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.