people will feel they’re unheard.”