As they came to the end of their route, University of Connecticut student Olasumbomi Ajayi and other anti-police brutality protesters came face-to-face with another group, who were clutching a confederate flag.
In Washington Township, New Jersey, Ajayi, a seventh-semester allied health sciences major, and approximately 20 other protestors marched along Main Street, hoisting signs and chanting.
Ajayi said she was sparked to action by “a culmination of a lot of things,” namely the racism and microaggressions she has experienced growing up as a Black woman.
“Growing up, classmates would touch my natural, kinky hair anytime it wasn’t in a protective style because it was ‘different’ so I never felt comfortable having it out,” Ajayi said. “In my primarily white high school, I was called the n-word, but in a ‘friendly way.’ My name was always too hard to pronounce so eventually I stopped trying to explain it to people.”
She said she learned at a young age that her “loud personality” might be perceived by some as “threatening.” She said she has spent her adult life in fear of being pulled over by the police.
Despite the encounter with the countergroup at the march, Ajayi said she is “motivated to do more” and “happy to see a good number of non-black allies.”
“This is the youth of today,” someone in her group said along the route, according to Ajayi. “They will make a change.”
Ajayi was one of the thousands of people who protested against police brutality this past week, after a Black man, George Floyd, was killed by a White police officer, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis, Minnesota last Monday. A video of Floyd laying on the ground with Chauvin’s knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes went viral on Twitter and sparked widespread outrage and protest in cities across the U.S. over the last week.
She was one of many UConn students to hit the streets following his death. The Daily Campus spoke to a number of students who attended protests in and around their local communities.
As Sasha Goldblatt, a fifth-semester management major, marched among hundreds of others through the streets of Hartford on Saturday, she spotted a small child holding a sign.
“I’m 2 and already fighting for my life!” the sign read, according to Goldblatt.
Goldblatt and her fellow protestors walked to the police station and the capital building, halting traffic on major roads along the way. She said they chanted things like, “no justice, no peace, no racist police,” “police the police” and “Black lives matter.”
Goldblatt said the Hartford Police Department “just stood and watched, blocked off streets.”
“There were a couple of police with intense protective gear that were watching us,” Goldblatt said. “They recognized it was a peaceful protest and that there was no need for force. They did not look like they were listening, more like just standing and watching.”
Noor Taweh, a seventh-semester physiology and neurobiology and human rights major echoed that sentiment.
She said the protest in New Haven spread to the highways and the police station, where it remained peaceful until there was a bout of violence in front of the police station. Protestors tried to push into the police station that resulted in police pepper-spraying and shoving protestors down the steps of the building.
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Taweh also pointed to the quality of the organization of the protests, saying the protest leaders commanded the crowd’s attention with ease. She said when they spoke, people fell silent and listened.
“You can be completely empathetic to the cause and want to take action but without adequate organizing, things often flop,” Taweh said.
She noted a moment when the organizers were told police were on their way to the scene. They told the crowd it was okay to leave, but if they stayed and they were White or White-passing, they should protect a Black person. The crowd swiftly formed a barrier between the police and the Black individuals, in a powerful gesture of solidarity, according to Taweh.
“We were fully prepared to be tear gassed or maced,” Elizabeth Collins, fifth-semester linguistics and psychology major, said about the same moment at the New Haven protests, one of three she attended over the weekend. “As a White person, something I found myself and others doing was to form a chain in front of the crowd, linking arms, being the first barrier and people to pass by police. Because we knew that if we were to get arrested, it wouldn’t be as bad.”
The protests through Boston Commons and Franklin Park started peacefully, according to seventh-semester environmental studies major Denali Johns, before the police started to incite violence.
“The police surrounded the commons with batons in hand, riot gear and tear gas on deck when there was no riot in sight,” Johns said. “It went from peace to chaos.”
Johns said there were even more people a few days later at a protest in Franklin Park, and although the protest remained peaceful, police were armed in riot gear.
Johns said she has received criticism for attending protests — they are “pointless, it won’t solve anything, and it’s dangerous” — but she points to the change they have made in the past, and are beginning to make now.
“Protesting is what got the Civil Rights Act passed,” Johns said. “Protesting is what got the other three cops involved in the murder of George Floyd even charged, as they were about to get away with it. Protesting is what makes every single voice heard, forces our leaders to hear us.”
Growing up in what he described as a small, quaint, White town, Josh Wojtyna said he feels like he was oblivious to racial disparities around him.
“Honestly, my participation in the fight for equality is long overdue,” Wojtyna, a seventh-semester communication major, said. “Sitting idly as an observer is no longer an acceptable option.”
Wojtyna said he regrets not standing up in the fight for equality sooner, as he said there was so much he could have done in the past, but moving forward he is committed “to supporting those who don’t share the same privileges that I possess.”
The feeling of unity is something that everyone should experience, according to Wojtyna. He said we are a “cog in the machine that will drive out racism and inequality.”
Tatyanna Molina agreed with the others who attended the Hartford march, saying it was very powerful, as hundreds of people wore black and listened to speakers at the state capital.
“I stood in the crowd in tears because of how angry and tired I am about the number of innocent Black men and women that get killed by the police,” Molina, a fifth-semester sociology major, said. “You could feel the emotion in the crowd, but everyone stayed quiet as we listened.”
Molina said the crowd stopped traffic on Main Street as they marched to the capital. She noted that the protest was peaceful the entire time, and everyone was wearing masks.
She worried, though, about the reporters and photographers who took photos of people without their consent, and said she saw more White than Black people being interviewed.
“Black Americans are being forced to break quarantine to fight for their lives and it’s disgusting that we have allowed our government to sit idly by and ignore the systematic oppression of Black people,” Molina said.
There was a feeling of sadness across the Hartford protest, according to seventh-semester urban and community studies and political science major Jase Valle.
Valle said the Hartford protest remained peaceful and gave people a place to grieve together.
“The community demonstrated the strong importance of this movement if we want to further promote a multicultural world where we all can live in harmony, and feel safe, secure and wanted,” Valle said.
Madison Gonzalez, a seventh-semester urban and community studies major, said she saw everyone coming together as a powerful moment.
“People are outraged to see another person of color dying especially by the agencies that are meant to protect us,” Gonzalez said.
Asha Marie Kanadia said that while she doesn’t have much money to give, she had an immense feeling of wanting to do something. She organized a peaceful march in Hartford this upcoming Saturday, with Wojtyna
“A lot of my peers are White, so seeing a lot of them step up to stand with the Black community is making me proud to be friends with them,” Kanadia, a 2020 UConn graduate, said.
Kanadia described her message as “radical,” and said she is calling for “demilitarization, defunding and restructuring of the police.” Kanadia, Wojtyna and the other organizers are looking for groups of people of color to speak at the march.
“I love seeing smaller community organizers stepping up to the plate and speaking up for what they need and want,” Kanadia said.
Kanadia said she wants to see the UConn community show up to protests and marches, especially UConn administration and faculty.
“This is for everyone,” Kanadia said. “Everyone needs to be showing up.”
An incoming first-semester speech, language and hearing sciences major, Katharine Cartwright, organized a small group of protestors in her hometown of Burlington, Connecticut on Monday.
They formed outside of Louis Mills High School on the grass in front of the school along Route 4 and stood with signs, after a sign Cartwright had left in the fence of the high school was defaced within hours of it being put up on Sunday. The sign read “Black Lives Matter” and was torn to remove the “Matter.”
“That’s when I realized this town needs a change and the blatant racism in it needed to be addressed,” Cartwright said. “So, I then planned my protest for the next day.”
During the five hours they spent outside the high school, they were met with mixed reactions from the largely White community. At points, Cartwright said there were people honking their horns and holding their fists in the air when passing them, at other points, people sped by with confederate flags attached to their trucks, or stopped to threaten to “beat the shit out of” them if they didn’t move.
Laura Freise, a graduate student in the research methods, measurement and evaluation program, also helped organize a peaceful protest in her hometown of Brentwood, New York, to emphasize that Floyd’s murder was not an isolated issue, “but rather the product of white supremacy in policing,” she said.
“We organized a peaceful protest as a call to action to demand the conviction of all officers responsible for George’s death, to show our solidarity with those protesting in Minneapolis and all around the country, and in remembrance of all black lives lost due to police brutality.” Freise said.
At the end of a march down a main road, Freise said the protest concluded with a candlelight vigil for those who had been killed by police.
“We said their names,” Friese said. “We affirmed that Black Lives Matter. We came together as a community to demand better.”
Thumbnail image by Brandon Barzola/The Daily Campus.