Turning Up In Connecticut

Although I grew up in Connecticut, I am a pretty recently returned resident of Connecticut. Before mid-2014 I had been living in North Carolina for half a dozen years. When I started going back to school one of the first stories I reported on for class was the Forward Together/Moral Monday Movement and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. You can take a look at those stories here and here, and view a slideshow as well.

In my final semester, I became aware of Moral Monday CT. It seemed fitting for one of the last stories I would report on for class to come back to the Moral Monday movement through Rev. Dr. John Selders Jr. Here’s the story that I wrote for JRN 470 …

Time slid toward the afternoon rush hour while upward of seventy-five people lined the street near the intersection of Albany and Bloomfield Avenues on the west end of Hartford. Traffic slowed and began backing up. Car horns were honking, perhaps in support, but probably in annoyance by the occupants who were being delayed on their commute home to the suburbs. Except that was precisely the point.

For a few hours on October 5, this diverse group of men and women came together trying to raise awareness, hoping that stopping traffic might make commuters stop and think about being inconvenienced for a moment versus the inconvenient lives of those who struggle to live in America’s urban centers.

Some protesters held signs and chanted, some walked out to the drivers with flyers, and some, like 24-year-old Maura Hallisey, were the cause of the traffic, standing or sitting in the road as a deliberate act of civil disobedience. Blocking the road like that carries a risk. Hallisey knew she might be arrested and the thought of a criminal record concerned her.

Ultimately, though, it was not enough to prevent her from taking part. She did get arrested; she was the second of 12 arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to move that afternoon.

“Going to jail was uncomfortable. It was definitely not pleasant,” Hallisey said. “But it was also a positive experience because I felt like I was a part of something important.”

For Hallisey, being part of something meant taking action in more deliberate ways. When she heard about Moral Monday CT, the organizers behind the October protest, Hallisey wanted to become involved, particularly because the group is addressing issues that are being raised in our national consciousness by movements like #BlackLivesMatter.

Moral Monday CT was co-founded by the Rev. Dr. John Selders Jr., who is also the founding pastor of the Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford and an associate chaplain at Trinity College. He wanted to link the #BlackLivesMatter movement in Connecticut to the work of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina. To understand the need for it in Hartford, and why now, we need to take a look back.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Following the Civil War, the United States entered a time of rebuilding and restructuring which set out to redefine the role of government and the place of newly emancipated blacks in both politics and society. Called the Reconstruction, this period would cover about the next decade, but by the 1880s, many of the gains made by former slaves were already being rolled back. The Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the constitutionality of state laws that required segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

As the United States entered the 1950s, a number of factors came together to reignite and progress the civil rights movement, ushering in a “Second Reconstruction.” The Supreme Court ruled against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, setting the stage on which both the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the murder of Emmett Till occurred in 1955.

People of all kinds began to come together to protest the need for change, and in the 1960s, major strides were made with the passage of legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

North Carolina NAACP president, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, talks about this period as an era marked by a moral movement both socially and politically. He points to initiatives such as Head Start, Pell Grants, the expansion of Social Security and Medicare as proof of a moral commitment to help the poor, a commitment Barber feels waned over the next decades.

Speaking recently to an audience at Princeton, Barber stressed his belief that a “Third Reconstruction” is needed.

We must start recognizing the need for indigenously led, state-based, state government-focused, deeply constitutional, anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-justice, pro-labor, transformative movement-building. There’s no shortcut for it. We must build the movement from the bottom-up.

It is one of the things he has been trying to do in the state of North Carolina. Besides his role as head of the state NAACP, Barber is also spearheading a coalition called HKonJ, which stands for Historic Thousands of Jones Street. Beginning in 2006, HKonJ formed to advance the various causes of its coalition members with one voice, laying the groundwork for the Forward Together/Moral Monday movement.

North Carolina’s state elections in 2012 ushered in a Republican governor and Republican majorities in both houses. In April 2013, Barber and a group of people traveled to the state capitol building to protest in a more visible way what they saw as regressive policies from the state legislature. That first protest, and those that followed, took place on a Monday, and so the Moral Monday movement began.

Later that summer, another movement started to register at the national level. When George Zimmerman was acquitted of the charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter related to the February 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a Florida suburb, Alicia Garza reacted to the acquittal with a Facebook post encouraging black people to come together and show “that black lives matter.” Her friend, Patrisse Cullors, turned her comment into a hashtag, and #BlackLivesMatter was born.

The movement spread and its strength was solidified by the continued deaths of black men at the hands of police. Specific cases grabbed the attention of national media and activists alike, sparking protests and even riots.

Like the July 2014 death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. Police officer Daniel Pantaleo was accused of using a choke-hold on Garner. Millions of people saw the video of Garner face-down on the ground, repeating over and over, “I can’t breath.”

Or the case of Michael Brown, shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri just a month later. Demonstrators adopted, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” as a rallying cry.

It was this event, the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, that really changed things for Selders. Just to the west of Ferguson is the town where he grew up – Kinloch, Missouri.

“My town was on fire,” Selders said. It brought it home to him in a personal way, seeing the landmarks he knew and grew up in becoming international news on CNN. His mother called and asked if he was coming home.

Selders traveled back and forth between Ferguson and Connecticut over the next few months. He watched his nieces and nephews face down tanks and get hit with tear gas.

“I had this experience, and my life changed,” Selders said.

He returned to Connecticut following the non-indictment decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and was invited to a clergy group meeting to discuss how they should respond to these national issues.

“The proposal was, ‘Why don’t we meet with the police and try to get ahead of this? Hartford is not Ferguson,’” Selders recalls. “But how many more times do we need to do this same thing? How many more meetings do we have to have with the mayor, or the city council?”

Selders compared participating in another round of talks to the definition of insanity – doing the same thing, but expecting a different result. Especially when the same context that existed in Ferguson, Missouri also exists in Connecticut cities like Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport, or New Haven.

“We’re sitting on a powder keg – we are Ferguson ready to happen. We’re one incident away from some crazy jumping off,” Selders said. “I’m just not interested in doing the same things again. In order to get these issues addressed, or at least raised on a conscious level, we gotta turn up.”

“I’m ready to turn up,” he continued. “I’m ready to get arrested. I’m ready to do something.”

When Moral Monday CT began in January, Selders saw it as a way to link the Moral Monday movement’s “intersectionality,” the way they attempt to work at the center of a number of different issues and causes, with the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the state, and focus on doing broad-based action work.

“For me,” Selders said, “Dr. King’s letters from Birmingham jail make it very clear that it is protest, it is direct action, it is ‘turn up’ that creates the social space for political change and transformation to occur.”

Moral Monday CT’s most recent protest in Hartford was organized to highlight the racial and economic injustice in the capital. It is one of the poorest cities in America in one of the country’s richest states. Selders explained some of the reasons for the action in an op-ed published in the Hartford Courant.

Selders writes that real estate, public transit and industry are sorting our neighborhoods into affluent suburbs and neglected urban communities, and that the police and the government reinforce these divisions. This can be seen historically, for example, by deeds in West Hartford that contained restrictive covenants, or the indications that surrounding towns, like Glastonbury and Simsbury, may have been “sundown towns,” where blacks were not allowed after dark. Poverty is seen as a contagious disease to be quarantined, not cured.

In Hartford, the average per capita income is just over $16,000, according to 2013 U.S. Census data, and half of its children live in poverty. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates an annual income of almost $48,000 is needed in order to afford Hartford’s fair market rent. Someone earning minimum wage would need to work 90+ hours a week to achieve that, even once the minimum has been raised to $10.10, a raise not scheduled to happen until January 2017.

Many suburbanites who commute don’t realize how wealth is extracted from the cities to the surrounding suburbs. Selders believes it will take getting the populace to stand together to break the poverty quarantine because, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The real question is how to do that.

“I wish I knew,” Selders said. “I’d write a book about it and make a million dollars. What I do know is that it is no longer acceptable to do nothing.”

The Rev. Dr. Virginia (Ginny) A. McDaniel is the senior minister at the First Congregational Church in Granby. She says listening to the news over the last year and hearing about so many shootings of unarmed black men pushed her to find a way to not only “talk the talk, but walk the walk.”

“My own sense of integrity became really uncomfortable,” McDaniel said. She went to a clerical SURJ meeting, which stands for Showing Up for Racial Justice, hoping to learn what other faith leaders were doing to help their congregations to enter into the discussion. It was there that she found out about Moral Monday CT and their planned October action.

McDaniel left that meeting wanting to know more, so she attended a training session run by the group that focused on the basics of non-violent social change. During the training, one of the things that Selders indicated the group needed was for McDaniel, as a white woman, and other men and women like her, to be willing to work under the group’s black leadership and place their bodies on the line by risking arrest. That meant McDaniel needed to step outside her existence of safety and comfort, and acknowledge her own privilege as a white, upper-middle class, college-educated woman.

“I have always been able to walk through life feeling as though nothing was inaccessible to me,” McDaniel said.

She believes that she is able to choose to ignore racism because she does not have to live with its effects. Thinking on it, McDaniel decided that as a white woman and a pastor, she wasn’t really putting that much on the line and made up her mind to take part in the October protest.

“Being arrested for taking a position of moral leadership can even be a plus,” McDaniel said of her position with the church. “One of my previous churches even had a line item in their budget for posting bail for the pastor.”

McDaniel shared her plans with her congregation before the action and was impressed by their support. Even though she ended up being one of the 12 folk arrested that day, McDaniel plans to continue taking part in more actions, and some of her flock have expressed a desire to join in as well.

“It’s something holy and sacred to put your body on the line,” Selders said. “It’s time to turn up, and you need to learn to not value what you might lose over what you won’t gain. Get rid of your fear, or better yet, keep the fear and do something anyway.”

When Selders discusses the need to turn up, he likes to quote theologian and civil rights activist Howard Thurman. “What the world needs is for more people to come alive.”

That is precisely what Selders wants.

“What I want to do is wake people the hell up,” Selders said. “I wanna wake folk up, get them conscious – get them woke”

Once people are made aware, Selders is counting on their feelings of anger at the injustices in the world.

Anger is needed within activism because it is anger and moral outrage that get us up off our do-nothings.

“We have an opportunity to change the course of history. The way of our society is not a natural order, we created it,” Selders said. “If it is not right, not fair, we can undo it and start over again. We need far more people willing to say, ‘No!’”

When he gets asked, “What can I do?” Selders replies, “Jump in the pit and join the struggle.”

Selders talks especially about the need for young people to get engaged. Hallisey is one of those young people. She plans to continue taking part in actions and admires youth-led movements occurring on many college campuses nationally, such as the one at the University of Missouri that recently led to the resignation of their president and chancellor.

“Although some try to dismiss youth activists,” Hallisey said, “many of them are very deliberate as to their intention and their actions, so being dismissive is unwarranted.”

It’s probable these young people are trying to achieve the same thing as Selders.

“I hope to change this freakin’ world, that’s what I hope to do,” Selders said. “I want some policies changed. I want some behaviors changed. I want some practices changed. I want some minds changed. I want some hearts changed.”

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