OPINION: The protests in Wallingford remained peaceful

OPINION: The protests in Wallingford remained peaceful

Friday, June 5, was a day that everybody in Wallingford had reason to be proud of their town. That was the day of the Silent Protest Against Police Brutality. People were invited to gather in front of the Wallingford Police Department headquarters on North Main Street to peacefully express their anger at the disgusting behavior of the four Minneapolis officers and the death of George Floyd.

For the previous ten days, marches, protests and demonstrations took place all over America in the wake of that brutal event. In many cities, protests that began peacefully turned violent, neighborhoods in dozens of cities were reduced to ashes, people — including police — were injured or killed. There was mayhem everywhere.

But this did not happen here in Wallingford. Three groups were responsible for that outcome: the organizers of the protest (that named themselves Justice For George Floyd), the protesters themselves and every member of the Wallingford Police Department.

Let me give kudos to the first two groups first. The organizers’ publicity carried nine instructions, including “Line up 6 feet apart along the sidewalks,” “Masks are required for everyone,” and “This is a silent, peaceful protest. We are not responding to counter protesters.” They communicated with the police department for days before the event (more on that below). The protesters themselves kept their cool, followed the instructions from the leaders, and did not taunt the police. Their behavior gave their protest great validity and voice, and each attendee should be proud.

Because this protest was directed at police brutality, how the WPD handled what turned out to be a much larger crowd than anticipated was absolutely crucial. As I hope everyone saw, Chief Wright wrote a powerful statement condemning the Minneapolis police involved in Floyd’s death. This set the tone.

As soon as they were aware of the impending protest and who the organizers were, our police initiated contact with Justice For George Floyd, asking “What do you need from us?” According to Chief Wright, the department’s goal was to “guarantee the right to peacefully protest safely.” I can only imagine how much impact this had on the organizers, who now had a huge stake in working to be peaceful and a way to work with authorities prior to their event.

The Wallingford Police Department’s credo for years has been that law enforcement needs to listen to people with empathy, compassion and understanding. And, as Chief Wright told me, a “soft approach” was their goal concerning the protest. That of course started with preparation.

In conjunction with Wallingford Public Works, every place in the downtown area was examined to make sure that areas through which people might walk were free of hazards. Additionally, despite the expectation of a peaceful event, any loose object that might be thrown was removed. Other police departments with which WPD has a mutual aid agreement were advised of the protest in the event it grew to a size where additional officers might be needed.

At the event itself, most of the officers assigned to be outside purposely engaged protesters in conversation in order to create a calm and cordial atmosphere. As was noted in this newspaper, there was one encounter between an officer and a protester that began with a tense conversation and ended with them hugging, serving as an example of what can be accomplished if bridges, rather than barriers, are built.

The protest included having people lie down on the sidewalk for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. This demonstration stretched from Town Hall on South Main Street practically to the intersection of Christian Street and North Main. The protest went on as scheduled, and the vast majority of participants were so respectful of the requests of both organizers and police that even vehicular traffic was unimpeded throughout the protest.

In my conversation with Chief Wright in preparation for this column, he told me that, in the days following the protest, members of his department received phone calls from several who had been in attendance, and the conversations were productive and cordial. That a protest named Silent Protest Against Police Brutality generated such a result speaks volumes about our community and its police force.

I have written before about the success of implementing the Community Policing model in the Wallingford Police Department. Chief Wright has been telling his officers for years that law enforcement is only part of their job. Much of the other time can be spent in informal and friendly interaction with us.

Nothing has demonstrated the dividends we have all been reaping from such enlightened police work better than the protest of June 5. Their professionalism not only makes for a safer community, but also a more welcoming one, for anyone who comes to Wallingford. Yes, for anyone and everyone — absolutely no exceptions.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.

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