Approaching a downtown Hartford intersection, rush hour traffic stood still, blocked by about forty Black Lives Matter protesters who refused to budge from the street. A larger crowd cheered on the blockade from the sidewalks and from an overpass.
“This is how we [create change]. It starts here in the streets. It starts with controlling our own narratives. It starts in the news, and then it branches out and gets into our minds to change people’s belief systems,” Hartford resident Derek Hall told The Struggle.
About twenty police vehicles rolled in. Protesters ignored orders to disperse. “This is your final warning. Get out of the street or you’ll be arrested.” Seventeen people were handcuffed, escorted into police vans, and brought to jail.
“Chaos in Hartford as protesters block traffic,” proclaimed a Fox 51 video headline that night, June 8th, 2015. The mayor’s spokesperson called the protest a “headache.”
This was just the beginning. Moral Monday CT, the group that orchestrated the disruption, would continue to shake the white supremacist pillars of the state that is, by one measure, the most unequal in the USA.
More Than a Dance
According to the Economic Policy Institute, Connecticut has the country’s largest income gap between the richest 1% and the bottom 99%. In 2012, the 1% made 51 times more than the 99%.
Deep racial inequalities reinforce this income gap. Bishop John Selders, co-founder of Moral Monday CT, explains that Connecticut’s urban centers, “largely populated by black and brown folks, are some of the poorest cities in the country.” Surrounding them, residents of “lily-white” suburbs live “oblivious to the abject poverty that exists.”
“Those towns were set up on a white supremacist ideology,” says Selders, “from the zoning laws that restrict multi-family housing developments to the legacy of sundown towns, where it was written as a practice not to sell to people of color.”
The median income of Connectiuct’s black families is only 58 percent of the median income of the state’s white families. Connecticut’s prisons lock up twice as many blacks and latin@s as whites, despite whites outnumbering blacks and latin@s by almost 3 to 1 in Connecticut.
Selders lives and works in Hartford, but as a black man who grew up near Ferguson, Missouri, he went to join the young people he calls his “nieces and nephews,” who took to the streets after the police murder of 18 year-old Michael Brown. Returning from one of his visits to Ferguson, Selders formed Moral Monday CT in late 2014 with his wife Pamela Sellers and Reverend Cornell Lewis. These three black co-founders have been clear from the beginning: white folks can join Moral Monday CT, but they won’t be calling the shots.
Moral Monday CT aligns itself with the Black Lives Matter movement, which was started by three black women (two of them queer)—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—after the murder of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin. The group takes their name from the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, led by Reverend William Barber and others.
Selders emphasizes that Moral Monday CT’s signature tactic is to “turn up,” meaning to take direct action. “Turn up creates the political space for community change and transformation to occur.”
Importantly, Moral Monday CT never coordinates with police ahead of an action. Selders explains that when other groups apply for permits or inform the police ahead of a protest, then “I feel like it’s staged. It’s all really a dance.” In some ways, cooperating with the police defeats the very point of taking action, which is to generate crisis as an opportunity for change.
“It’s very clear. We are trained, we have a right to protest,” says Selders.
The Real Work of Justice
Inspired by the theologian Howard Thurman’s litany “Now the Work of Christmas Begins,” Selders and Moral Monday CT sent out a call this spring for a “Week of Holy Action” starting the day after Easter.
“The real work of justice begins the day after Easter,” Selders asserts. “We do rituals and pageantry really well, but is that the work? No, the work is after we’ve done the rituals. It’s time to step out and actually live out as a resurrection people, if you will. Life comes after death. There is sunshine after rain. There is morning after midnight. There can be justice where there once stood injustice.”
The call to action went out only a few weeks before Easter, so there wasn’t much time to organize. Nonetheless, people across Connecticut quickly got to work.
One organizer posted on Facebook: “Sitting around with a Jew, a Muslim, and a Catholic (all of us non-believers), planning for Moral Monday CT’s #WeekofHolyAction- direct actions based on the theme of Christ’s resurrection. How in the world did I wind up here?”
The Week of Holy Action kicked off with an assembly in Hartford, followed by a community conversation in Glastonbury. On Saturday, people in New Haven rallied against police brutality. Hertencia Peterson, who traveled from New Jersey, spoke about how police had killed her 28 year-old nephew Akai Gurley in Brooklyn in 2014. Peterson sees the murder of Gurley, an African-American father, as part of a systemic crisis. According to a widely-cited report published by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a black person is killed every twenty-eight hours by a police officer, a security guard, or a vigilante.
Peterson pointed out that since racialized killings are not isolated cases, the resistance should not be isolated either. “This is my first time in Connecticut. Everyone, no matter what state you’re in, needs to know what’s going on. This is an epidemic,” she said.
The following day, 70 people attended a rally for environmental justice in Bridgeport, a city ranked the fourth dirtiest in the country by Forbes in 2012. Forbes cited the city’s air quality, polluted by a trash incinerator, a wastewater treatment plant, and coal and gas-fired power plants, all of which serve the surrounding white and wealthy suburbs of Fairfield County.
The rally went on without a permit. Actually, a local organizer had asked for a permit, but the police said no, they wouldn’t process the paperwork with such short notice. At an emergency planning meeting, a white nonprofit employee advocated canceling the rally and holding an indoor meeting instead. This suggestion was overwhelmingly voted down by Bridgeport residents who decided to go forward with the rally, whether the police liked it or not.
The week of action culminated with a big direct action on Monday, April 4th, as Moral Monday CT led hundreds of union members and other Hartford residents to march through an evening snowstorm and occupy City Hall. Loudly disrupting a city council meeting in session, they succeeded in stopping a major attempted power grab by the city’s white, austerity-loving Mayor Luke Bronin.
Ninety Days and a Power Grab
“Luke Bronin, you’re ruinin’ the city of Hartford! Go back to Greenwich,” protesters jeered at Hartford’s mayor as he briskly waked through the hallway. Born in the ultra-wealthy and white town of Greenwich, Bronin had parachuted into the poor and predominantly black and brown city of Hartford in 2013 and taken office as mayor on January 4th, 2016. He had enormous financial help “from the white, business elite who may work in Hartford, but live far, far away from the city and its troubles,” as the blogger Jonathan Pelto observed.
“Ninety days and a power grab,” hundreds chanted in the hallways. It was April 4th, the three-month anniversary of Bronin taking office. Inside the chamber, the city council met to vote on Bronin’s ambitious power grab measure, which would have handed the city’s power on financial matters over to an unelected oversight board. Chaired by Bronin and a state official, and stacked with business representatives, this oversight board would have had the final say over the city’s union contracts.
The outcome of the vote was still uncertain. As of that morning, five city councilors had indicated their opposition to the power grab and four had indicated their support. Bronin and his backers were still pushing hard to sway the council, citing expected fiscal deficits and a need for shared sacrifice.
“Close the doors!” “Can we get control?” Inside the city hall chamber, councilors could barely hear each other speak over the chanting and singing by hundreds of people packing the hallyways.
A chorus of people followed Pamela Selders in singing, “Freedom from the system is resistance./ We have nothing else to lose but these chains.”
Moral Monday CT member Janee Woods said, “I’m here tonight to protest poverty and racial segregation in the city of Hartford and also to support our local unions.”
Firefighter Miguel Ramos, who stood with the protesters, explained, “The mayor wants to take away any collective bargaining. This affects all firefighters, it affects their families, it affects public safety.”
They Did Stand Behind Us
It was almost 10 pm. Moral Monday CT organizers, including Bishop Selders, Pamela Selders and Cornell Lewis, had just left city hall and were sitting in a mostly empty room at the Triple-A diner. Blue neon lights hung from the ceiling. Someone read aloud from Twitter: The power grab resolution has been tabled indefinitely!
By a vote of 8 to 1, the city council had decided to effectively kill the measure. Two of the city councilors explicitly said the protests were what persuaded them to change their minds.
Everyone at the table cheered. Hands shot up in the air, and high-fives went around the table. Mayor Bronin had tried to grab power from the people of Hartford, but residents turned up and grabbed back.
“We are vindicated,” Lewis reflected, “insofar as we thought the people would stand behind us, they did stand behind us, and our concerted action caused the city council to change their mind.”
Moral Monday CT’s website now lists a number of demands. End mass incarceration. End the school to prison pipeline. End police brutality. Affordable, quality housing. Full employment, living wages. Protect voting rights. Environmental justice. Eliminate health disparities.
The group has been relatively quiet since the Week of Holy Action, but they have learned that when they disrupt the workings of power, it is difficult for reporters, policymakers, and the public to ignore them. And it is unlikely that they will slow down. As Pamela Selders loudly sang in city hall, “We can’t stop until we win.”