As some 350 pro-immigrant marchers took to East Haven’s Main Street Saturday to decry alleged police harassment of Latinos in the city, they found support—and heard some racial slurs—from neighbors and counter-demonstrators.
Community activists from New Haven and East Haven organized the march, which featured a substantial New Haven contingent, to draw attention to allegations of police discrimination toward Latinos in the town. An ongoing Department of Justice investigation saw four East Haven police officers arrested in January. They’re accused of targeting Latinos with harassment and violence, and trying to cover it up. Some are calling for Mayor Joe Maturo to step down for his response to the unfolding controversy.
Acting Police Chief Brent Larrabee (pictured)—East Haven’s Police Chief Leonard Gallo retired last month under pressure—said the town was prepared for around 1,000 marchers based on organizer estimates. He put the total closer to 350.
“But we still have every available man out here today,” he said.
Moving slowly down Main Street, marchers were flanked by police cars and motorcycles at both ends. Cops on foot directed traffic and kept non-marchers away from the crowds.
That got some residents riled up.
Laura Wilk, born in East Haven, said she couldn’t believe the whole police force was out having to supervise the event. “That’s something we, as taxpayers, have to pay for. These [marchers] probably don’t even live in East Haven, or pay taxes. When you start paying taxes, you can say whatever you want.”
Marchers began their trek down Main Street at noon sharp, slowly winding their way past storefronts and homes and chanting slogans in Spanish and English: “Taco Joe has gotta go!” and “Si, se puede!”
Meanwhile, neighbors and workers stood on porches, and looked out windows and doorways taking photos and video and commenting. Some yelled antagonizing remarks: “They’re stinking up the street, can you smell that?”
Local business owner Kirt Swanson (pictured), however, supported marchers by offering them lemonade and candy outside his Xpert Automotive repair shop on Main Street. “We wanted to be out here supporting the Latino population,” he said. “Everyone should be treated fair and equal.”
Many members of Swanson’s crew, he said, are of Latino descent.
Becky Pastore (at center), an East Havener for the last eight years, brought her son Sam, 12, and daughter Emily, 15, to the march.
“I want to teach my children that doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it’s so important,” said Pastore, who started a Facebook page calling for the resignation East Haven’s embattled Mayor Joseph Maturo, whose “taco comments” drew international attention and calls for his resignation.
Emily said she’s heard other students at East Haven High School yell “Taco” down the hallways, and make other comments about immigrants in the town.
“They all think it’s a joke. It’s not funny,” she said.
Becky and Emily said the high school hasn’t addressed the issue. “They haven’t had an assembly, talked to the kids about anything,” Becky said.
Former New Haven Mayoral candidate Clifton Graves threw his lot in with demonstrators, marching alongside them.
“I thought I’d come and be supportive,” said Graves, who helped organized a similar march in 1997 after Malik Jones was killed. That march, he said, drew about 500 people. “So you see how these things tend to come full circle.”
Graves said he also wanted to show his support for the good people of East Haven—who support immigrants rights and are working to dispel notions of a racist town.
After a slow mile march down East Haven’s main thoroughfare, protestors channeled their momentum by forming a circle in the center of the town green, not far from City Hall. They were greeted there by about 40 angry East Haven residents.
Some stood by silently with arms crossed, or with American flags. Others demanded that the marchers disperse and, “go home, back to your countries!”
“We love our cops!” yelled twenty-year East Haven resident Linda Pepino. “If you don’t like this country, go back to where you came from!”
Click play for a sample of the action.
Other members of the group resorted to racial slurs—like “wetback,” and “spic.”
Another yelled, “Your kids should speak American, not Mexican!”
Volunteer security “forces” sporting yellow vests formed a line around the marchers. And Police officers lined up in front of the counter-demonstrators, cutting them off from direct contact with any marcher.
“If they aren’t media, they shouldn’t be near this line,” march organizer John Lugo—of New Haven organization Unidad Latina en Accion—told one volunteer security guard. “Please, we don’t want any confrontation or escalation.”
That didn’t sit right with the 27 year old Chris Garaffa of People Against Police Brutality, a New Haven based organization. He and fellow group members stood close to shouters, holding a sign reading, ” No racial profiling. Against police brutality.”
“We need to keep an eye on these folks,” Garaffa said. “They are a direct threat to the protest, and they could be physically dangerous!”
They held their ground, but remained behind the police line.
But for the large part, marchers kept their backs to harsh shouts of “show us your green card!” and “go home in the trunk you were stuffed in on your way here!” Instead, they formed a circle on the green and listened to one speaker after another talk about the importance of fighting for racial equality, justice and peace.
East Haven’s Mayor Maturo released a statement after the march.
“I am extremely proud of the manner in which both the participants and our residents came together to welcome this demonstration of our country’s most precious precepts of freedom of speech and the right of assembly,” it read.
Maturo wasn’t at the march—he was present only in 2-D effigy form.