Members of the Hartford 17 — a group of protesters arrested during a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration in Hartford June 8 — were sentenced to three days of community service Wednesday.
The group was arrested for blocking Central Row during rush hour as part of a Moral Monday demonstration organized to raise awareness and visibility of the country’s systemic oppression of people of color.
The protesters were given the choice to serve three days of community service or plead guilty. If they chose the community service deal they would not have to make any admissions, and their record would be wiped clean after 30 days.
“The prosecutor actually told us there was a lot of support for what we’re doing,” said Bishop John Selders, a pastor at Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford who helped organize the demonstrations.
All of the Hartford 17 chose to serve the community service sentence. Though several said that the arrest of non-violent protestors was a needless action, others believed their sentence to be symbolic of the nation’s pervasive legacy of social justice.
“I love that they were arrested. I think that, in this country, there’s been a long history of nonviolent protest . . . that actually leads to social change,” said Derek Hall, founding member of Hartford Action, a local group working to empower communities to advocate for progressive policy changes. “However, I don’t love [their sentence]. They were doing their civic duty and making sure we live in a truly equitable society.”
Hartford Action’s Jason Fredlund agreed, and pointed out what he felt was the irony of the sentence.
“What they were doing was community service. Their penalty for serving the community is state-sanctioned, specific forms of community service that appease the system,” Fredlund said.
Before convening to receive their sentence, members of Moral Monday CT, Hartford Action, and various other supporting organizations and individuals held a demonstration in support of the Hartford 17 and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We took action because of the abuse of police power as a weapon of the state,” Selders said. “Police have continued the brutalization of black and brown bodies as a means of consolidating and advancing, we believe, white supremacy. Black people are targeted, denied due process, and murdered because of police practices.”
Backed by dozens of allies holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” “kNOw justice, kNOw peace” and “I Stand With The Hartford 17,” Selders called out the complicity of both police and the judicial system in the devaluation of black and brown lives.
“Policing historically has enforced racist laws, policies, and norms. Black and brown people as a result are criminalized and hyper-incarcerated,” Selders said. “As result a massive prison industrial complex built on the warehousing of black and brown people have evolved in this state and the nation. It is, like slavery, an unjust system of concentrated profit and wealth in racist institutions by imprisoning black and brown people, both young and old.”
Oshun Vincent, mother and member of the Hartford 17, said one reason she protests is in hopes that her children will not have to worry about being perceived as a threat.
“There’s a black president, yes. And there’s black role models, yes,” Vincent said. “But day to day, the way black people are seen, we’re seen as a threat. Just because we’re in our skin, we’re seen like we’re in the wrong place. We belong in every place.”
Vincent, Selders, and the rest of the 17 and their allies called communities across Connecticut to action, demanding the state no longer let “business as usual” continue. They called for the retraining of police in nonviolent communication as well as training on how to deal with those who have physical and behavioral challenges.
“When business as usual continues, black lives continue to be criminalized and killed,” Hall said.
In commenting on the obstacles to the Black Lives Matter campaign, Hall said that colorblindness and comfort among more privileged communities often leads to the oppression of people of color.
“People need to wake up from the slumber of colorblindness,” Hall said. “We need to recognize that people of color have disproportionate access to good education, that people of color are disproportionately incarcerated in this country, that we have a huge problem with mass incarceration in this country, that has it’s roots in racism. It has it’s roots in the devaluing of black people. It’s hard, but we need to raise from that slumber.”