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Rowayton residents allege 6TD ‘tactics’ led to vote against BLM sign

The Old School Fence in November, with flags replacing signs including one that said Black Live Matter. (Posted on Twitter by Sixth Taxing District Commissioner Mike Barbis.)

A Black Lives Matter sign formerly posted on the Rowayton fence, as depicted by protesters. (Courtesy photo)

NORWALK, Conn. — Rowayton has resoundingly rejected the proposed return of a Black Live Matter sign to their community fence. Some question the integrity of that vote, accusing Sixth Taxing District Commissioners of souring Thursday’s election by putting a proposal on the ballot that turned people off.

“Once I learned of the ballot language, I understood there was no good outcome, regardless of the results,” said Jillian Shutsharawan, a Rowayton resident who was close to the situation.

The Old School Fence, a venerable roadside community message board along Rowayton Avenue, is usually reserved for light-hearted stuff like birthday wishes and event announcements serving the upscale, mostly white residents of Norwalk’s southern-most area, a beach-side peninsula.  But last summer, a Black Lives Matter sign went up, only to be vandalized with the words, “Who cares?” It was replaced but was vandalized again, this time with “All Lives Matter,” resident Priscilla Feral said.

The Taxing District refused to allow the sign’s return, saying it had been up past the two weeks ordinarily allowed and that it was political, a violation of the district’s rules. Contentious conversations developed into a proposal to change the regulations for the fence, and residents Rob Pratt and Lauren Henry spent much time working up a detailed alternative that would have involved the need for 100 signatures sponsoring a sign supporting human rights.

As late as Jan. 7, that proposal was on the expected ballot. But on Jan. 11, three days before the election, Sixth Taxing District Commissioners announced that it had been withdrawn at the request of its makers.

Instead, the ballot featured two options: keep the regulations as-is or keep them and allow the Black Lives Matter sign to return and stay up for a year.

Electors voted 438-203 for option one, meaning that 68.3 percent voted against allowing the sign to return for a year.

A Black Lives Matter protest, Sept. 13 in Rowayton. (John Levin)

The district’s election went forward against the wishes of the only Black Rowayton resident involved in trying to change the rules, who has asked for anonymity out of fear for her family’s safety. In a Jan. 9 email to NancyOnNorwalk, she said she pleaded the vote be postponed “in order for us to educate the public on the ballot choices.”

The “ignore and delay” tactics put the second option at a disadvantage as “we were not permitted to promote it until now,” the resident wrote, five days before the vote. “I feel very strongly that this ballot item has been manipulated to the ‘back of the bus’ so to speak by Commissioners that are politicizing my (our POCs collective) skin color.  I was unable to push this through the C’s until I went back to the original sign owner Jane Seymour and her Mother Priscilla Feral and friend Jillian Shutsharawan.”

 

Supporters: ‘Chaos and timing worked against us’

One objection to the election was that it was being held during a pandemic. District electors were told they could vote by email, and 40 percent did, according to Commissioner Tammy Langalis.

It’s expected that residents will be allowed to post signs on the fence Monday. The BLM sign will not be allowed, she said.

Pratt has not replied to multiple requests to explain why the detailed alternative fence regulation proposal was withdrawn. Henry didn’t reply to a Monday evening email.

“The people advocating for sign fairness (subject to their guidelines and limitations, like the rest), did not propose the vote or suggest the one-year timeframe,” Seymour said Friday. “It was the Commissioners who wrote this extreme option, possibly understanding it could put off many residents. We urged for the removal of the year timeframe, yet it was rejected, and so we are not surprised by the voting results.”

Feral said, “With the way the Commissioners orchestrated the vote —one with changing options and wording we didn’t propose, that chaos and timing worked against us, but I think the sign prompted residents to confront racism. And that’s a needed thing.”

The existing rules “violate free speech, and in their marketplace of ideas they control the messaging without defining what’s political, and therefore forbidden,” Feral continued.

“I think we need new blood and younger generations to fill the seats of Commissioners when their terms expire,” she said. “That’s how the culture here will reflect social change and governance. I’m hearing from residents who voted for our Option 2 who want to be part of that change.”

Sixth Taxing District Commissioner Tammy Langalis speaks during a November district meeting on Zoom.

Commissioner John Igneri’s term ends in November. Commissioner Mike Barbis is set to remain in his post until November 2023 and Langalis’ term ends November 2025.

One problem with an incurious powerholder is that they like the role of authority without caring about fairness,” Feral said. “Social justice and racism were confronted by the appearance of the positive ‘Black Lives Matter in Rowayton’ sign when it appeared on Rowayton’s community fence. Also, Black residents and people of color were supported and better heard with such messaging. What follows now is a reinvigorated effort and conversation about racial justice that asks for more than lip service.”

Emily Wade, another sign supporter, said she’s new to Rowayton so, “unlike Priscilla and Jillian, I actually was surprised by the results of the vote. In my opinion, it doesn’t make Rowayton look very good.”

She wrote:

I understand and agree with the reluctance of my fellow residents in permitting political signs on the fence – no one seemed to be advocating for that. However, this is a more nuanced discussion when it comes to whether supporting the Black Lives Matter movement is political. For example, the US Office of Special Counsel determined that ‘using BLM terminology is not inherently political activity and BLMGN is not currently a partisan political group.’ Certainly, arguments could be made to the contrary (and they were in Rowayton), but that central issue was never clarified or resolved. It seems like the town missed an opportunity to define what constitutes political signage, or specify whether social causes are included under the broad umbrella of ‘political signs.’ If the issue is the BLM organization, then can a resident post a sign that says ‘Rowayton supports BIPOC’ or something similar?

When you live in a small town, especially a small town without many people of color, it’s easy to fall back on how things have ‘always been.’ I totally get that. And it may be true that most Rowayton residents are not racist. However, I personally feel that in order to fight systemic racism, it’s not enough to simply be ‘not racist.’ We must all be actively anti-racist, and that entails making decisions that might be different from the way we’ve done things in the past. Allowing a sign that supports the BIPOC in our community seems like the one of the smallest things we could do.

Also worth pondering: had people not torn down the original sign, could this conflict have been avoided altogether?”

 

Langalis, Barbis and Igneri declined to respond to their comments.

The Sixth Taxing District website states, “The Commissioners of the Sixth Taxing District of the City of Norwalk stand with residents against systemic racism. We are saddened by the death of George Floyd and others who have lost their lives in a similar fashion. We agree that Black Lives Matter.”

 

 

Opponent: Changing rules would ‘open up a can of worms’

Other Rowayton thoughts are easy to find on social media.

“{P}utting up political signs will cause further divisions within our community. If you put up BLM signs people might feel they should be able to put up MAGA signs and on and on…Keep the fence signs non political,” one man wrote Thursday, urging his neighbors to cast votes.

“{T}o many people, and especially Black people, Black Lives Matter is not political, a Rowayton woman replied. “It is a human rights issue. It’s like posting a sign that says, Keep Our Children Safe, if in fact, they were not protected and safe in our community. Because of systemic racism, it’s important that we stand together in all communities to state what should be the obvious, but isn’t that the lives of People of Color are equally important. That feels unifying, not divisive.”

September’s Black Lives Matter protest concludes at Rowayton’s Old School Fence. (John Levin.)

Black Lives Matter “is a political organization, period,” another replied. “Rowayton is not a racist community, we don’t need a sign to remind us that our neighbors matter.”

It’s not a political organization, one replied, citing an opinion rendered by the United States Office of Special Counsel, regarding the Hatch Act.

“BLM may not be DEFINED as a political organization, but there are strong political undertones to some aspects of their platform…” a Rowayton man replied. “What I’m sensing from this issue (which I only became aware of a few days ago) is not a lack of support for the BLM core tenant, but a real concern/fear that we are ‘opening up a can of worms’ for organizations who might be disapproved of by all of us, yet, who could stand on firm legal footing to the point of litigating for the right to hang their sign — regardless of how {abhorrent} it might be…and win that litagation {cq}based upon the 1st Amendment, etc. …”

Rowayton residents are “kind and giving and inclusive” people “who donate large sums of their hard earned money to help underserved communities,” a woman replied. They “are defined by the inclusive, anti-racist way they live their lives and not by a label on a fence.”

“Rowayton is a magical place!” a man wrote. The small-town feel in the beachside community with unique events and oddities like “Bell Island Bridge jumping” are “all made possible by people that love where they live and have heavily invested themselves into the community,” he said. “When you start telling them that they need to do xyz to prove that they are not racist or that they need to put up a sign of an organization which has furthered divisiveness in America, they will tell you ‘no thank you, we don’t want that here’ as they did last night. I propose a sign that says ‘Welcome to Magical Rowayton{.}’”

 

 

Norwalk elected leaders respond

Tom Livingston, left, and then-Common Councilman John Igneri (D-District E) participate in the 2015 Norwalk Democratic Town Committee convention. Livingston won election to the Council that fall. (Archive photo)

This is complicated: the Old School Fence is actually City property. The City doesn’t allow signs in its parks but the Sixth Taxing District administers the fence, making it an exception to the rules.

If it reverted to City control, no signs would be allowed, Langalis has warned.

So what does Mayor Harry Rilling say? On Monday, he wrote:

“Although that is a city fence, for many many years it has been under the control of the sixth taxing district. It has become more of a social page than anything else.

“Some say that the ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a political statement. I believe it is more of a social statement. I could see no harm in allowing a social statement of such importance to remain for a one year period. Black Lives Matter signs and paintings have appeared on public property all around this nation as well as others.”

 

Rowayton residents Lisa Shanahan and Tom Livingston represent District E on the Norwalk Common Council. They issued a joint statement:

“We were disappointed with the outcome of the vote. As we previously stated, we believe the statement ‘Black lives matter’ is not about politics; it is about human rights. We know Rowayton to be a welcoming community and believe the vote was more a reflection of the fence rules and the options presented than against the sentiment behind the sign. That said, the fence issues started a discussion and raised awareness about systematic racism in our country.  We look forward to continuing this discussion and working with residents across the City to address this systematic racism and create a more just and inclusive society.”

14 comments

John ONeill January 19, 2021 at 6:42 am

This fence issue proves the old adage money can’t buy happiness. I find it amusing how passionate this issue has become. Most people in Norwalk are concerned about putting food on the table or how they are going to afford increased tax bill once sign language curriculum is expanded. — It’s a freaking sign on a freaking fence for goodness sakes. If this is the biggest issue confronting our neighbors in this wealthy enclave where people pluck down $ 3 million dollars for a house they tear down life should be ok.
I say compromise. I say no sign…
BUT, open up 6th district amenities to South Norwalkers. Take Private Road signs down. Open up Beaches in Rowayton to poor POC and poor white people (Economic hardship happens to white people also believe it or not). Let South Norwalkers play ball in the 6th district parks. When caring liberal Rowaytonites really open up their community to those not as lucky economically we will take them seriously. Until then signs are just a tool to make themselves feel better. Money doesn’t but happiness.

David Muccigrosso January 19, 2021 at 11:01 am

Sounds like a lot of grown people childishly arguing about process to avoid having the real argument they NEEDED to have about the content of the sign. That way, everyone can feel justified by arguing about a failed process, and no one has to go through the shame of -*gasp*- getting called a racist, or having to call someone a racist. Except for, in the end, everyone’s calling each other racists anyways.

Grow up, folks. Way to waste your time doing absolutely nothing of import, instead of talking about ways your town can face whatever real challenges posed to POC are created by its own policies.

Diane Lauricella January 19, 2021 at 11:25 am

Because the park and the fence are City property, I would suggest that Proponents request ASAP to be placed on the February Council Land Use and Building Management Committee (Chaired by Mr. Livingston, 1st Weds. of the month, 1/3) and the Council Recreation and Parks Committee (Chaired by Darlene Young, 2nd Weds. of the month, 1/10). The 6th District’s role is ceremonial, traditional.

This is how to move this issue to an official level. That will allow the public to have a bigger, recorded voice and the officials who govern us to make change.

Indeed an important topic!

Ken Prince January 19, 2021 at 1:15 pm

Rowayton isn’t a small town with few minorities.
It’s a city neighborhood in a city with plenty of minorities.
BLM is by design a racist exclusionary group and it’s sad people are afraid to state this or think a sign makes up for racism.

Shari Brennan January 19, 2021 at 3:14 pm

Trying to understand why if this a city fence, how was the exception made to allow 6th dist to administer and make their own rules
Does that mean each Norwalk taxing district can do the same?
Why was there no public forum discussing the ballot change?
Someone commented that Rowayton is a “Magical Place” Seriously? The only magic taking place is the disappearance of reality.
Black Lives Matter. This is not a political statement. BLACK LIVES DO
MATTER!
To the person that commented that people in the Rowayton Community “donate large sums of their hard earned money to help underserved communities” how about donating some of that money to underserved Rowayton, to develop a community awareness program for how to make a vocal stand towards welcoming minorities.

gw January 19, 2021 at 3:37 pm

Rowayton gonna Rowayton. Disappointing, but can’t say I’m surprised. Black Lives Matter is not a statement indicative of one’s political affiliations. It is a human rights declaration. And Rowaytonites are too white and privileged to really examine how segregated and exclusionary their community is.

John ONeill January 19, 2021 at 10:20 pm

People seem to be missing the point
A sign is meaningless..Just because you put a sign up doesn’t make you non-racist. Conversely, just because you don’t have a sign up doesn’t mean you’re not racist. Let’s be real.
I would argue that many who voted against the sign could be more open than social justice warriors. Why do you need a marketing tool to prove who you are? I find that bizarre.
That being said, we do appreciate the property taxes the 6th District brings to our fair city..They are quite substantial and will grow significantly upon the next revaluation.

KB January 19, 2021 at 11:30 pm

I see black lives matter signs all over rowayton private property/homes … i get wanting it there on “The Fence” but allowing that sign would let a lot of other kinds of messages be posted up that would be competing and possibly inappropriate. It’s silly how the motto has turned into a political thing. Black lives do matter as much as all lives do. People are looking at this issue a little too closely. I think if we want to host our messages that can be done in our own yards or on our cars.

David Muccigrosso January 20, 2021 at 7:35 am

@John, I absolutely agree on the principle, but at the same time, signs and symbols *matter*, they just don’t matter as much as action.

Too many people like to live a cozy, lazy progressivism that reassures them they’re “on the right side of history” instead of the true progressive spirit of examining the parts of their lives they’d least like to examine. Rowayton is a prime example.

M Murray January 20, 2021 at 8:18 am

If you allow one social “lives matter” sign on the fence, will you allow any group that wants to place a “lives matter” sign on the fence? Or will you be selective and allow only this one sign? Will every rights movement be allowed to place their sign, or will it be discriminatory and selectively chosen as to which movements will be allowed to place their sign?

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