Every week since May of 2020, a group of Westerly citizens has gathered on the steps of the downtown post office on Sunday mornings. Every week they bring signs honoring Black lives, demanding justice, rejecting hatred, and promoting love. To stand with them for a few hours in the cold of winter is to witness the racial reckoning of our nation on a local level. There are honks of support and taunts out car windows, calm conversations with curious pedestrians and middle fingers from angry drivers. One man brought pizza in kindness and solidarity. In light of the events at the Capitol on January 6, a Westerly Police SUV parked in the middle of the downtown’s triangular intersection to stand watch – a far cry from the response earlier in the summer, when a line of police officers engaged in a silent standoff from across the street.
The protesters greet and check in with each other. They ask each other how the weight of news is falling on their shoulders. They get progress reports on individual projects, receive mentorship, and find out about work happening across the community. Some protestors leave right before 10am so they can attend Christ Church across the street. Others arrive later in the morning, because while they have roots in Westerly, they currently live in Connecticut, South Kingstown, or as far away as Barrington.
The protests began as loosely affiliated social justice groups, college students home for the summer, and residents angered at indifference to the struggles of people of color in a small town. There is visual evidence that the bonds have grown tighter: Observers can watch the leadership team guide the assembled crowd onto the stairs and begin a structured education program. There are musical performances, safety briefing, and reading from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before the protest winds down and the group, with warm goodbyes, turns their attention to the next week.
The protesters in Westerly see a big opportunity. By seeking to make people of color feel welcome, they are changing the narrative of the town they love. Inclusive school curricula, fair policing, and cultural competency and diversity training for town leaders are all items on the agenda. Real representation in local government – through elected or appointed officials or a town committee, is another goal. These citizens are using the moment to build community around a common cause. They are not afraid to take their place in the long line of peaceful civil rights activists that have come before them and fight for human rights and dignity. It may be cold, but they will be there next week. And the week after that.
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