Martin killing resonates in Conn. town still trying to heal racial fissures

No one died in what became known here as “the incident.” But that has not kept the raw racial fissures that ran through this blue-collar town six years ago from resurfacing in light of the national attention focused on the killing of Trayvon Martin.

As in the Martin case, there were dueling stories in Stratford, accusations of racism and what many saw as criminal suspicions rooted in faulty racial assumptions.

To this day, the only facts everyone in town agrees on are these: A white police officer arrested two African Americans — a teenage girl and a Town Council member — during a dispute on a street corner in the city’s predominantly black South End neighborhood.

It was one of hundreds of episodes that have periodically ­engulfed U.S. cities and towns, triggering angry protests and wrenching self-examination. Most of these incidents never achieve national prominence. Instead, they unearth dormant tensions within a local community that serve as a reminder of the nation’s uncomfortable struggle to bridge racial divides.

Less clear is what happens after the demonstrations die down, and there are no more community meetings, and justice is served or not, and the dialogue ends.

In the case of Martin, the ­unarmed 17-year-old fatally shot Feb. 26 by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., the immediate question is whether authorities will charge Zimmerman with a crime. But in the long term, there is worry that nothing more — no new sensibility, no new understanding — will develop from the incident.

“After all of that happens, we as a society too often return to a place of complacency,” said Nicole M. Austin-Hillery, director-counsel for the Washington office of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan social-justice organization. “We don’t use these moments to move forward and ask, ‘How do we as a society look at a group of people?’ Race is the big taboo that everybody runs away from.”

In the days and weeks that followed the arrests in Stratford, African American residents, joined by members of the state NAACP, marched on the town hall, calling for justice for council member Alvin O’Neal and Titasheen Mitchell, the 14-year-old girl. O’Neal was trying to stop the girl’s arrest, he said, after he saw the officer body slam her on his patrol car and punch her twice in the face.

Whites from the northern part of the city wondered whether the story had been sensationalized. The police officer, Cpl. David Gugli­otti — who disputed O’Neal’s and Mitchell’s accounts — was cleared of any wrongdoing after a police inquiry.

More than a dozen onlookers and police officers witnessed the arrests, but they did not agree on what they saw.

O’Neal and Mitchell portrayed Gugliotti as a foul-mouthed racist, a characterization seen by many people in the South End as typical of an overly aggressive police department. Many other people in town — and Gugliotti’s colleagues, of all races — saw him as an upstanding officer doing a tough job.

All over Stratford there were questions, and they tended to fall along racial lines. Was the black Town Council member interfering with the white officer’s attempt to arrest an unruly teenager in a rough neighborhood? Was the white officer’s arrest a case of police brutality fueled by racial suspicion?

Was it a rude injustice?

Was it a misunderstanding?

“Stratford does not feel like some place from the segregated South, but there were deep racial divisions that had to be addressed,” said James Miron, who was mayor at the time. “Anybody who didn’t believe that was lying to themselves.”

The incident propelled the town into its own uneasy version of the national dialogue on race that has gripped the country since Martin’s death. Tom Coakley, a town resident who is white, helped lead a series of discussions in the aftermath of the arrests and joined a citizens committee to address racial equity in Stratford.

“You just scratch your head and wonder, does it make any difference or not?” Coakley said. “It’s still an American town. We didn’t fix it.”

Few opinions were changed.

Trayvon Martin is not far from happening here,” said Immacula Cann, a registered nurse who is black and has lived in Stratford for 20 years. “I don’t see the improvement yet.”

For civil rights groups in Connecticut, there were echoes of the country’s ugly racial past in the arrests — just as national civil rights leaders have called Martin’s death a modern-day incarnation of Emmett Till’s murder. Law enforcement officers in Stratford saw a rush to judgment against one of their own. Meanwhile, others still do not understand the distrust of the police that was common in the South End.

O’Neal “always asked for more police presence in his district,” said Louis A. DeCilio, Stratford’s Republican registrar of voters, who was criticized for refusing to take part in sensitivity training that Miron ordered for 500 town employees after the incident. “But you can’t discredit the police when you are always crying for more police presence.”

The night that O’Neal and Mitchell were arrested, an angry crowd descended on Stratford police headquarters.

“The scene that night was riotous,” Miron said. “It was a powder keg.”

The two were booked and released that night. In the days that followed, town leaders urged calm as the story consumed residents and left them on edge.

“It’s not equivalent to Trayvon Martin,” Coakley said. “But this was huge.”

Sylvia Martin, who grew up in Stratford and lives close to where the arrests where made, remembers it being a “a hurting issue.”

“It seemed unjustifiable,” said Martin, who is black.

Incidents spark tensions

Communities across the country have had to grapple with incidents that pulled their residents into warring camps — sometimes without resolution. Now, the Trayvon Martin case is reopening some wounds.

●In October 2010, Danroy “D.J.” Henry Jr., a 20-year-old Pace University student, was killed by a police officer outside a bar in Westchester County, N.Y. Henry was parked in a fire lane when a police officer knocked on the car window. Police say Henry sped off, but his family says he simply pulled off thinking he was being told to move. Henry’s car hit an officer who wound up on its hood and fired through the windshield. A grand jury in New York last year opted not to indict the police officer who shot Henry, and last month a lawyer hired by Henry’s family released audio and video related to the case, saying he hopes to pursue it in federal court.

●The fiancee of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man shot by police in Queens six years ago early on the morning of his wedding day, has voiced support for Martin’s family. Bell’s case was marked by lawsuits, street marches and mentions in more than half a dozen rap songs.

●On Feb. 26, 2005, exactly seven years before Martin’s death, a rookie police officer shot and killed a 15-year-old African American outside a school dance in Delray Beach, Fla. That case dominated local news and sparked an intense racial dialogue there in 2005.

●And last month, authorities decided not to press charges against a homeowner who shot and killed a 20-year-old biracial man he found hiding on his porch in Slinger, Wis., outside Milwaukee. The March 6 shooting has prompted comparisons to the Martin case on local news stations.

“What these [incidents] do is let us know that the past still haunts us in the present,” said Robert Johnson Jr., a lawyer who teaches Africana studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “We have made tremendous progress. . . . Despite this progress, the vestiges of this past raise their head every so often.”

Residents said there were few obvious tensions in Stratford, a town of roughly 50,000 that is three-quarters white. But the incident immediately revealed a fault line that long marked the city. The vast majority of South End residents are black or Hispanic, and the arrests immediately became a cause for protest there, making clear what had always been true: Black and white residents in Stratford see much of what happens in town differently.

Barnum Avenue, a road dotted with strip malls, is the physical dividing line.

“I always took offense to that. People tried to divide our town as if Barnum Avenue were the Mason-Dixon line,” said DeCilio, who attended Stratford High School, which is south of Barnum.

Still, north of Barnum, home lots tend to be bigger. People perceive the schools as better, even though the reality is far more nuanced. People think “everything is better on the north side,” said Stephanie Philips, who is black and replaced O’Neal on the Town Council.

Meanwhile, the neighborhoods south of Barnum are home to the city’s low-income public housing and several halfway houses. Crime is perceived as higher there, though March crime statistics show offenses were about equal both north and south of Barnum. What is indisputable is that South End residents believe the police patrol their part of town with a heavy hand.

Emma Brooks, the first African American woman on the Town Council, said she was inspired to run for office in 2006 after she witnessed a white police officer punch a handcuffed black suspect twice after finding a gun in his car. She protested, which she said prompted the officer to walk up to her and wave the gun’s ammunition clip in her face.

“Do you want this in your neighborhood?” the officer said, according to Brooks. She said she tried to make a complaint at police headquarters but got nowhere.

“They ran the department as they saw fit,” she said.

Marcia Davis Mitchell, Tita­sheen Mitchell’s mother, was going to move to the north part of town when she left Bridgeport for Stratford in 1998.

“I looked up all the statistics, and they had less crime and better achievement” on the north side, she said.

But she said she backed off from buying a house that she had visited several times after she found a noose in the front yard. She ended up going to the South End, where she was running a Caribbean restaurant when Gugli­otti arrested O’Neal and her daughter on March 21, 2006.

The incident resulted in weeks of tensions that gave way to dueling lawsuits from Gugliotti and O’Neal, all of which were dismissed after several years of litigation. O’Neal eventually paid a $50 fine for disturbing the peace. Titasheen Mitchell faced juvenile charges, which her mother said were dropped.

Meanwhile, Gugliotti has moved up in the department, earning at least two promotions, and Titasheen is now nearly 21. Her mother says she is attending community college while working at a local hospital. Her mother said Titasheen has no desire to talk about the incident. But in the intervening years, Stratford has had a long-running conversation about it.

Trying to heal

In December 2006, at the direction of the mayor, the town’s community services department held a town meeting inviting residents to talk about race. It drew about 100 people of all backgrounds. The mayor came. So did the police chief and school superintendent. O’Neal showed up, too.

With the help of the nonprofit group Everyday Democracy, which aims to help communities find ways to talk about race, Stratford residents were invited to join small groups that met for several weeks to discuss their racial backgrounds, perceptions and stereotypes, and the incident.

“You would have white people see the incident as an artifice,” said Coakley, who helped lead the discussions. “The African Americans would say, ‘No. This is how we live our lives. Every time someone is a little out of line, it is an incident.’ ”

Out of those discussions, Coakley and a few dozen other people formed an oversight committee called Citizens Addressing Racial Equity. The committee has conducted resident surveys on views of the police department, worked with the public schools to establish an annual job fair to recruit people of color, and a couple of years back saw the town’s library association name “The Black Girl Next Door” as its book of choice for the townwide reading program. Last month, Stratford named Patrick Ridenhour its first black police chief.

The incident gave “rise to some of the things that are taking place here to move the town forward and become one Stratford,” Ridenhour said. “Everyone wants to get past it and move forward.”

There is a feeling around town, with Ridenhour leading the police force and a citizens committee focused on race, that perhaps things are as good as they are going to get.

The racial equity committee, which meets monthly and now has about 30 members, took a vote recently on whether to disband. They chose to keep the committee going, but an important question persists: What more could they do?

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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