A tee shirt worn by Elijah Nelson, of Waterbury, expresses his feelings at a Juneteenth event organized by Citywide Youth Coalition to celebrate the emancipation of the last enslaved people in Texas in 1865. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org
Sean Woke celebrates with thousands of others Friday in Hartford during a Juneteenth celebration at Bushnell Park.

On June 19, 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas to tell the formerly enslaved people there that they had been freed two and a half years earlier, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Today, more than 150 years later, thousands gathered in cities around Connecticut to demand Black justice, continuing the fight against racism, corruption and brutality that began generations prior.

“We are done living by the rules of racists,” Katharine Morris said as a crowd of roughly 3,000 in Hartford cheered her on. “Look around you. Take it in. This is youth-led. We organized this because we are taking hold of our future.”

The crowd grew larger as the speeches continued into the afternoon, occupying nearly all of the green space of Bushnell Park visible from the Capitol steps. They came to demand that police be defunded and abolished, and the money be reinvested in communities across the state so health care, housing, education and social services are available to all. They came to demand that law enforcement officers be removed from inner-city, under-resourced schools. That mass incarceration be ended. That all racist statues and monuments be destroyed. That wealthy people and corporations are taxed so the state becomes more equitable for all.

“This year especially, I want you all to listen to this, we demand voting be accessible to everyone,” Marcus Washburn said as he read the 11 demands from Black America Undivided, the group that organized Friday’s protest. “This is why we are here. This is why we will continue to be here. We will continue to fight until our demands are made a reality.”

Hours earlier, Senate Democrats unveiled a broad social justice agenda for the special legislative session planned for next month. But since majority House Democrats and Gov. Ned Lamont haven’t agreed to tackle any reform issues in a special session except for police accountability, it appears unlikely the broader agenda will be taken up this summer.

Those at the protest were undeterred.

“When we talk about banning chokeholds, we must also discuss the countless kids of color in our urban centers who still do not have access to computers to complete remote learning. When we talk about knocking down Confederate monuments and statues glorifying colonialism, we must also address the fact that the life expectancy of Northeast Hartford, an area I represent … is 11 years lower than the average of the entire state,” said Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford and chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “When we talk about the push for body cameras, we must also put our energy into dismantling the effects of redlining in cities like Hartford.”

The last speaker of the day was 90-year-old Joseph Ward. He recalled his lifelong struggle for justice, a fight that, generations later, is still ongoing. He remembered when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would come to Hartford. How he would pray for marchers in Alabama and Mississippi. The discrimination he faced as a Black businessman.

“I never let them see me quit,” he said. “They stopped me in many ways, but they couldn’t keep me down.”

Joseph Ward, 90, reviews his notes before giving a speech to protestors during the Juneteenth protest Friday at Bushnell Park.

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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